What I Learned About The War Of 1812

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Pursuer of happiness. Bon vivant. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. There's a Twitter account at @burtlikko, but not used for posting on the general feed anymore. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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67 Responses

  1. Rose says:

    I am seriously impressed that you remember all that from high school. I knew it was against the British but forgot why. I remembered when I read your post. I knew the Battle of Baltimore yielded the national anthem, and that the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the war had ended. I forgot that it was Andrew Jackson. The White House getting burned down was foggy but there in the recesses of my mind.

    When I got a new license plate, it was commemorating the war of 1812. I was kind of surprised, as that’s not normally a war we get all commemorate-y about.Report

  2. Tom Van Dyke says:

    the timbre of our politicians hasn’t really changed all that much between then and now.

    Mr. Madison’s War? James Fishing Madison!!!??

    Exc post, Burt. But could we suffer Britain repossessing our citizens, our sailors, as though American citizenship were moot, our young men were still subject to and subjects of the Crown??

    Unthinkable, even if we were underequipped to win the war. Which we was.

    Hell, we were underequipped to even lose it. But just as the first time when the mother country allowed us our independence—rather than mercilessly slaughter and squash us, as she did with the woggish of other conquered climes—Britain’s heart just wasn’t in it.

    Better and much more fun to go squish the Frogs.

    The Treaty of Ghent had been signed on December 24, 1814
    The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday, 18 June 1815Report

    • North in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      I learned (in Canada) that the causes of the war were considerably more muddled. The bigger issue for the British was a question of trade rather than impressments. The British were engaged in a life or death struggle with Napoleon (who was considered somewhat of the Hitler of the era*). A very large component of this war was a question of trade with both the British and the French trying to embargo each other to death. For the British, especially with their small island nation and ocean trade networks, the embargo question was primary. The Americans of course (being neutral) just wanted to make money off the whole mess and were incensed that the British wouldn’t let them trade with the French. On top of it of course when the short staffed Royal Navy was holding up these American Ships they’d do a check of the crew for deserting British sailors. Since Americans shared a language with the British their merchant ships were prime spots for deserting British sailors to get work. Of course the British would take these deserters back (and I’ve read also when they were short on men anyone who sounded British and couldn’t positively prove they were American) and of course the Americans cast this as having their own citizens being shanghaied to a foreign war.

      On the ocean side of things the Americans won some great moral victories at sea (usually with brand new volunteer crewed ships up against war worn draft crewed ships that ostensibly were equivalent on paper). Eventually when the RN could free up the ship power they shut down the entire American cost and blockaded the nation from Florida to Nova Scotia (a lot of colleges in Nova Scotia were funded from privateer funds created from harvesting the fat of the American merchant trade during that time).

      On the land side of things the Indians, a small force of British regulars and a lot of militia thumped the green and muddled American force and eventually captured Detroit (it was given back later, proof positive that even then the Canadians and English were prescient). Also an American attack on Quebec was a massive failure, mainly because the protestant English speaking Americans thought that the Catholic French Speaking Quebecois would greet them as liberators (perhaps an ancestor of W’s was working in the foreign office at the time).

      Of course when the Napoleonic war ended the British invasions of America were much more of a mess. Even then America was no tiny nation so boxing across the Atlantic was a bit much, especially since the British really just wanted the Americans to behave themselves not submit to British rule. Still it was an important war for North America; it made the Americans feel much more unified and it arguably was the birth of the Canadian national spirit.

      *That is to say by anyone but the French. History has been kinder (and IMHO deservedly so) but he was still quite a power hungry war monger.Report

      • North in reply to North says:

        Odd.. didn’t mean to plonk that all down on top o’ you Tom. Sorry.Report

      • Nat in reply to North says:

        “Eventually when the RN could free up the ship power they shut down the entire American cost and blockaded the nation from Florida to Nova Scotia (a lot of colleges in Nova Scotia were funded from privateer funds created from harvesting the fat of the American merchant trade during that time).”

        Actually, while privateering was profitable, allowing the black market to operate was even more so. Nova Scotia likely fared better in this era of history than any other since European colonization, even the subsequent World Wars. Given the convergence of location and circumstance, it was the perfect place for the trade of American foodstuffs for British manufactured goods. It also helped that there were familial connections between Nova Scotian Planters and Loyalists and New England to facilitate trade activity, which in the future, would have been subverted by more formalistic relationships.Report

        • North in reply to Nat says:

          Oh yes quite so Nat. The northern New Englanders were extremely English sympathetic at this time so there was an utter ton of trade to Nova Scotia from Maine and Mass. But even for Maine and Mass if the destination was anything further than Nova Scotia their goods got seized just like every other states.Report

      • Pierre Corneille in reply to North says:


        You’re right about the trade issues, and I would add that Jefferson and later Madison threatened to cut off trade, and TJ tried to cut off trade, with the UK both because of its impressment policies and because of its blockade of France.

        The fight against Indians and the western expansion that fight implied, was also a major inspiration for the war of 1812. The Indian nations of what is today the Midwest were trying to play the UK and the US against each other, and Americans’ belief, sometimes justified, that the UK subsidized these nations with arms and manned forts in the area, also played into the clamor for war. Along these lines, one thing to add about Jackson being a war hero is that his victory played into his later invasion of portions of Spanish-held northern Florida, which extended farther west than it does today, in order to “tame” Indian populations.Report

      • Fnord in reply to North says:

        There were, as I learned, several other issues of “paper equivalency” that tended to make American ships superior to the their British “equivalents”, especially the ones they actually faced.

        The US Navy was well aware that they couldn’t put together a real line of battle, at least not one that could stand up to the Royal Navy. So, instead of ships of the line, they built ships that were “frigates” in the sense that they were designed to run away from ships of the line, but nevertheless were heavier and better armed than the British frigates they were expected to face.Report

    • Poor Wellington’s veterans.

      He really could’ve used those hardened veterans at Waterloo, which were instead chewed to pieces by Jackson at New Orleans.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      The Treaty of Ghent had been signed on December 24, 1814
      The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday, 18 [January] 1815

      I think of that as an application of Relativity: Event A precedes event B if and only if information originating at A can reach B. The limiting case of that is the speed of light, but in 1815 the speed of sailing ships was more on point.Report

    • Mr. Madison’s War? James Fishing Madison!!!??

      I’ve been thinking about this for a while. And I think I have to conclude that as strong and important as Madison was during the Convention, during the Ratification, as the sponsor of the Bill of Rights (a role about which he was personally ambiguous), and as Jefferson’s Secretary of State… well, I’m less impressed with his Presidency than the rest of that.

      The unnecessary and inconclusive War of 1812 was the high point of Madison’s Presidency; he waffled on the biggest issues of his day (the Bank of the United States, Indian rights, and slavery). He enjoyed weaker relations with what should have been a friendlier Congress than it was; he was denied his choice of Secretaries of State and relied too heavily and defended too long too many people who were in over their heads in both the civilian and military sectors of government. He followed, rather than led, the sentiments of the nation from isolationism to a bid at empire back to isolation.

      Not that he was a bad President, he just wasn’t a great one. I’d rank him in proximity to Eisenhower, Taft, and McKinley; that comparison is not intended as an insult but it puts him well below Lincoln, Washington, both Roosevelts. The deeds for which he deserves high honor were all behind him before he assumed the Oval Office. In 1789 he was a man ahead of his time. By 1812, he had become a man of his times.Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Two awesome bits of trivia (IMO) about Madison:

        – One of only two Presidents to command troops in the field while in office.

        – His wife, Dolley, was the first First Lady to be photographed (though this was about 30 years after she left the White House). There’s a good photo here:


        Girlfriend used to hang out with friggin’ Thomas Jefferson. And you can stare into her eyes in that photo. That literally gives me goosebumps.Report

  3. Nob Akimoto says:

    An interesting side point was that the US Navy would have been in better shape to fight off the British cruiser fleet if they hadn’t been summarily dismantled by Jefferson during his administration. Interesting, too, because the Federalist Fleet that had been assembled during that period might not have been enough to defeat the British (there is something to be said of the folly of fighting against a 120 frigate fleet) but given the stretched resources of the Royal Navy at the time, it could’ve held out much better. Stoddert’s initial naval plan for example for 12 ships of the line and 13 frigates, was about as powerful as the North American squadron of 1812 was, with the advantage of being able to be concentrated and manned by volunteers. They could have done something similar to what the Navy did against France during the Quasi-War, which would be to concentrate their forces and hit at the colonial trade in the Caribbean or around Halifax.

    It was James Madison’s Democratic Republicans who pushed for the Peace Establishment Act which limited the Navy to a paltry handful of frigates.

    As for Impressment, that was a more complicated issue, since there were a good number of British (Irish in particular) sailors finding shelter in American ships.Report

    • James K in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      The impressment issue seems like a case where Old World and New World conceptions of citizenship clashed. To the British every British-born sillier was one of theirs, whereas the American government would have considered those same sailers as American, at least if the sailers claimed to be American.Report

      • North in reply to James K says:

        Yeah you gotta keep in mind that there wasn’t really much of any sort of immigration control in America at the time. If you set up shop in America or on an American craft and said you were American you pretty much were one.Report

        • Pierre Corneille in reply to North says:

          In response to the impressment controversies, which stretched back to the 1790s, the US did try to control immigration and establish a way to certify that its sailors were US citizens, a process that culminated in the law passed in 1813 (in the midst of the war). These attempts were partially a mechanism by which the US to credibly claim that its merchant marine employed US citizens not subject to impressment.

          A lot of problems with this. As James K. pointed out, the UK took the position that “born a British subject, always a British subject [with exceptions dating from formal UK recognition of the US in 1783].” Also, until the 14th Amendment, the definition of *national* citizenship was opaque and difficult to pin down. The immigration act of 1789 (1790?), the Alien Acts, and the 1813 Seaman’s Law tried to address these issues, but much of it was unclear and inconsistent, and remained so, until the 14th amendment.Report

    • Anderson in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      I feel like both the embargo issue and this issue–the dismantling of the navy–, not to mention the whole war in general, were huge motivators behind the New England Federalists’ secession ideas. The Hartford Convention and all that. That’s another interesting side story of the War of 1812 that no one talks about…The Southern state weren’t the only ones that wanted out of the good ol’ U S of A during our nation’s history.Report

  4. Stephan Cooper says:

    In Canada I learned this version:

    – The American government was ticked off with British press gangs and sought retribution by seizing Canada. A long with the surface casus belli there was an under-current of American thought that smarted over failing to take the other British colonies in the Revolution which they felt were a nature part of their union. Thus the American government thought conquering Canada would be easy. All they’d have to do was march in (and be greeted as liberators).

    – Isaac Brock was the British commander in Upper Canada formed an alliance with the Shawnee chief Tecumseh. Their friendship and partnership created an effective combined force of British regulars and native warriors that had a number of successes in the early war. Notably the early pre-emptive strike on Fort Detroit were the psychological impact of his native allies was exploited to convince the poorly led Americans to surrender from a strongly position despite having superior numbers. This early victory inspired both Native American and local proto-Canadians to resist in the face of American numerical superiority.

    -Unfortuantely for the British-Canadian side Issac Brook died in a successful counter-attack at the battle of Queenston Heights. His successors weren’t as competent and didn’t work nearly as effective with the Native allies.

    – The local population was largely indifferent to the American’s to start as they were largely American colonists. However opposition to the American invader sharpened as the war dragged on.

    – The war continued to drag on for 3 years with American’s holding generally the advantage but not able to hold ground due to their poor supply situation and the militia nature of their army.

    – Laura Secord is important for some reason as a Canadian Heroine and Patriot. Something to do with spying on the Americans occupying her house and running off to tell the closest Canadian garrison to spill the beans. For some reason 2 centuries later there are chocolates made in her image.

    – American’s burned down the local capitol building in York (Toronto). Towards the end of the war when the British were temporarily done with Napoleon and free to really commit to the fight they attacked Washington. The President’s mansion got burned in retaliation for York and because of the new paint job it became known as the White House.

    -War ended with the status quo with nothing really changing. But the Canadians win on points because they got attacked and successfully defended themselves.

    – Natives suffered a lot of defeats and a bunch moved to Canada were Canadians were somewhat dickish to them but treated them better than they were by the Americans.

    – War lead to the first real sense of any kind of national identity amoung the English Canadian population.Report

  5. George Turner says:

    American privateers did better than the Army and Navy, capturing 1300 British ships and 30,000 prisoners versus 254 ships and 6,000 prisoners captured by the regular military. The privateers had 20 times as many ships and 5 times as many guns as the US Navy and were raiding the shipping between England and Ireland, impetuously threatening a blockade of Britain. Most sailed out of Baltimore, which is why Baltimore was the target of a combined British attack force in 1814 (Washington DC was not their primary target).

    Thomas Boyle, captain of the Baltimore clipper Chasseur, famously had a proclaimation posted at Lloyd’s Coffee House in London.

    PROCLAMATION: Whereas, It has become customary with the admirals of Great Britain, commanding small forces on the coast of the United States, particularly with Sir John Borlaise Warren and Sir Alexander Cochrane, to declare all the coast of the said United States in a state of strict and rigorous blockade without possessing the power to justify such a declaration or stationing an adequate force to maintain said blockade; I do therefore, by virtue of the power and authority in me vested (possessing sufficient force), declare all the ports, harbors, bays, creeks, rivers, inlets, outlets, islands, and seacoast of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in a state of strict and rigorous blockade.

    It went on, and caused insurance rates to go up dramatically. He seized 17 British ships before returning.

    The US is one of the few countries that never agreed to eliminate privateering, and the President still retains the power to grant letters of marque and reprisal to any private vessel that mounts sufficient firepower.Report

  6. Kazzy says:

    …there was a War of 1812…? Did we win? Who’d we fight? When was it?Report

  7. Rose says:

    Did you all learn this in high school, or more recently?Report

  8. Maribou says:

    I don’t remember learning this in high school (we spent a lot more time on the conflicts between the British and the French, maybe because we were using a Quebec curriculum?), but here’s what I like telling my student workers before I start training them on Library of Congress call numbers:

    A long time ago, in this very country, y’all started A WAR against Canada. Which was full of British soldiers at the time. And they marched down and BURNT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE. AND THEN, they burnt down the newly-fledged Library of Congress. Luckily for you, Thomas Jefferson happened to have more than 3000 books in his own library, and through either the kindness of his own heart or pecuniary interest, he offered to sell them all to Congress to start a new library. Congress eagerly accepted, and so Thomas Jefferson’s own personal interests and priorities (and his love for an EVEN OLDER dude named Francis Bacon) are at the kernel of how we organize books in this library today. Obviously we’ve made a lot of changes since then, but if you are wondering why there is an entire top-level letter for naval history, while almost all of our books about African-American history and culture are crammed into the E185s?


    Then I start talking about Sandy Berman and other activist catalogers, and have to reign myself in and get back to the actual training. #librarygeekReport

    • George Turner in reply to Maribou says:

      We could take revenge by burning the capitol of Canada, but we’re not exactly sure where it is. Montreal maybe? Regardless of heretofore successful Canadian attempts to obscure the location of their capital city, in the event of renewed conflict I’m sure Obama could Google up the phone number of the President of Canada and threaten him with the wrath of all 57 United States. We know he’s somewhere to our north, above the line where the arctic air masses cross onto our weather maps. We would eventually find him, assuming his name and picture are posted online somewhere, and our government agencies are very good at finding things posted online.

      Plus, some of our TV news folks and actors are from Canada and would probably spill the beans, telling us everything we need to know about where your government is located and who is in charge.Report

      • I believe you’re looking for Bytowne.Report

      • johny in reply to George Turner says:

        Oops, too late! …the whole motive for burning Washington was in retaliation for the U.S. having already burned down Toronto (then called York), provincial capital of Ontario (then ‘Upper Canada’) Think of the Washington raid as a Canuck Dolittle Raid…

        No federal capital until at all until a fed gov was created in 1867… mainly to organize 1812-redux guerilla militia against a Union Army everyone presumed would be marching north next, to repay Brit/Canadian support for the Confederacy. If the (first) Johnson administration hadn’t been hamstrung by his impeachment, methinks that’s quite likely what he would have done, what with “Manifest Destiny” and all.

        …and that fed capital which Canada selected (over the jealous objections of Montreal, Toronto and Kingston)? Some logging camp up north in the middle of utter nowhere, Ottawa, chosen specifically to be hard for invading Americans to find…

        Which judging from @Turner, was a spot-on strategy.Report

  9. A Teacher says:

    I vaguely remember something about this from HS though honestly our HS curriculum broke up American History into several courses, all following eras, and none of them really doing much with pre 1820’s.

    In a world history class my professor described the War of 1812 from the US perspective as “But we wanna be Imperial powers TOO!! WAAAHHH”Report

  10. Dbrown says:

    Captured Baltimore? You need to read history – the British regular army was stopped and defeated outside Baltimore City by Maryland Militia (and the Brit’s lost their commanding General, too.) The British considered attacking Baltimore after regrouping but feared the Maryland fighters and realized that they faced a dangerous defeat so they decided to take the city by water. That started the attack on Fort protecting the city – it guns didn’t have the range but as long as it stood, the British fleet couldn’t enter the city’s harbor. After pounding the fort with everything they had, they realized that it would not fall. The British were forced to run away and admit defeat. There are not many examples of a militia force facing regulars and winning. This was, without a doubt, the greatest victory the US achieved in that war.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Dbrown says:

      Please re-read the intro. I lay my ignorance bare for all to see as this ignorance is precisely the point of the point post. I recapped in the post what I remembered from high school, more than 25 years ago. It just might be that I remembered it wrong since, well, it wasn’t a particularly deep study to begin with (sort of the point of the post) and it was a long time ago.

      As I understand it, the same war is taught in rather great depth in Canada, with the same sort of intensity with which U.S. kids are taught about the Revoutionary War, and for a similar reason — for each nation, the respective wars were the basis upon which their national identities were forged.Report

      • Dbrown in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Sorry, did not mean to say it as I did – we all read history and that was a minor war that both sides never really wanted to deal with. So, getting most of the details correct is the main point of learning, which you did well. Just that the Battle of Baltimore is often given one line in most history books at best (or just ignored completely relative to the battle of Fort Mchenry) and it was the only major US victory scored in that war and had the unheard of honor of US irregulars defeating a fierce, battle harden professional force! So it tends to be a sore point for me for just how US historians overlook it. Yet these same people give far more detail/time every time on the battle of New Orleans that didn’t even occur during the war … .Report

      • Nat in reply to Burt Likko says:

        “As I understand it, the same war is taught in rather great depth in Canada, with the same sort of intensity with which U.S. kids are taught about the Revoutionary War, and for a similar reason — for each nation, the respective wars were the basis upon which their national identities were forged.”

        I think that the First World War actually has the better claim to being the ‘unifying’ Canadian war than the War of 1812. The three regions (modern Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic provinces) were politically and geographically isolated, each formed under specific historical circumstances from specific population movements. The War didn’t forge a common consensus, nor did it substantively affect the governance structure. The peoples in the Atlantic provinces simply were not Canadians in any meaningful sense.Report

        • Maribou in reply to Nat says:

          Yeah, my sense is that Ontarians were taught about it in great depth, and maybe other provinces where they derive(d) their history curricula from the Ontarian ones? As an Atlantic provinces kid in French-language history classes, we barely touched on it (passing reference to aftereffects of the American revolution, which we studied mostly in terms of inmigration and outmigration from the Maritimes, in conjunction with stuff like the Louisiana purchase and the Acadian expulsion). I know way more about the refusal of the French to trade Guadeloupe for Quebec, or Confederation, or the conscription crisis during WW1…

          Insofar as there are more Ontarians than anyone else, the net effect may still be that most Canadians get a lot of depth about it, but that’s not my experience. If I were looking to id an (English) Canadian historical mythos, I’d probably start here (and notice that stuff like the Avro Arrow and Emily Carr get as much weight as the war of 1812 does).Report

          • Nat in reply to Maribou says:

            “If I were looking to id an (English) Canadian historical mythos, I’d probably start here (and notice that stuff like the Avro Arrow and Emily Carr get as much weight as the war of 1812 does).”

            I have never participated in something more indelibly Canadian than quoting Heritage Minute commercials. I can be anywhere in the world, and if there are Canadians of a similar age, the quotes will come flying. For all their historical inaccuracies, they accomplished what their makers sought to accomplish, at least in English Canada.Report

            • North in reply to Nat says:

              Burnt Toast!
              I shall reply from the mouth of my cannon.
              Responsible government, it’s a Canadian idea (pity that).
              But I’m sure it means the village…Report

            • wardsmith in reply to Nat says:

              Here’s a Heritage Minute about Secord. There was a recent kerfuffle in the WSJ when the wife of the Ft. Niagra museum said Secord took a “Sunday walk”. She was comparing her to an American woman who fled 300 miles after the fall of the fort, but she picked on the wrong heroine – the Canadians were quite upset.

              I wish Americans had Heritage Minutes, but no doubt with all the political correctness here I’d see history I wouldn’t even recognize.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to wardsmith says:

                no doubt with all the political correctness here I’d see history I wouldn’t even recognize.

                Maybe that’s because all the history you do recognize is already politically correct.

                Political correctness as it’s understood by conservatives is a new term for an old phenomenon. Accounts of historical events have always been revised to serve the interests of the writer, either directly or indirectly. Often this happens in real time, eg, US forces were referred to as “liberators” in the most recent war in Iraq. The PC movement really took hold for conservatives when they turned the tables on liberals who advocated for less offensive terms by implying that liberals were imposing a constructed – and distorted – view of social events on them. To some extent, the criticism extends to accusations PC revisions of history. A liberal looks at those efforts as corrections. The opposite of political correctness.

                From my pov, conventionally accepted US history is (or certainly was, until recently) defined by political correctness. For example, the conventionally accepted idea that our Founders were saintly benevolent patriarchs – Fathers! – guided only by noble concern over their citizen-children when they convened.

                Granted, there were wise, well read, and very smart white male land-owners in attendance. But the idea that they weren’t primarily motivated by naked self-interest is what I would call politically correct nonsense.Report

              • Burt Likko in reply to wardsmith says:

                I wish Americans had Heritage Minutes, but no doubt with all the political correctness here I’d see history I wouldn’t even recognize.

                Even with political correctness we’d be better off. At least people would be aware of stuff, and people who thought the story was slanted or incomplete could offer their own rebuttal. More education is more betta’.

                Good for Canada for doing Heritage Minutes. Shame on us for not.Report

        • Jonathan McLeod in reply to Nat says:

          WWI definitely has held more of a reputation of Canada building a national identity than the War of 1812 (and remember, no ‘Canada’ in 1812 only the Canadas). It was the war where we punched above our weight.

          However, it was not terribly unifying. The Conscription Crisis is but one major case of farncophone/anglophone hostility.Report

          • Nat in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:

            Unification is a nuanced concept. The First World War didn’t produce a singular identity for Canadians, but it did unify the population insomuch that it produced a common set of questions concerning the Canadian project. Indeed, I think the conscription issue became part of a ‘Canadian’ dilemma – and that sense of a shared dilemma didn’t exist before.Report

  11. Chris says:

    I dated a woman, many years ago, who was (still is, as I’ve just looked her up) an historian of the War of 1812. I learned more about that war during the period of our relationship than I did about her, which may or may not be saying a lot. I still own several books on it, though. Yes, there actually are several books on the subject.Report

    • Chris in reply to Chris says:

      I should say she was really an historian of early-19th century America, but all I really cared about early-19th century America was the war, so to me, she was an historian of the war.Report

      • Nat in reply to Chris says:

        This has happened to me (and I’m sure most historians), quite a few times. I consciously avoided writing about the War of 1812 because I felt unqualified to examine anything beyond political factors. I regarded wars as the domain of military historians, and I was only too happy to avoid them where possible.

        Of course, telling someone that debates over the merits of public education were far more critical to defining their region than a war is a tough sell.Report

    • Pierre Corneille in reply to Chris says:

      One summer, I did research for a historian who was researching the war of 1812.Report

  12. BlaiseP says:

    The War of 1812 was inevitable, from both sides, British and American. The practical end of the Revolutionary War, Cornwallis’ defeat at Yorktown, was largely courtesy of the French fleet of Comte de Grasse. The British people were sick of the war and Parliament put an end to it, not so much from any substantive defeat but from internal discontent.

    The Revolutionary War had been a sideshow to a much larger war in the Caribbean between the French and the British. With the advent of the French Revolution, all previous geopolitical arrangements and axioms were moot. The Bourbons were out of power, Napoleon’s armies were on the march, every royal sphincter was clenched and nobody knew quite what to think.

    The New World was in play again. The British, as others have observed, were still playing fuckfuck to the west, fighting a proxy war against the Americans as the French had done against the British (and the proto-Americans) back in the 1750s. Well, so were the Americans: George Washington came in for censure in every court in Europe when one of his Native American allies put a tomahawk into a French prisoner’s head. Beyond the Alleghenies, out into the Ohio River valley, things got mighty weird.

    The French and Indian Wars had ended with the British ceding the Ohio River valley to the Native Americans. This predisposed the native peoples to side with the British against the Americans after the Revolutionary War. The native peoples were trapped between mutually hostile forces they could not control, including other tribes. But in those forests, no European moved with impunity. The roots of the War of 1812 are firmly grounded in those alliances: the war at sea might as well have been a different war, fought for different causes entirely. Everyone wanted control of the rivers of North America, the French, the British, the Spanish and the Americans.

    Others have observed the War of 1812 was largely a stalemate. Though there were no winners, there were losers. The Native Americans were big losers of the War of 1812. The War of 1812 would set in motion the vilest episode in American history, a genocidal war against the native peoples, especially in the South.Report

  13. Mike Dwyer says:

    In Kentucky we also learned that Jackson would have gotten his butt kicked without our rifles.


  14. As requested, here’s what I learned (and I learned about the war prior to high school, maybe around grade 6 – I really can’t remember – I really can’t remember when):

    The United States, having recently defeated the British to gain independence, invaded British North America for myriad reasons (I did not learn about all the trade issues and maritime laws until much much later). The invasion of the Canadas was meant to either take the colonies away from Britain, or to cause Britain significant pain to solve the problems .

    Although the US attacked British North America, the battle centred around Upper and Lower Canada (the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, respectively, today), and mostly with Upper Canada. There had been a hope by the US that Lower Canada, still ticked about being conquered by the British, would join forces to thump the Limey devils.

    That did not happen. French Canadians were none too enthused about British rule, but they weren’t champing at the bit to join a future that would include the Kardashians, an annoying Yankee-Red Sox rivalry (if they had, maybe we’d still have the Expos) or Big East basketball (well, they kinda screwed themselves on that last one), thus, they half-heartedly supported BNA in the conflict.

    BNA forces were made up primarily of British soldiers, some local militia and some of the local tribes. The support from the First Nations was invaluable.

    There was much back-and-forth along the border, but the British got the greatest push into their opponent’s territory (surprisingly, there was no grand Battle of Iqualuit). In the end the border stayed pretty much as it always was, and, because of the war, was more certain than ever (at least between the US and the Canadas, I think out West there would still be more fluctuation, but we didn’t really talk about that).

    Upper and Lower Canada were saved from the invading hordes by General Brock (who has monuments and a town named after him) and Laura Secord (who has chocolate named after her… if you’ve been to Brockville, you might argue that Secord got the better legacy).

    There was not too much talk of the resolution of the underlying conflicts. The lessons weren’t really framed in the greater conflict; they were more specifically about the war.

    Ok, that being said, a few other things:

    I grew up in Ontario and, as mentioned, Upper Canada was the prime battleground, both literally and figuratively, so lessons were given from the perspective of Upper Canada – and not necessarily in a slanted way, just, perhaps a myopic way. If you were living in Upper Canada (and loyal to the British), you would have seen an invasion by a foreign nation that wasn’t specifically aimed at you, but at your colonial master. This is why any questions asking whether the British or the U.S. won is flawed. There were three main parties (I’m leaving aside the First Nations issue right now, because that’s a much bigger discussion) to the war. BNA was a definite victor, because we repelled an invasion (and we weren’t a main party to the underlying conflict). The British, however, probably came in third, if we’re ranking. They didn’t gain extra land; they didn’t get revenge for the revolution; and they didn’t win the underlying battle (and from what I have read, they were in the wrong there, anyway). The result for the US is maybe a little more mixed, but props for not being overrun by the Brits.

    The War of 1812 was always given some historical significance in Canada, but this year, with the commemoration, it is really being trumped up. History classed never focused on it as much, because the battles between the French and English were far more defining as a nation (the Plains of Abraham being probably the most important battle in our nation’s history). Then, there were popular uprisings in the Canadas in the 1830s, and, later, rebellions in Manitoba (by the Metis, led by Louis Riel).

    The other day, I read an interesting column arguing that the victory in the War of 1812 was, in the long run, a huge loss for Canada. According to this columne, leading up to the war, most of the Canada’s population (at least Upper Canada) were Americans, and not United Empire Loyalists, just a bunch of dudes who liked living above the 49th. The war created and entrenched a real anti-American sentiment, which also led to a real anti-democracy sentiment, more protectionism, limited immigration… all of which kept the nation economically and culturally stagnant for a long time. I don’t know how much of this is a true assessment, but it seems reasonable.

    I also heard an historian on the news the other day refer to the War of 1812 as the first time that Canada came to define herself… by defining herself as not-American. And she said this as if it was a good thing. The ‘we’re-not-Americans’ self-definition is one of the most annoying things about the Canadian culture (similar to all the boasting about how humble and nice we are).

    All that being said, I’ll probably still make jokes about burning down the White House (shoot, if I do that, I’ll probably be barred from crossing the border and never get to attend a Leaguefest).Report