During the early part of the 19th century, the United States remained neutral in the Napoleonic Wars. They traded freely with both the British and the French. American ships seeking trade with Europe faced blockades by the British, who dominated the seas. In addition to preventing trade, the British claimed the right to take British sailors off the American ships upon which they served. Frequently, the British would also take Americans. This practice of impressment became a major grievance and spawned the American battle cry, “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights.”
In June 1812, the United States declared war and invaded Canada with no success. They tried again in 1813 with similar results. By 1814 the United States faced defeat. The British, having defeated Napoleon, began to transfer ships and troops to America. The British would use their sea power to attack the United States in New York to take the Hudson River, in New Orleans to block the Mississippi, and in the Chesapeake Bay to secure the capital of Washington, D.C.