Paul W. Barada
In addition to commemorating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, this year marks the bicentennial of another, largely forgotten conflict which involved the United Sates. It is the War of 1812. This column isn’t long enough to cover all the noteworthy events of the War of 1812, but there are a few highlights (assuming wars can have “highlights”) of which we should all be aware.
One of the most basic questions to be answered is who fought whom in the War of 1812? The United States declared war on the British Empire, and the war lasted from June 18, 1912 to Feb. 18, 1815. The causes of the war, at least from the American perspective, were trade restrictions imposed by the British as a result of their ongoing war with Napoleon and France, the impressment of American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy (although the British contended that many of those merchant sailors were deserters from the Royal Navy in the first place, British support for American Indian tribes opposing American expansion) and, possibly, our desire to annex Canada to the United States.
Neither country was really ready for a war in North America. The British were totally consumed with the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, and the United States was totally unprepared for war, period. The US started the war with a regular army of only 7,000 men. The Navy had only six frigates and 14 ships of all other types. On the other side, the British had 5,200 men on this continent and its Navy had 34 frigates and 52 other types of vessels aligned against us. By the war’s end, the American army numbered just under 36,000 men, and the British had just over 48,000 troops in North America. So, it wasn’t really a very big war, especially compared to the ongoing war against the French in Europe.
Most historians consider the War of 1812 to have been a draw, with neither side being able to claim victory against the other. Several notable events took place, however, that are generally remembered by most Americans but seldom associated with the War of 1812. For example, right here in Indiana in the fall of 1811, Indiana’s territorial governor William Henry Harrison led U.S. troops to victory in the Battle of Tippecanoe against Indians who were followers of the Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his brother, Tenskwatawa. The defeat of the Indians led them to believe that they needed British help to prevent the further advance of the white man into the Old Northwest Territory.
The British victory at the Battle of Bladensburg in August, 1814 make it possible for them to attack and burn the White House, the Capitol building, and most of the rest of Washington. On the other hand, American victories the same year and in 1815 in New York, Baltimore, and New Orleans turned back three invasion attempts by the British.
As a matter of fact, it was the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor that led Frances Scott Key to write the words of what would become our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” He was being held on one of the British ships in the harbor at the time.
Perhaps most interesting of all was the American victory in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Future president Andrew Jackson commanded the rag-tag American forces, but the battle itself was fought nearly two weeks after the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, had been signed in modern-day Belgium!
Ironically, our neighbors to the north look at the War of 1812 as more important in their history than we do in the United States. Little known battles such as the Battle of Queenston Heights and the Battle of Crysler’s Farm are commemorated as Canadian victories which helped prevent American expansion into their territory. Numerous ceremonies have been held this year to celebrate Canadian victories. Despite a fair number of losses in battle, however, Americans considered the War of 1812 a victory, referring to it as the “second war of independence” against Britain.
It seems safe to conclude that the War of 1812 was, at best, a tie for the Americans and the British. Both Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison went on to become presidents of the United States. The end of the war ushered in an “Era of Good Feelings,” which effectually ended nearly all animosity between the United States and Great Britain. Canada also emerged from the war with a new sense of national identity, having repulsed multiple American invasion attempts, a fact that we seldom recall.
Interestingly enough, the War of 1812 is barely remembered in Britain today, nor do many Americans know much about it. But from the standpoint of an historic event, I would suggest that burning our nation’s capital city, the Battle of New Orleans, the inspiration for the lyrics to our national anthem, the Battle of Tippecanoe right here in Indiana, and the emergence of two future presidents of the United States justify knowing just a little more about an event that changed our history 200 years ago.
That’s -30- for this week.