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In 1812, the United States declared war on the world's greatest military power, Great Britain. It was a conflict America did not want, and had little hope of winning. Led by a fragile, tentative president, her government was often at war with itself. Her military commanders were incompetent. The army was a shambles. And she possessed virtually no navy. Yet Britain would underestimate the character of "Little" Jimmy Madison and the determination of the American people. Leaders would be made, heroes would be born, and respect would be earned.
Bloodied and bullied by England, insulted by France, and hampered by her own political immaturity, the United States must draw the line to survive. President James Madison, sincere but cautious, leads a government fraught with internal strife and uncertainty. Albert Gallatin, his greatest asset, and James Monroe, stand as his most loyal cabinet members. The world is unraveling before Madison's eyes: Tecumseh, the great Shawnee leader, and his brother, the Prophet, are attempting to organize the numerous Indian tribes into a unified confederation capable of resisting and ultimately halting the United State's westward expansion the British are seizing American merchantmen and kidnapping sailors with no fear of the consequences and France is taking her own prizes from among the United State's merchant fleet. An old, incompetent egomaniac named James Wilkinson is America's senior military commander. Yet he may be the only man capable and experienced enough to lead the United States into war against England or France. And an enraged America is clamoring for war against both! The U.S. Army's greatest asset--though she does not at first realize it--is a young, extraordinarily competent, tenacious Virginian, named Winfield Scott. Brave, often reckless, and exceptionally smart, Scott is determined to make his mark on the military landscape. Experience the events of the War of 1812 through the eyes of Scott, Henry Clay, John Armstrong, Thomas Jefferson and others.
Washington, February 1812
“As I have repeatedly stated, the only way the United States will gain the respect she deserves is if she bloodies Britain’s nose.” Speaker Henry Clay scanned the audience before him in the Senate chamber. The Federalists among them looked hesitant and skeptical; the Republicans wanted to hear more.
Clay wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and began again. “Should Britain revoke her Orders in Council, peaceful recourse is assured. Yet she embraces that reprehensible edict even in the face of potential war! Why do we allow this charade? We can so easily invade Canada and push these people from North America! We have concrete evidence the British have been behind Indian hostilities in the Northwest Territory; we suffer the continual indignation of Royal Navy impressments; we cannot build international commerce with her so-called decrees and incongruous regulations. We receive no respect from her, and, as a consequence, we can hope for none from France or any other sovereign nation. Britain belittles and demeans us as if we are a third-rate, inconsequential nation. Again, I ask you: why do we allow this?”
The majority of the audience voiced its approval. The talking among the senators increased and then died down as the crowd once again focused its attention on Clay.
A small gallery upstairs was often reserved for special visitors and dignitaries; today it held among others, Secretary of State James Monroe and Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin. Observing the chamber below through four dwarf marble columns, the two men listened intently to Clay’s argument. Though Monroe was in complete agreement with the War Hawk, Gallatin was not convinced war was the answer. In his eyes, there was always hope for a peaceful outcome.
Federalist senators were weary and didn’t want to support war, especially those from the New England states. In fact, many embraced Great Britain and would just as soon rejoin the British Empire once more if that would ensure economic growth for their sea-going commerce.
One such Federalist, Connecticut Senator Samuel Dana, a small man with thick brown hair and wild, bushy eyebrows, stood and made his way to the platform. Clay extended his arm in invitation and allowed the man to move in behind the podium.
“Mr. Clay, fellow senators, I wish to take this opportunity to introduce prudence into these discussions. As Mr. Clay has said, Britain has declined to treat this nation respectfully and with honor. Yet if we turn to war, think about the adversary we will come to arms against. This is the greatest military power in the world; even Napoleonic France cannot bring Britain to her knees. What chance do we have?” Dana swept his hand in a wide, slow circle. “All of you realize the condition of our army, and we have little money with which to improve it. If we introduce internal taxation for this purpose, I can assure you we will have another revolution on our hands. The best way, I believe, would be to impose a strict and carefully monitored embargo once again upon Britain. We are incapable of doing anything more at this time. We must think about this, what we are doing.” Dana nodded his head and returned to his seat.
Clay returned to the dais, thinking how proud John Randolph would have been of Dana’s oratory had he been present to hear it. Clay had watched the assembly’s reaction to the senator’s diatribe but was not sure what to think; they hadn’t cheered the small man, yet neither had they driven him from the podium.
The Speaker began. “Senator Dana, thank you. However, I must admit that your argument is tenuous at best. Great Britain is spread thinly along the Canadian border and elsewhere. A concerted push by our militia will dissolve any resistance encountered. You had mentioned that the regular army is incapable, not large enough. Perhaps so, but it will be the militia that will be primarily involved; the regular army will be ready when and if it is needed—and this will not require the initiation of war taxes.” Clay paused, looking about the semi-circular chamber. A movement to the right of the platform caught his attention, as a man slowly unfolded himself from a chair and stood as straight as his bent back would allow.
It was John Randolph.
“I would like to add to Senator Dana’s comments, and further educate this assembly on matters of war preparation,” Randolph said, stroking his chin lightly. “To attempt to fight this juggernaut, we plan to mobilize the militia? It seems, Mr. Clay, that you and I see the militia through different eyes. They will not invade Canada; they are not trained, nor disciplined, nor well led. If they do engage the British, they will be annihilated.”
Clay listened to his adversary wearily; Randolph was not a man to underestimate. He did have strong support.
“We will ultimately be left to defend this nation with the regular army, which is too weak in number, too deficient in courage, and too poorly led to stand in the face of Britain’s wrath. We have no navy, no source of military funding, and no political administration competent to manage any of it.”
The assembly was spellbound. Once again, the argument was swinging wildly from one extreme to the other. Randolph had thrown in his own brand of skepticism and discord. Clay was not surprised.
Randolph continued: “But what is most amazing to me, sir, is your statement that we will not impose wartime taxation. Such bold idiocy! We do not know what Britain’s response will be, whether or not they will fight with who they have or send twenty-five thousand additional troops to this continent.” Randolph shook his head. “To place so much responsibility on the militia is absurd. We must not charge into this with a blindfold on. Think! Examine all sides carefully and completely.”
Clay watched as Randolph took his seat. “Thank you for your comments, congressman. We have considered every option, every possibility. Britain has approximately seven thousand soldiers in Canada, and with Napoleon breathing down her neck, it is unlikely this number will increase. Upper Canada possesses far fewer. We currently have nearly ten thousand regulars and have already authorized an increase to nearly thirty-five thousand.” Clay looked around the room. “And we may not require them; the militia will easily complete the job.
“Such a move into Canada will not require the services of our navy; we cannot hope for parity on the high seas in any scenario. However, along the border with Canada, we would expect nothing less than complete victory.” Clay gripped both sides of the platform tightly, wanting to make an important point—the point of it all. “We are, militarily, capable of pushing quickly into Canada and taking Montreal and Quebec. But it must be fast, aggressive and complete. If we succeed, we will make the statement to His Majesty and the English people that America is not to be trifled with. President Madison has already warned Britain—and you—that hostilities will commence should she not eliminate her Orders in Council. She has refused to do so; she challenges our sovereignty, our ability to stand against her. We must now push back, bloody her nose, defend our honor—and earn England’s respect. There is simply too much at stake now to do anything less. We must consider war, and we must follow through! Gentleman, I cannot stress enough this point: if we stand idle, we will prove our impotence to the world; and we will have desecrated the memory of all those who gave so much to bring about our independence from Britain thirty years ago. If we do nothing, all of it will have been in vain! We must act now!”
The place erupted once again as a number of the War Hawks present were now chanting, “War! War! War!” Others were joining them.
In the upstairs gallery, Monroe glanced at Gallatin. The treasury secretary appeared uncomfortable, almost anxious. A furrowed brow gave away the conflicts and thoughts raging within his mind.
“Albert, what are you thinking?”
Gallatin’s eyebrows rose as he turned his head toward Monroe, but no words emerged. He was taken aback by the chamber’s raucous behavior, their almost primitive craving for war. It was a mob’s mentality. But this was not a small decision; this was world war! And Albert Gallatin harbored no illusions regarding such a conflict: in his mind, America would be crushed by Britain. He turned to Monroe. “Jim, do these people know what they are saying, what war will mean?”
“They are angry, as we all are. Henry Clay is correct: if we stand by and do nothing, our sovereignty will be in question. Britain will see we have no muscle and they will increase their depredations against us until we have no choice but to agree to their whims. We will be no better off than when we were subjected colonies.”
“I fear,” Gallatin said, his expression pained, “that there is more to lose here than just our independence. I believe if war is declared, we may not survive as a nation. As much as I detest admitting this, I feel Randolph is correct: we are too weak to stand against the British. Even if they cannot send troops from Europe at this time, sooner or later, they will. Napoleon will likely be defeated, and then what will happen, Jim?”
Monroe looked at the floor, unsure how to answer the question.
After a moment of silence, Gallatin continued. “I shall tell you: England will flood this country with soldiers, tens of thousands of them! They will be confident and swaggering after the defeat of the French. And do you really suspect we will be able to stop them? They will annihilate everyone and everything in their path, kill civilians…” Gallatin shook his head at the disturbing images swimming in his head.
Monroe looked at him, wondering what to think. Certainly some or all of this might come to pass. But perhaps none of it would occur. Who could say? However, Monroe was certain that if capably led, the army would stand strong against the British, especially if they moved quickly and deliberately into Canada, as had been considered. It could all be long over before the fall of Napoleon’s army. That was vital. There were still questions, of course, but a plan was beginning to coalesce. Yet ultimately it would be the president’s decision whether or not to pursue war. It was only a matter of time now.