Over the past several weeks, we have detailed the tremendous contributions our Carter County volunteers and other East Tennessee soldiers made to the American armies in the War of 1812. This installment of Tennessee Heritage will attempt to put those blood-stained efforts into focus, as they were crucial to the winning of this little-understood “Second War for American Independence.” Our struggling young democracy lost the battle in the north and east but we won the war in the south and west, by crushing the Creek Nation (Britain’s biggest ally in the west) and by then repelling the British invasion of the United States’ gulf coast.
As pointed out in previous columns, we had risked declaring war in June 1812 against the most powerful country in the world due to: (1) Great Britain’s impressment of our seamen, and (2) because of westward expansionist “War Hawk” sentiment in Congress, largely stirred up by Kentuckian Henry Clay and Tennessean Felix Grundy. These causes had virtually forced President Madison to stand up for America. Our attempts to invade Canada were short-lived and the British retaliated by seizing Fort Detroit and Fort Mackinac, as well as burning our Fort Dearborn (on the site of today’s Chicago), all within two months after our declaration of war. Things were not going well.
Only a few months later, in January 1813, some 397 Americans were killed (as they were hoping to retake Detroit) in the Battle of Frenchtown, Michigan Territory while hundreds of others were taken prisoner and dozens of them were killed in a next-day engagement with Native Americans that came to be known as the Raisin River Massacre. It was the deadliest conflict ever fought on Michigan soil, and the casualties included the highest number of Americans killed in a single battle during the entire War of 1812. We finally won some victories on the Great Lakes, at York and at Fort George in the late spring of 1813, but this was partially offset by the extension of Great Britain’s naval blockade to include the Mid- Atlantic and Southern states on the East Coast at about the same time, along with their capture of Hampton, Va.
On June 27, 1813, the inconclusive Battle of the Burnt Corn in southern Alabama began the Creek War, followed by the Fort Mims massacre, which was the biggest British/Creek victory of the entire conflict. Thereafter, Andrew Jackson and his Tennessee Volunteers would enter the fray, to win victory after victory over the next nine months. In the meantime, in the north, the American and British forces had been trading blows back and forth across the Canadian border without a clear advantage to either side; the most important event in that theater was the battle death of the great Native American leader Tecumseh at the Battle of Thames in October 1813.
Finally, the climactic American win on March 27, 1814, over the Creek Nation, at Horseshoe Bend in east central Alabama was primarily the work of the Tennessee Volunteers, as we described last week. It actually took several more months of dealing with scattered remnants of the Creek Red Sticks before General Jackson was able to get them to the table for signing the Treaty of Fort Jackson, forcing them to cede huge areas in present-day southern Georgia and most of central Alabama, consisting of some 3,000,000 acres.
The British had planned a three-pronged invasion of the United States for 1814, attacking at Lake Champlain, Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf Coast/Mississippi River mouth. This was partly because they saw Napoleon’s power in France and on the Continent slipping away and assumed they could get away with it. During the long years of the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1814) Great Britain’s military and naval forces had been heavily committed at home and in Europe.
Had it not been for the crushing defeat administered the Creeks by Jackson and his Tennessee troops, American forces might not have been able to ultimately defend against the British at Mobile, Pensacola and New Orleans. This was because the British would have been able to collect newly available troops and ships to prosecute the war with the United States. They already had a base of operation at the Royal Naval Dockyard in the mid-Atlantic crown colony of Bermuda, from whence the American coastal blockade had been run during the Anglo-American hostilities.
Accordingly, they launched an attack on Washington, D.C., won the battle at nearby Bladensburg, Md., then set fire to the White House and the Capitol; a number of federal buildings, and several private homes were also destroyed. In the still uncompleted Capitol building, the House of Representatives and the Library of Congress were gutted before a torrential downpour doused the flames. The British withdrew from the region only because their attempt to take Baltimore and Fort McHenry had failed; therefore they could not control all of the Chesapeake Bay as planned.
Thus, we see that the pressure applied by winning the Creek War against Britain’s Native American allies in the south, was really the major reason for them to initiate peace talks at Belgium in August 1814. In the meantime, the U. S. continued to engage the invaders at various times and places while moving toward the final big battle at New Orleans.
NEXT: The Battle of New Orleans