THIS WEEK in the War of 1812: June 24-June 30
The Starting Lineup
In an era of limited transportation and a region without many good roads, the War of 1812 got off to a slow start in the first week after the United States declared war on Great Britain and its colonies in North America.
Upon learning of the declaration of war, several U.S. Navy ships — including the frigates USS President, USS United States and USS Congress — put to sea (June 21) hoping to intercept a convoy of British merchantmen reportedly sailing from the island of Jamaica for Britain. The first shots of the war are fired on June 23 when the President and Congress encounter the HMS Belvidera. But the British frigate escapes when one of the President’s canons explodes, killing or maiming more than a dozen sailors.
By week’s end, two American schooners, the Sophia and Island Packet, were captured in the St. Lawrence River between Canada and New York State near the Thousand Islands. Both vessels were fleeing the confines of the St. Lawrence near Ogdensburg, N.Y. (see map below) for the relatively safer open waters of Lake Ontario when they were captured. The schooners were burned after their passengers and crew disembarked, according to contemporary accounts.
,Meanwhile, U.S. leaders were readying for a war which the young nation was ill prepared to fight.
The 18 states — Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Louisiana had been added to the original 13 since the Constitution was ratified — had a population of 7.7 million compared to the approximately 13 million inhabitants of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
The U.S. Army consisted of 11,744 officers and men, many of them scattered among posts along the Western Frontier and the border with Canada. The Army would have to rely on poorly trained state militias to bolster its numbers. Some states wouldn’t contribute troops at all, and others wouldn’t let their soldiers cross the border into Canada. The U.S. Navy consisted of just 20 vessels, including three large frigates mounting 44 guns and three smaller 38-gun frigates.
Britain had a much larger army and navy but both were preoccupied with the worldwide war against Napoleon’s France. So in terms on manpower, the belligerents were fairly evenly matched.
According to the U.S. Army’s Office of the Chief of Military History, at the war’s start, there were approximately 7,000 British and Canadian Regulars in Canada, which had a total non-Indian population of only about 500,000. The British side did have better relations with Native Americans and as many as 3,500 may have supported the British-Canadian forces. The vaunted Royal Navy had eleven ships of the line, thirty-four frigates, and about an equal number of smaller naval vessels in the western Atlantic. A small force compared to the total navy, but much larger than anything American navy could field in the early days of the war. Thousands more troops and many more ships would be turned loose against the United States after Napoleon was defeated and sent into exile in 1814.