The importance of the Gulf campaign is difficult to gauge. A successful British invasion would have cut American commerce moving along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers from access to the sea, with dire economic consequences. It also would have allowed Britain to seize control of the Louisiana Territory. Had the war continued, these would have been serious threats. But the Treaty of Ghent, already negotiated but not yet ratified by the time of the battle of New Orleans, made these points moot. Perhaps the British might have reconsidered the treaty’s terms if they had captured New Orleans; but Great Britain, tired by the long war with Napoleon, was in no mood to continue a conflict that it had never wanted in the first place just for the chance of gaining five hundred thousand acres of North American wilderness. As it happened, both sides readily embraced the treaty’s call for returning to prewar territorial boundaries.
Another possible danger stemming from a British victory at New Orleans is that Britain might have turned the region over to Spain rather than to the United States on the grounds that Spain was the rightful prewar owner. But if Britain had insisted on transferring Louisiana to Spain, it is unlikely that beleaguered nation would have been able to hold the territory against an aggressive, expansionist United States. Already fighting a losing battle to retain its Latin American colonies from indigenous independence movements, Spain was in no position to defend its North American territories from encroachment. Spain acknowledged this reality in 1819 when it ceded Florida to the United States. In exchange, the two nations agreed on a firm boundary between the United States and Spanish territory west of Louisiana. Even this did not save the Spanish empire in North America, as two years later the region’s population won its independence from Spain and established the country of Mexico, thus ending Spain’s 300-year presence in North America.
Last but not least, a British victory might have reinvigorated efforts to establish an Indian confederacy to bottle the United States up along the eastern seaboard. But this too seems unlikely. British negotiators at Ghent had already abandoned this goal in the quest for peace. Had the British changed their minds, an Indian confederacy would have had little chance of survival given America’s decisive victories over Tecumseh and his adherents during the war. If the War of 1812 had accomplished anything, it had ended Indian power east of the Mississippi once and for all—power which, given America’s rising population and Indian vulnerabilities, could never have held the United States in check in any case.
The impact of the last major battle of the War of 1812 is questionable, and it is a befitting description for a war whose entire legacy is ambiguous. After roughly two and a half years of fighting, the two sides called it quits without resolving any of the issues that had led to war. America’s bid to conquer Canada had failed miserably, with the two sides agreeing to return to the prewar international boundaries. British infringement on U.S. maritime rights at sea, a major irritant that had led the United States to declare war, ended, but only because Britain had defeated Napoleonic France and had no further need to continue these measures. In fact, Britain refused to renounce the right to impose similar hardships on neutrals in the future, although as events turned out it would never apply them against the United States again. After spending over $90 million and suffering over 6,700 battlefield casualties (88 percent of whom came from the Army and militia), the United States thus had little to show for its June 1812 decision to declare war on Great Britain.
If the war neither redrew the map of North America nor established America’s rights to ply the seas free of British harassment, it nevertheless had some important consequences. It cleared the way for further westward expansion by completing the destruction of Tecumseh’s confederacy, and spurred domestic manufacturing. In the military realm, the nation overcame initial missteps to develop viable combat forces led by a new cohort of talented, battle-tested officers. One such officer, Winfield Scott, would dominate U.S. military affairs for another forty years. Early war disasters also sparked reforms, such as the wartime formation of a small General Staff and a postwar revamping of the U.S. Military Academy to produce a more professional officer corps. These and other initiatives came to fruition under the energetic leadership of John C. Calhoun, the secretary of war from 1817 to 1825.
The benefits would be in full evidence several decades later when Scott would lead American arms to victory in the Mexican War of 1846–1848. Wars bring fame to the successful, and as so often happens in American history, some warriors are able to transform battlefield victories into success at the ballot box. Two such men were Maj. Gens. Andrew Jackson and William H. Harrison, who became presidents of the United States in 1829 and 1841, respectively. A third albeit lesser hero of the war, Zachary Taylor, became president in 1849, although his performance in the Mexican War was a greater factor than his 1812 service in propelling him into the presidency. Victory did not always translate into political success, however. Fame from both the War of 1812 and the Mexican War was not sufficient to win the White House for Scott when he ran for president in 1852.
The War of 1812 is often called America’s “Second War for Independence.” This is not literally true, as the United States was never in danger of becoming a British colony again. Yet, there is a grain of truth to the notion, at least in the abstract. Great Britain had never fully implemented the 1783 treaty that had ended the American War of Independence, and it certainly did not treat Americans as equals on the international stage. Early American defeats seemed only to reaffirm in British minds America’s status as a rather uncouth and backward relative. Many Americans also harbored self-doubts, with the burning of Washington, D.C., in August 1814, adding insult to the injuries inflicted by the many embarrassing defeats of the previous two years. But this perception began to change in the summer of 1814, when American arms defied one of the most professional armies in the world at Chippewa, Plattsburgh, and Baltimore.
The victory at New Orleans, fought against a large contingent of British veterans of the Napoleonic War, amplified the successes of the previous year tenfold. The fact that news of Jackson’s victory arrived on the east coast of the United States just before news of the peace treaty convinced many Americans that they had trounced the British and won the war. The Battle of New Orleans thus helped generate a wave of national pride and confidence in the United States that historians would later label the “Era of Good Feelings.” Having shaken thoughts of inferiority and self-doubt, Americans would go forward with optimism and confidence to conquer a continent in the coming decades. Largely ignored in Europe at the time, in retrospect the War of 1812 indicated that the United States was beginning to come of age.