But if Madison remained reluctant to go to war, a new generation of young congressmen began to embrace the idea that saving the republic was a matter of prosecuting war, not avoiding it. The British clearly had nothing but contempt for American sovereignty. Some Americans saw a vast plot to recolonize the United States, not just in the impressment of sailors, but also in the growing unrest of Indians in the West. After William Henry Harrison’s clash with Shawnee Indians at Tippecanoe on November 11 (which would be later immortalized in his 1840 presidential run), many Americans suspected that the British were encouraging and supplying a growing Indian confederacy.
The time had come for what a young John C. Calhoun called a “manly vindication” of American rights, and Congress declared war on June 18, 1812. Two days earlier, the British foreign minister had lifted the offending trade restrictions against the United States, but that news wouldn’t reach American shores for weeks, and the die was cast for the bizarre war that followed.
Canada stood out as the first and most convenient place for the Americans to strike at the British. A vast territory peopled by barely half a million souls with an apparently loose allegiance to Britain, Canada seemed an easy prize. Once it was taken, the British would have to acknowledge U.S. sovereignty, its dominion over North America, and to cease the disruption of American trade. Jefferson confidently predicted to Madison that enacting the plan was a “mere matter of marching.”
This may have worked if the Americans had been able to assemble a force capable of marching. At the outbreak of hostilities, however, the army was a dissolute and ragtag force of fewer than 7,000 troops, led by an aging and ineffectual officer corps. Where the regular army fell short, state militias of public-minded citizen soldiers were to fill in. But New England governors, who blamed the war on the policies of Jefferson and Madison rather than the actions of the British, opposed the war and refused to raise militias (thus creating yet another vexing aspect of the war: The very people who were most adversely affected by the British were the most loathe to go to war with them). Meanwhile, those units that did form in other states were filled with so many unruly and disobedient men that even the ablest commanders found it difficult to lead.
No one more fully embodied the pathetic state of early American military might than General William Hull, the bloated and incompetent governor of the Michigan territory charged with the initial matter of marching into Canada. Entering present-day Ontario from Detroit at the head of an ill-trained troop of 2,000 militiamen, Hull met with little initial resistance, but his triumph ended there. Upon hearing news that the British had taken Fort Mackinac at the northern tip of Michigan, Hull panicked and pulled his men back to the American fort at Detroit. When he received a bogus document warning of a vast force of Indians on the march, Hull lost it. Barely coherent, stuffing his mouth with so much tobacco that the juice ran down his face, and crouching to avoid imaginary artillery shelling, Hull yielded Detroit without any real fire from a smaller force of British Canadians and Indians. Incursions to the east didn’t go much better that fall. The war was just a few months old, and the entire Michigan territory had fallen into British hands.
Surprisingly, the Americans had better luck on the water against the vaunted British Navy than they did on land against the Canadians. A series of small but significant victories on the Atlantic in 1812 gave the British the rare experience of naval defeat. An outraged cabinet official summed up the common shock registered in the British government and press: “It is a cruel mortification to be beat by these second-hand Englishmen upon our own element.”
Success at sea reversed the Canadian disasters of the early part of the war. In September of 1813, the rakish-looking Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry withstood a pummeling from British naval forces at Put-in-Bay off the Ohio coast of Lake Erie before turning the tide and forcing the entire fleet to surrender. In addition to presenting the splendid spectacle of a 15-ship naval battle on a Great Lake (both sides had rushed to build up their inland fleets), Perry had opened the way for William Henry Harrison to record a smashing victory the following month at the Battle of the Thames in Ontario (about 50 miles east of Detroit).