On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain and its colonies. The declaration stemmed from the nearly 20 years of warfare between Great Britain and Napoleonic France that had gradually affected America.
During this period, Great Britain and, to a lesser degree, France imposed naval blockades to prevent ships and goods from reaching the other's ports. While both nations seized and detained goods from American ships, Great Britain, with its superior navy, was the most aggressive in this regard.
In addition, Great Britain began to seize or "impress" sailors from American commercial ships whom they believed to be British-born citizens. This practice caused much American anger and resentment toward Great Britain. The two nations nearly went to war in 1807 when the British HMS Leopard, in search of deserters, detained the USS Chesapeake outside the Virginia capes. In the process, three Americans were killed.
The Jefferson and Madison administrations sought to remain neutral during this time by imposing commercial restrictions on trade with Great Britain and France. Starting in 1806, Congress passed trade embargoes and non-importation legislation to force both nations to lift their blockades.
These laws proved unsuccessful, and Congress, finally seeing no alternative, declared war against Great Britain. It was the closest vote for war by any U.S. Congress. Large portions of the country, such as New England and other commercial centers, remained vehemently opposed to the war, but the declaration for war was popular in the West and South.
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Most of the military campaigns of the war occurred along the U.S. and Canadian border, but by the end of the war military operations had ranged from the Canadian border to the Gulf Coast and along the Eastern seaboard. Military victories along the Canadian frontier proved elusive for much of the war, but by the summer of 1814 the American armies had made clear that they could fight as effectively as British forces.
While the United States Navy consisted of only about 20 warships, frigates such as the USS Constitution, USS United States, and USS President defeated their British counterparts and showed the young country that its navy could hold its own against the overwhelming superiority of the British navy. The naval victories of Capt. Oliver H. Perry on Lake Erie in 1813 and Lt. Thomas Macdonough on Lake Champlain in 1814 also demonstrated America's increasing naval prowess.
The war came to Virginia when a British naval squadron sailed into the Chesapeake Bay on Feb. 4, 1813, and established a blockade of the bay. For the next two years, British naval and marine forces under the command of Adm. George Cockburn conducted a relentless campaign to capture, harass and destroy as much commercial shipping as possible in the bay. The Northern Neck and Eastern Shore counties suffered the most during these campaigns.
To capture Norfolk and the USS Constellation, British forces attacked nearby Craney Island on June 22, 1813. Under the overall command of Brig. Gen. Robert B. Taylor, Virginia militia forces and naval crews from the Constellation repulsed the British amphibious attack of some 1,500 marines and soldiers, thereby saving the city. Three days later, the British attacked and captured Hampton.
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During the time British naval forces dominated the Chesapeake Bay, about 2,000 enslaved African-Americans made their escape to British ships. Many of these individuals enlisted in the British Colonial Marines and returned to Virginia to fight alongside their British liberators.
About 70,000 Virginians, mostly militia, served during the war. Virginia militia also served with Gen. William H. Harrison in Ohio in the winter of 1812–1813 and at Baltimore during the siege of that city in September 1814.
Despite the humiliating burning of Washington by the British in August 1814, in the end neither side was victorious. The United States and Great Britain signed a peace treaty at Ghent in Belgium on Dec. 24, 1814.
The War of 1812 was a transformative event for the United States. Although many citizens had initially disagreed with the country's decision to fight, by war's end the nation as a whole felt renewed strength and great pride of accomplishment. The war also demonstrated the need to replace the sometimes unreliable state militias with a more professional U.S. Army as the nation's defenders.