Great Britain had been at war with Napoleon Bonaparte’s France since 1803. To counter the French threat, Britain expanded the Royal Navy and required additional sailors to man their ships. Most sailors were forced into serving, resulting in a high desertion rate. When the Impress Service failed to find enough sailors in the taverns of Britain, the Royal Navy began stopping American ships at sea, seizing anyone suspected of ever having been a British citizen, and impressing them into service on British warships. By 1812, there had been ten thousand such abductions.
The United States declared war on Britain on 18 June, 1812, for many reasons, but impressment had inflamed the passions of the nation. Not all agreed. The Federalist party, whose power base lay in the New England states, bitterly opposed the war for economic reasons.
The United States was not prepared for a war with Great Britain. The US Army was small and poorly equipped, and relied on state-mustered militia of dubious quality and motivation. The Army’s first task was to march north and take possession of Canada, and soon discovering that the Canadians were not interested in being liberated by the bombastic, self-serving politicians-in-uniform leading the American Army. They fought back and the invasion stalled.
The US Navy had twenty-two excellent ships, but was outnumbered and outgunned by the six hundred ship Royal Navy. To pose a credible threat to British commerce, the United States commissioned thousands of privateers, authorized to attack and seize British commercial shipping. Many of these enjoyed amazing success, such as Captain Thomas Boyle’s Chasseur–later renamed Pride of Baltimore.
By 1814 the United States was in serious trouble. The economy was in ruins, the Army reeling from defeat after defeat, the Navy bottled up in a half-dozen harbors. The only thing keeping the might of Great Britain from squashing the upstart republic was its war with Napoleon’s France.
And then things got worse.