Most of the fighting between the United States and Great Britain occurred along the Canadian border during the War of 1812, but the Gulf of Mexico eventually became another important theater of conflict. To understand the nature of this struggle, one must first understand the importance of the Mississippi River to the United States and the multicultural city of New Orleans.
In 1763, New Orleans passed to Spain as a consequence of France’s defeat in the Seven Years’ War (or, as the conflict’s North American component was known, the French and Indian War). After the United States won its independence from Britain in 1783, the number of Americans moving west of the Appalachian Mountains increased, making access to the river, and particularly the port of New Orleans, of growing interest to the new republic. The Treaty of San Lorenzo, or Pinckney’s Treaty, between the United States and Spain in 1795 seemingly guaranteed American navigation on the Mississippi and access to the Gulf of Mexico. Spain’s agreement to transfer New Orleans and much of the territory west of the Mississippi River to France, however, introduced an element of uncertainty in 1800.
Even though France was a more powerful and active state than Spain at this time, the terms of the Franco-Spanish treaty specifically stated that France could not under any condition transfer its newly acquired lands to an English-speaking country. President Thomas Jefferson nevertheless sent a delegation to Paris to inquire if French leader Napoleon Bonaparte might be willing to sell New Orleans. Fortuitously for the American diplomats, a slave uprising in the Caribbean island colony of Saint-Domingue had drained French resources and diverted Napoleon from building a colonial empire in North America. Moreover, Napoleon needed money to finance an imminent war with Great Britain, a nation whose mighty navy would likely capture New Orleans in any case should war occur. Consequently, in November 1803, Napoleon ignored Spanish protests and sold New Orleans and its associated territories to the United States in what became known as the Louisiana Purchase. Twenty days later, detachments of the U.S. Army and Mississippi territorial militia lowered the French tricolor and raised the Stars and Stripes over New Orleans.
The sale caused relations between Spain and the United States to become difficult. The Spanish considered the sale to be illegal on the grounds that France had promised not to sell the land to an English-speaking country. Moreover, Spain feared further American encroachment into its remaining colonies adjacent to the United States—East and West Florida and Texas. In 1806, disputes along the Sabine River, the border between Spanish Texas and Louisiana, nearly propelled the two nations into war. Napoleon’s 1808 invasion of Spain further weakened the Spanish empire, and the next year, tensions flared again between the United States and Spain in a dispute over the ill-defined boundary of West Florida. American and British settlers living in Spanish territory along the Gulf Coast between the Mississippi and Perdido Rivers rebelled and declared the formation of an independent Republic of West Florida. More trouble followed when the governor of Louisiana Territory, William C. C. Claiborne, denied Spanish access to the Gulf of Mexico through New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain. Spanish authorities countered by hindering traffic on the Mobile River and by denying Americans the use of the river’s port city of Mobile, both important for the economic livelihood of Americans living in what would become the state of Alabama. In response, Claiborne personally led a flotilla of a dozen gunboats to Mobile Bay and threatened to capture the town if the Spanish officials did not relent. The Spanish backed down, but tension remained between a resentful but weak Spain and an American nation that increasingly regarded the acquisition of all of North America as its natural destiny.
By 1812, the United States seemed poised to gain all of Spain’s land along the Gulf Coast with minimal effort. The acquisition of this land would allow the United States to consolidate the gains made over the past decade, hinder the ability of foreign powers to encourage disaffection among the Indian nations in the southeast, and secure opportunities for further western expansion. The outbreak of war between the United States and Great Britain in June of that year dramatically changed the situation, particularly because by this point Spain had become Britain’s ally in the war against Napoleonic France. Britain, like Spain, feared losing its North American territories to American expansionism while it was heavily tied down in Europe fighting Napoleon. Unlike Spain, however, Britain had sufficient sea power to threaten the United States.
Although the defense of Canada was uppermost in their minds, British leaders recognized that they might accrue some advantages by spreading the conflict to America’s Gulf Coast. Harassing actions in the south might divert U.S. troops away from the U.S.-Canadian border. A more substantial offensive to capture New Orleans would require more resources, but would hurt the United States economically and provide Britain with a bargaining chip that it could use during peace negotiations. It would also give Britain the option to curb the further westward expansion of the United States, either by keeping the Louisiana Territory for itself or by returning the land to Spain. Britain was also interested in fostering an independent Native American entity that could block further American expansion. Toward that end, the British had been assisting the Shawnee leader Tecumseh’s bid to create a pan-Indian confederacy that would stretch from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast. Canada provided the means for supporting Tecumseh’s activities in the north; but to assist Tecumseh’s followers in the south—most notably those among the Creek Indians who lived in the area of modern-day Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi—Britain would need a presence on the Gulf Coast, thus offering another incentive for activity in the region. Conversely, all of these reasons made it important for the United States to thwart any British designs on the Gulf Coast.