Lessons from the Past

The Battle of Lake Erie, by Peter Rindlisbacher.

Peter Rindlisbacher, Canadian Society of Marine Artists

The Battle of Lake Erie, by Peter Rindlisbacher.

Breaking the Stalemate: Amphibious Warfare during the War of 1812

by Jean-François Lebeau

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Lieutenant (N) G.J.F. Lebeau is the Above Water Warfare Officer aboard HMCS Ville de Québec, and he holds a BA in History from the Royal Military College of Canada. In 2010, Lieutenant Lebeau received the French Navy’s “Qualification aux opérations amphibies” while serving onboard the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship Tonnerre.


The War of 1812 is remembered for both its pitched land battles (i.e., Queenston Heights and New Orleans) and its famous sea battles between the Royal Navy (RN) and the United States Navy (USN). Yet, these famous engagements are only a small fraction of all the battles fought during the war. It has been suggested that the War of 1812 more closely resembled the First World War than its contemporary, the Napoleonic Wars. The hardships of the Upper Canadian wilderness and the American Northwest demonstrated that winter and disease were as much the enemy as the opposing military. The war continued for two-and-a-half years until the Treaty of Ghent in 1814 ended hostilities. Although this war has been exhaustively studied, one aspect that remains relatively unknown is the extensive use of amphibious warfare. In fact, many of the important battles were amphibious operations, including York, Chesapeake Bay, and New Orleans. Furthermore, both sides conducted many amphibious raids throughout the war.

British and American Diplomats Signing the Treaty of Ghent, 24 December 1814, by Forestier

The Granger Collection, NYC 0022792

British and American Diplomats Signing the Treaty of Ghent, 24 December 1814, by Forestier

Why was amphibious warfare used so extensively? Why would the operational commanders decide to conduct amphibious operations when they had easy access by land to the enemy’s territory? To answer these questions, these operations must be put into context. This article will demonstrate that amphibious operations were a solution: (a) to overcome the natural obstacles of the wilderness, (b) to break the stalemate on land, (c) to provide commanders operational mobility and flexibility, and (d) to attempt to generate a psychological advantage. For the purpose of this article, discussion and analysis will be limited to the Atlantic and Great Lakes Basin theatres of operations.

The Atlantic Theatre of Operations

The British clearly dominated in the Atlantic theatre with the use of amphibious operations. They made full use of the extensive experience in expeditionary warfare they had gained during the Napoleonic Wars, as well as their advantageous positioning around the United States.1 As the world’s foremost naval power, Britain was capable of coercing an enemy economically, psychologically, and militarily. The nation’s main focus in 1812 was the European war against Napoleon, and she was not initially willing or prepared to go on the offensive in North America. Consequently, the British resorted to a defensive strategy until additional troops and resources were made available after Napoleon’s abdication in 1814.2 Prior to 1814, British strategy aimed to cripple the American economy via a guerre de course, to restrict the USN to its home waters, and to defend British North America from American invasions.3

The Atlantic theatre of operations stretched from Newfoundland down the Eastern seaboard and into the Gulf of Mexico. This theatre was vital to the British because it was their only means of supplying their colonies and implementing their strategy against the Americans. Halifax and Bermuda were the two main stations for the RN in the Atlantic, and these could be supplemented with forces from the Leeward Islands and Jamaica stations in the Caribbean. These stations were strategically positioned to allow the British to maintain a presence in the Western Atlantic Ocean, escort or intercept convoys, enforce a blockade on American ports, defend the sea lines of communication to Québec City, and potentially act as springboards for an assault upon the United States.

The American military strategy had been largely ‘land-centric’ since the days of Thomas Jefferson, and the USN had only been created at the turn of the 19th Century, following the ‘quasi-war’ with France, and Mediterranean operations conducted during the Barbary Wars.4 When war was declared in 1812, the USN was ill-prepared for large-scale naval operations. Its few remaining ships were old – albeit large – frigates, and they were widely dispersed along the Atlantic coast, while the major cities were defended by a series of fortified positions.

A major concern for the United States at the outset of the War of 1812 was the lack of professional military personnel. There were few ‘regulars’ available for coastal defence, and most of these men were scattered across the country.5 President James Madison’s strategy revolved around the invasion of Upper and Lower Canada, which required the bulk of the US Army’s regulars, and relied upon militia forces for coastal defence. The American naval strategy was to create havoc by breaking the RN blockade, and to raid British commerce on the high seas.6 Matching the British in numbers was not feasible, especially after the defeat of Napoleon. Privateering was a solution to ensure that American trade to Europe continued.7 By the summer of 1814, despite the success of privateers, the American economy was in shambles.

Sir Alexander Forrester Inglis Cochrane, by Charles Turner, after Sir William Beechey.

©National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG D1486. Given by Ernest E. Leggatt

Sir Alexander Forrester Inglis Cochrane, by Charles Turner, after Sir William Beechey.

British Operations – Summer of 1814

Despite some early victories by the USN, the RN gained control of the Atlantic Ocean in 1813 and implemented a campaign of amphibious raids led by Rear-Admiral George Cockburn. Its purpose was to harass the American population, perhaps create some dissidence, gather resources for the RN, and finally, to divert the American governments’ attention away from the Great Lakes Basin.8 This campaign forced the United States to maintain its coastal defences. In early 1814, Vice-Admiral Alexander Cochrane established an amphibious force at Bermuda using Royal Marines and regulars that had been redeployed from the Caribbean. From there, amphibious raids or assaults could be launched anywhere along the Eastern seaboard and into the Gulf of Mexico. Halifax was also an important location, with enough troops and resources stationed there to pose a threat to New England. However, it was not until the summer of 1814 that the British began to use larger amphibious raids to accomplish specific objectives.

Several amphibious operations took place in the summer of 1814. General Sir John Sherbrooke, then Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, was ordered to capture the state of Maine in order to secure an overland route to Québec City.9 He planned to conduct a series of amphibious raids aimed at testing American defences and securing strategic positions along the coast. In June 1814, the British commenced their operation with the capture of Thomaston and St. George on the Penobscot River in Maine, followed by a raid on Eastport in July. This secured their position and allowed them to carry on with the main assault on Castine in September. Castine was not only a base for privateers, but it also provided access inland due to its position on the Penobscot River, which was vital to controlling Maine. A British strike force landed at Castine in early September and made its way up river to Bangor. The resulting victory created a year-round overland route to Lower Canada, and ensured a continuous flow of British supplies and troops to continue the war.10

Colours, 1812, by Silvia Pecota.

©Silvia Pecota

Colours, 1812, by Silvia Pecota.

In addition, the main offensive had been launched two weeks prior in the Chesapeake Bay area. The bay provided access to two of the most important centres in the United States: Washington and Baltimore. The former was the seat of government, while the latter was the most important privateer port in the country. The British were already familiar with the area because Rear-Admiral Cockburn had been raiding coastal towns for over a year, and the RN had successfully blockaded USN forces in the bay. In August 1814, a strike force under the joint command of Cockburn and Major-General Robert Ross departed Bermuda with orders to conduct a large-scale amphibious raid on the American capital. The British force landed at Benedict on the Patuxent River on 19 August 1814, and marched north towards the American capital. In the meantime, Cockburn’s naval force conducted flanking operations up the Patuxent and Potomac Rivers. After routing the American forces at Bladensburg, the British captured Washington on the 24th of August. They continued with a joint assault on Baltimore in September, where they were eventually repulsed on the 14th of September. The intent of this campaign was to demonstrate their ability to strike deep inside American territory and close to the centre of power. There was no intent to occupy the region, but rather, to cause destruction and incite fear within the population.11 After Baltimore, the British force re-embarked and returned to its bases in Halifax and Bermuda for the final planning stages with respect to the upcoming invasion of New Orleans.

The Battle of New Orleans

The city of New Orleans lies at the mouth of the Mississippi River and it was (and remains) a major American shipping port. The city controlled access to the river, and by extension, to the Midwest as far north as Ohio. Therefore, it represented a very attractive military and economic target for the British. The preparations for the New Orleans invasion started in the summer of 1814 after the Chesapeake Bay operations. The British were hopeful they could take advantage of the strife between the American and the Creek natives, and have the latter assist them with the invasion. With the war in Europe over, England was able to allocate more troops for this operation. The proposed strength initially varied widely, but by mid-December 1814, there were up to 10,000 British troops in the Mississippi River delta. However, its terrain was treacherously lined with bayous and flood plains, making it disadvantageous for the invaders. Furthermore, the river’s strong current made navigation up river difficult for sailing ships, and impossible for major warships.12 Consequently, the British decided to conduct an amphibious landing and trek overland to New Orleans. They found the enemy in entrenched positions without any artillery or naval support. After a series of attacks, the British forces were defeated by Major-General Andrew Jackson on 8 January 1815 after which they retreated and departed for other operations along the gulf coast.

The Battle of New Orleans demonstrated that amphibious operations have to be well planned and executed. The British did not fully take into consideration the challenges of the geography, did not make use of all the intelligence available about the enemy, and they underestimated American leadership and morale.

The Great Lakes Theatre of Operations

The situation was different in the Great Lakes Basin. Unlike in the Atlantic Ocean, amphibious warfare was not so one-sided, and both sides attempted to gain the initiative on land and for control of the lakes. The American strategy was to invade Upper Canada and fight eastward towards the fortress of Québec City in order to force the British out.13 Therefore, most of their land operations took place in the Great Lakes Basin, most particularly, in the area spanning from Detroit to Kingston.

When war was declared in June 1812, the Americans were confident they were going to ‘blitz’ through Upper Canada and make their way to Québec City by the end of the year. They planned to continue on to Halifax the following summer, and ultimately force the British out of North America. In reality the British, assisted by the Canadian militia and their native allies, proved to be strong opponents, despite their smaller numbers. The 1812 campaign was disastrous for the Americans, and they suffered humiliating defeats at Detroit and in the Niagara peninsula. The land battles resulted in stalemates and no appreciable gains were made by either side.

Re-enactment of the Battle of Crysler’s Farm, 11 November 1813.

Courtesy of Heather Bashow

Re-enactment of the Battle of Crysler’s Farm, 11 November 1813.

One of the obstacles faced in that remote area was the lack of infrastructure and resources available away from major centres. The road networks were primitive, and there were no canals connecting Lakes Erie and Ontario to other waterways. This made it difficult to build, maintain, and supply military forces. Following the failure of its land forces in 1812, the United States decided to invest in its naval forces to counter the British advantage on the lakes. The British had access to the St. Lawrence River, and by extension, the Atlantic Ocean, as well as resources from Europe. This was an advantage, because resources were scarce in Canada. But it was also a disadvantage, because the British were also at risk of being cut off from this lifeline if the Americans gained control of the river.

Initially, the Provincial Marine, and later, the RN, permitted the British to control the Great Lakes, and allowed them to intervene relatively quickly anywhere on the lakes. The Americans realized that their strategy would only be successful if they could control the lakes. They built a new naval base at Presqu’Île on Lake Erie, and invested in the existing one located at Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario. Those bases were defended and given the infrastructures necessary to construct warships. The USN was at a serious disadvantage in terms of the number of ships they possessed, but they had easier access to greater resources than had the British. It remained easier to build and arm American warships because of the relative proximity of industrial centres, such as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York City. The Americans embarked upon a shipbuilding program aimed to match the British fleet in size on the lakes, and to contest the latter’s superiority.14 Furthermore, the pool of men available for service was greater in the United States than it was in Upper Canada. Consequently, the naval bases at Presqu’Île and Sackets Harbor became embarkation points for US amphibious forces, and they were located within a short distance of any possible target in Upper Canada.

American and British Operations – Summer of 1813

The Americans resorted to amphibious warfare as early as 1813 with an amphibious assault on York, the capital of Upper Canada. This was part of their strategy to cut the British troops off in the Niagara region, subsequently allowing them to attack the main base at Kingston and to secure Upper Canada.15 The amphibious strike force sailed from Sackets Harbor in mid-April and was escorted by USN schooners, due to the looming British fleet. However, the final destination was not made apparent, causing the British to wonder where the attack would take place. Based upon the American strategy, a number of locations, such as Kingston, York, and Burlington Heights were considered possible objectives. York was chosen by the Americans because of its importance and strategic location, and General Henry Dearborn and Commodore Isaac Chauncey decided to attack on 27 April 1813. The landing force met some resistance but was able to capture York and rout the few British regulars and militiamen with support from the schooners. The Americans torched the legislative buildings, and later withdrew to prepare for follow-on operations.

The Americans continued with a successful amphibious assault upon Fort George in May. In response, British Commodore James Yeo launched a raid against Sackets Harbor in an attempt to force Chauncey to break off his support in the Niagara region. The British landing force captured the base and set it ablaze but the ships covering the raid were unable to get close enough to provide gunfire support. Tactically, the raid failed to destroy the infrastructure and the shipyard, but operationally, it forced Chauncey to break off the assault and return to base.16 Following two major defeats on land, and without naval support, the Americans were unable to consolidate their position on the Niagara peninsula, and were forced to retreat to their positions on the Niagara River. However, they did gain control of Lake Erie in September 1813 with a victory at the Battle of Put-in-Bay, which allowed them to pursue and defeat the British forces on the Thames River later that autumn.

Oliver Hazard Perry

The Granger Collection, NYC 0039400

Oliver Hazard Perry

Re-enactment of the Battle of Crysler’s Farm, 11 November 1813.

©National Portrait Gallery London NPG D5133. Given by Ernest E. Leggatt

Sir James Lucas Yeo, by Henry Richard Cook; published by Joyce Gold; after Adam Buck.

The Great Lakes theatre of operations remained stagnant until the end of the war, despite some offensive operations by both sides. Amphibious warfare was not utilized to the same extent as it had been in early-1813. Several small-scale amphibious raids were conducted, but without significant results. By 1814, the British were re-deploying some of their forces from Europe and were preparing to go on the offensive on all fronts.

The Rationale for Amphibious Warfare

Commanders in the War of 1812 were influenced to resort to various types of amphibious operations as a result of several factors: (a) the geographical constraints, (b) the inconclusiveness of land battles, (c) the increased operational mobility and flexibility given by amphibious capabilities, and (d) the resulting psychological effects upon the enemy.

Geographical Constraints

The vast, scarcely populated and under-developed area over which the War of 1812 was fought represented a tremendous obstacle to all commanders. Many locales in Michigan and Upper Canada were considered the frontier, and often, were only accessible by water. The movement of troops and supplies was severely impeded by under-developed roads. The operations in the swamps of the Maumee River region and the bayous of New Orleans demonstrated the difficulties of operating in such areas but more importantly the impossibility of rapidly moving troops. These difficulties were made even more significant in the northern states, due to the harsh climate of the North American winter. The British also faced difficult weather conditions in the Chesapeake Bay area during the summer of 1814, despite its relatively more southerly latitude. Furthermore, ice-covered lakes in the Great Lakes Basin forced the ships back to harbour and ‘hand-cuffed’ armies for several months. That said, in fact, few military operations were undertaken during the winter months.17

However, the many large bodies of water and rivers in North America allowed commanders to use amphibious warfare to counter this disadvantage. Ships could transport all the personnel and equipment in a short time without having to stop for meals or rest and were not encumbered by the lack of proper roads. Therefore, it was sensible for both sides to develop the ability to conduct various types of amphibious operations. Remoteness became less of an issue with the creation of naval fleets on Lakes Champlain, Ontario, and Erie, as well as the ability to operate on Lake Huron.

Another geographical factor that encouraged the use of amphibious warfare was the proximity of most major centres to a body of water. Halifax, Bermuda, Boston, New York City, New Orleans, York and Detroit are all obvious examples. But so are Washington and Baltimore, which were accessible from the Chesapeake Bay, and, as the British demonstrated, well within marching distance of an amphibious landing area. By utilizing amphibious forces, commanders could often overcome some of these constraints.

James Madison, (1751-1836) 4th President of the United States, by John Vanderlyn

The Granger Collection, NYC 0102718

James Madison, (1751-1836) 4th President of the United States, by John Vanderlyn

Increased Operational Mobility and Flexibility

Operational mobility and flexibility is the ability of a commander to move his forces as necessary, and to choose between two or more different courses of actions in order to complete his mission and meet a superior’s intent. Amphibious forces gave operational commanders mobility and flexibility because they could embark their entire landing force, move it as required within a given theatre of operations, and adapt to changing situations.

During the summer of 1814, British Admiral Alexander Cochrane and his superiors in London were considering several targets in the United States. They knew that it was unlikely that General George Prevost, then-Governor General of Canada, would venture very far into New England, given his previous policies.18 Furthermore, any campaigns fought on the Canadian border had proven to be unsuccessful to that point in time. However, an amphibious force based upon Royal Marine and regular British Army troops would allow them to strike the Americans and open a second front.19 Admiral Cochrane had operational mobility because he controlled the Western Atlantic Ocean all the way south to the Gulf of Mexico and deep into American waters. In return, this mobility also gave him operational flexibility and the ability to choose the location and timing of any assault. The British decided to strike in Maine and the Chesapeake Bay area, and then to withdraw in order to re-deploy their forces for the main invasion of New Orleans. Land-based armies would have been unable to accomplish this because they would have been reliant upon a steady stream of supplies from the fleet, in addition to being subjected to the inherent dangers of occupying enemy territory and the well-known difficulties associated with transportation by land.

The Americans learned from the defeats of 1812. They knew that they had to sever the British links between Lower Canada, Kingston, and the Niagara peninsula in order to be successful. They needed mobility and flexibility, and the amphibious force at Sackets Harbor provided this to the American commanders. They had the mobility to attack York which served as a node between Kingston and Niagara. It also meant the army could be moved anywhere on Lake Ontario in a short period of time in order to support an ongoing operation, to commence a new operation, or to protect their own positions. The operations at York and Fort George were good examples of this, and demonstrated that the Americans were actively attempting to find solutions to the stalemate that mad developed on land.

Sackets Harbor, 1813, by Peter Rindlisbacher.

Peter Rindlisbacher, CSMA

Sackets Harbor, 1813, by Peter Rindlisbacher.

Initiative and Disadvantageous Courses of Action

By the beginning of 1813, the Americans knew that the invasion of Upper Canada would not be as easy as they had initially envisaged. The previous year’s campaign had been unsuccessful and few gains had been made by either side. Consequently, the Americans needed to be bold and creative in order to regain the initiative. By attacking York in April 1813, the Americans surprised the British and forced them to leave their position and to re-group elsewhere. It temporarily severed the lines of communications between Kingston and the Niagara peninsula. This distraction gave the American commanders enough time to prepare the invasion of May 1813. Once again, Commodore Chauncey’s fleet was used to transport and land a force at Fort George and provide gunfire support. It gave the Americans the initiative, and it allowed them to push the British away from their fortified positions along the Niagara River. The Americans maintained it until later in the summer when they were defeated at the battles of Beaver Dam and Stoney Creek.

The situation was considerably different in the Atlantic. The British had adopted a defensive strategy in 1812 because they were involved in high tempo operations in Europe and could not afford to simultaneously fight two major wars on two different continents. However, it was still possible to affect the American economy and indirectly to influence the conduct of the war. Therefore, the British instigated an aggressive amphibious raiding policy as early as 1813. Regions such as the Chesapeake Bay, New England or the Carolina coast were targeted because of their proximity to major centres, their pro-war sentiments, and their support to privateers. The greatest British achievement was that this policy forced the American government into following a disadvantageous course of action. It became necessary to maintain coastal defences from Maine to Georgia, tying up resources that could otherwise have been used in Upper Canada.

The British increased the combat tempo in 1814 because the war in Europe was over and resources had been made available for other operations. Amphibious forces were again used because the British could strike at many locations simultaneously and divert the American government’s attention from the Niagara Peninsula and Lower Canada. The intensity and scale of the amphibious operations were also increased, and they represented a significant threat to the Eastern seaboard and the security of the American capital. These amphibious operations prepared the British for the invasion of New Orleans in late-1814. The latter was a bold enterprise aimed at creating a third front on the American western flank, and to gain the initiative in all of North America.

Psychological effects

The last positive factor for amphibious warfare use – psychological warfare - is a derivative of the second and third factors. The British were very good at psychological warfare, and they used it to their advantage. The American population was afraid of a British amphibious assault on their towns with the concomitant destruction, looting, and/or other reprehensible actions perpetrated by the attackers. Rear-Admiral Cockburn’s successful amphibious raiding policy resulted in near paranoia within the American population. Raids were also conducted from Halifax against the entire New England coast. The British were hoping to instil a climate of fear in the coastal population that would eventually force the American government to negotiate for the cessation of hostilities. The results of this policy were mixed. In some cases, it did fuel a chronic fear, but also a hatred of the British, and it reinforced the patriotism and determination of the American people. The extent to which it contributed to the peace negotiations at Ghent is beyond the scope of this short article.


The amphibious operations conducted during the War of 1812 were, in part, the results of inconclusive land campaigns. They proved to be a successful solution to the impasse on land. They gave operational commanders the mobility and flexibility to strike wherever and whenever they wanted or needed to do so, and could force the enemy into following a different course of action. Commanders such as Rear-Admiral Cockburn and Commodore Chauncey used amphibious warfare successfully to gain the initiative in a theatre of operations, and to prepare the way for land forces. They correctly grasped that “the seat of purpose is on the land,” and they used amphibious warfare to achieve that purpose.20

The War of 1812’s amphibious operations constitute good case studies for the modern officer, demonstrating how naval operations can influence the conduct of operations on land. They also demonstrate that success may not always be measured by the physical defeat of the enemy’s forces. Finally, amphibious operations have been and continue to be an important aspect of naval warfare. The War of 1812 provides many important lessons that are worth examining in further detail.

Lawrence Takes Fire, by Peter Rindlisbacher.

Peter Rindlisbacher, CSMA

Lawrence Takes Fire, by Peter Rindlisbacher.


  1. Pat Bolen, “The RCN Can Learn from Admiral Nelson’s Amphibious Defeats,” in Canadian Naval Review (Fall 2012), p. 20.
  2. Andrew Lambert, The Challenge (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), p. 63.
  3. Ibid., p. 83.
  4. Ibid., p. 34.
  5. George Daughan, 1812, The Navy’s War (New York: Basic Books, 2011), pp. 34-35.
  6. Lambert, p. 62.
  7. Daughan, p. 41.
  8. Ibid., p. 232.
  9. Lambert, p. 317.
  10. Ibid., p. 320.
  11. Daughan, p. 340.
  12. Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926), p. 376.
  13. Pierre Berton, War of 1812 (Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2011), pp. 98-99.
  14. Mark Lardas, Great Lakes Warships 1812-1815 (Long Island City, NY: Osprey Publishing, 2012), p. 10.
  15. J.C.A. Stagg, The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 85-86.
  16. Ibid., pp. 88-89.
  17. Berton, pp. 395-396.
  18. Lambert, p. 381.
  19. Ibid., p. 232.
  20. Wayne P. Hughes Jr., Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), p. 26.