Every nation faces critical testing points—tenuous moments of crisis when its very existence is threatened. Today, from Ukraine to the Middle East and beyond, nations are being tested and their survival as sovereign states put in doubt. If they survive, they may well look back on these months with a mixture of awe and pride.
For the fledgling United States, one such moment came two hundred years ago this month. After two years of what many considered an ill-advised war with Great Britain, the United States had failed miserably in its aims of capturing Canada and achieving some measure of maritime independence. In September 1814, Britain struck for the American jugular.
Released of its obligations in Europe by the defeat of Napoleon—his last gasp at Waterloo yet to come—Great Britain turned the full might of its army and vaunted Royal Navy against the pestering upstart of the United States. His Majesty’s government dispatched a massive three-pronged attack against the eighteen American states, many of which were still not sure how united they were in national purpose.
The summer of 1814 had gone badly for the Americans after yet another assault against Canada got no farther than Niagara Falls.
In Ghent, Belgium, an American peace delegation headed by John Quincy Adams sparred with their British counterparts.
A year earlier, President James Madison had welcomed the Russian czar’s offer to mediate the dispute, but Britain had declined and only recently agreed to direct negotiations. Now, the British had every reason to take their time because the next ship from America might bring news of major British victories.
Sensing the full wrath of Great Britain descending on American shores, a Maryland lawyer who would soon participate in the defense of Fort McHenry told the Secretary of the Navy: “We should have to fight hereafter not for ‘free trade and sailors rights, not for the Conquest of the Canadas, but for our national Existence.” In Ghent, the question for the American peace commissioners was no longer, “What can we get out of this?” but rather, “How can we get out of this intact?”
As September began, British General Sir George Prevost led the first prong of attack south from Montreal across the Canadian–American border. It numbered ten thousand veteran infantry and was by far the largest and most battle-tested British force ever assembled in North America.
Prevost aimed to seize upstate New York and control Lake Ontario before marching south along the watery corridor of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River toward New York City. If successful, he would cleave New England—long a reluctant partner in the war because of the disruption of its maritime commerce—from the remainder of the states.
The second British prong struck at the Mid-Atlantic States and was designed as a raid of pillage and plunder—against both American commerce and psyche. General Robert Ross and Admiral George Cockburn—the second syllable of the latter’s surname about to prove prophetic—made a lightning raid against the still tiny American capital of Washington. Brushing aside hastily assembled regulars and militia, the British troops marched up Maryland Avenue to the Capitol.
By nightfall, the Treasury Building and President Madison’s residence—not yet called the White House—were among the buildings ablaze. Madison and his cabinet scattered about the Virginia countryside and Ross’s troops bedded down around campfires on Capitol Hill.
Ross and Cockburn withdrew the next day to plan a far more destructive assault against Baltimore, the nation’s third largest city and commercial hub of the Mid-Atlantic States.
Destroying Washington might stagger the American psyche, but leveling Baltimore would spill its pocketbooks.
Up north on the shores of Lake Champlain, Prevost confronted American troops about one-third of his numbers near Plattsburg. His brigade commanders urged an immediate assault. Prevost hesitated, however, and looked to the waters of Lake Champlain, where he counted on Captain George Downie and his flotilla to wrest control of the lake from an American squadron commanded by Thomas Macdonough.
Macdonough anchored his four principal ships in Plattsburgh Bay adjacent the American land defenses and could afford to wait. Downie received considerable pressure from Prevost to attack. On the morning of September 11, Downie did so, but an ingenious anchoring system on Macdonough’s flagship, Saratoga, allowed him to rotate the ship 180˚ and bring a fresh battery to bear at the critical moment. Downie struck his colors and the Americans achieved undisputed control of Lake Champlain.
Prevost’s brigadiers still urged an attack, but in a lesson of the importance naval power to land operations, Prevost chose to retreat. By nightfall, the largest British army to tread American soil had burned its stores and munitions and started back to Canada.
Americans would come to celebrate the victories of the Constitution and James Lawrence’s dying words of “Don’t Give up the Ship,” but the lesser-known battle of Lake Champlain was far more decisive. Had Macdonough and his crews not prevailed and given Prevost pause, a British army might have occupied New York no matter how valiant the storied defense of Baltimore.
Not knowing of Prevost’s withdrawal from Plattsburgh, Ross and Cockburn landed at North Point on September 12 and advanced toward Baltimore. A stray bullet killed Ross and the next evening Fort McHenry repulsed Cockburn’s attempt to force his way past and into the prize of Baltimore’s inner harbor. Cockburn, too, withdrew and gave Francis Scott Key, a prisoner onboard one of his ships, the chance to ask, “O say, can you see?”
How quickly the foreboding situation had changed. The third prong of the British attacks landed outside New Orleans days after John Quincy Adams had brokered a largely status quo peace treaty based upon the September victories that had initially looked to be impending disasters. Andrew Jackson’s subsequent stand at New Orleans—not the close calls of mere months before—would become the signature piece of the War of 1812, but September 1814 sorely tested the United States and ultimately insured its survival as a nation.
Historian Walter R. Borneman is the author of "MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific" just published by Little, Brown.