Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?”, the blog that remembers its war for nationhood.
In this week’s post, we’ll discuss an interesting phenomena occurring this year surrounding the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. In a recent New York Times article, reports abound of a negative public response to the Canadian government’s push for a large anniversary campaign of the War. On the flip side, in an even bigger head-scratcher, the public response to the bicentennial on the American side can be characterized as, “Wait, what’s the War of 1812?”
Great question fellow Americans! I’ll be happy to guide you through what the War of 1812 was, why it’s important to Canada, and why exactly the U.S. should be remembering this tumultuous and uber-important time that determined our fate as a nation.
The Current: No thanks, Harper
This year of 2012, which of course marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s conservative government has spent $28 million on events, advertising, and exhibitions to promote the War and its importance to Canada. Advertisements shout of the heroic defense of Canada from the over-aggressive, young United States. This campaign of talking up Canada’s past military glory has stirred up a great deal of criticism from Canadian historians and pundits as an effort to “politicize history.”
This is because the War of 1812 was actually fought between the United States and Great Britain (Canada was not officially its own country until 1867). Though the United States did invade the border to the North, it was an invasion into territory of a British colony, which of course later became our maple-leafed flag-bearing Northern neighbor. Critics argue that Harper has become increasingly nationalistic and quick to join armed causes, such as when he used an increase in troops to NATOs conflict in Afghanistan.
Though many applaud the government’s effort to publicize a war that is often forgotten, some wonder if this is an effective use of the public coffers given the dire state of public finances in Canada.
On the flip side, the U.S. government has been virtually silent this year about this year’s bicentennial. This should be seen as highly unusual given that the War of 1812 quite nearly extinguished this country’s life as a nation. Bills for the bicentennial have died in Congress, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill for an “1812 commission”, but is spending $450,000 in commemoration money. The one exception is the United States Navy, which is spending $12 million in a 3-year long bicentennial celebration to commemorate the Navy’s heroic efforts in defending the 36 yr old country against the world’s most powerful navy. The Navy also has budget cuts to face, and so may be using the celebration as an event to showcase the Navy’s lasting importance to national defense.
The following describes the causes and major events of the War of 1812, shows why the War is important for Canada, and why the War of 1812 should be taught alongside the Revolutionary War and the Civil War as one of the most important conflicts in our nation’s history, and why it should not be the “Forgotten War.”
Prelude to War: Expansionism and Passion for Patriotism
In the years following American Independence and the ratification of the Constitution, the United States spent a great deal of its efforts to expand its territory. This effort to expand westward was intended to accommodate the growing influx of immigrants and pioneering farmers and settle the land from sea to sea. Many believed that it was the divine destiny of the white christian population to settle the land. Initiatives such as the Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787, which charted the land of 6 future states (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) and more famously, the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, substantially increased the land nominally held by the U.S.
As more people expanded Westward to advance into this territory, they encountered stiff resistance by many different native groups. This resistance was a recurring theme from colonial times, and after independence, war was rehashed consistently between native groups and American settlers (and their backers in the US army).
Native groups realized they would have to coalesce and work to defeat white settlers if they were to retain their land. In 1791, a group of nations under Chief Little Turtle were successful in beating back American militia forces in Ohio, but in 1795, the army was back and defeated Little Turtle at the Battle of Falling Timbers in Ohio, leading to the loss of all of the Ohio territory and half of Michigan.
One of the most famous Indian warriors working to collaborate against white settlement was a Shawnee warrior named Tecumseh. Tecumseh was a powerful speaker who, along with his prophet brother Tenskwatawa, traveled the Midwest and South in the early 1800’s convincing tribes to fight together to keep their land instead of infighting or acquiescence to settlement. Tecumseh received weapons from the British Army in Canada, a common practice for years. In 1811, fearful settlers in Indiana Territory called for the U.S. Army to destroy a main Indian village on the Tippecanoe River and thwart the Indian Confederacy that Tecumseh had worked to create.
The Battle of Tippecanoe as it became known, was a hard-fought battle, with the Americans, led by General William Henry Harrison, eventually repelling a surprise attack by Tecumseh’s forces and burning the Indian Village. Though the battle was more of a stalemate, it cemented Harrison’s status as a war-hero and Indian fighter. The outcome also convinced the British Army in Canada to drop their support of Tecumseh. Despite British withdrawal of support for Indian resistance, anti-British sentiment had been fueled, and war-hawks called for the expulsion of the British from Canada.
In addition to arms support of Indian groups against American expansion, the British had also annoyed the American government by using their navy to capture merchants on the high seas who had deserted the difficult life as a British midshipman. (note: the French Navy engaged in impressment as well).
This process, known as impressment, became an issue beginning in the 1790s and more so into the first decade of the 19th century during the war with France. The British Navy had also interfered with American trade and even blockaded American ports, placing His Majesty’s Navy as a more applicable scapegoat for American hawkishness. Interestingly, there is little evidence to support the oft-cited claim that American merchants were captured from their ships and forced to join the British Navy, yet this was used as a motivating cause for war.
This interference with commercial activity in neutral waters caused the U.S. to institute an embargo (first in 1807 under President Jefferson) and influenced the U.S. to begin war preparations (under President Madison). The influence of war-hawks from the Northwest and South (who had been elected into office in 1810) caused President Madison to ask Congress to declare war on Great Britain on June 4, 1812.
So, the American goal in declaring war on Great Britain was to halt their interference on the high seas and their meddling in American territorial expansion. War-hawks hoped to gain territory in the “old” Northwest and British controlled Canada and Florida. War would be not just between the Americans and British, but against rallying Indian coalitions as well.
In pushing back against British maritime disputes and in seeking to end British support for hostile Indian groups, the declaration of war stoked American patriotism and sovereignty.
The War of 1812: Determining Nationhood
While many people remember this war for the burning of Washington, D.C. by the British in 1814, the War of 1812 should really be remembered more for the aggressiveness of the Americans and the importance of the Navy.
Most of the fighting of the war took place along the Great Lakes region between Detroit and Montreal and was fought primarily via Naval forces. Once the Americans had gained control of Detroit after the Battle of Lake Erie, they made a thrust into Canada and General Harrison was victorious over Tecumseh’s forces in the Battle of the Thames North of Lake Erie in 1813. Tecumseh was killed in the Battle of the Thames, and his death spelled the collapse of the Indian Confederacy.
The Americans then attacked North of the border and burned the Canadian colonial capital of York (now Toronto) including many public buildings and burned the village of Newark (Niagara-on-the-lake). But just as the Americans tasted success in their aggressive push into Canada, the British Army and Canadians repelled the Americans back into the U.S. against remarkable odds. Despite a much smaller and rural population, British/Canadian forces heroically forced Americans back across their border in the campaign to take Montreal and Fort Niagara.
Meanwhile, the British heaved a huge sigh of relief in April of 1814 as Napoleon Bonaparte was overthrown and the British forces concentrated in Europe in the Napoleonic wars could now be transferred to North America. This advantage translated from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes. The British were able to extend their ongoing blockade on Atlantic ports all the way to New England, where they employed their own embargo. The blockade inflicted severe economic damage to the U.S. as shortages in imports and drops in customs duties brought the U.S. Treasury closer to bankruptcy.
In controlling the Atlantic, the British Navy seized control of the Chesapeake and the Potomac River and used this control to launch attacks against Washington, D.C. The British did just that in August of 1814 and burned down the White House, and many government buildings while President Madison and the government retreated to higher ground in Georgetown. The razing of the American capitol was a retaliatory attack for the American burning of the Canadian capital.
In the most dramatic moment (from the American perspective at least) Baltimore effectively defended itself from destruction and British control as Fort McHenry refused to surrender under heavy British bombardment and the British General Robert Ross was killed by two teenage snipers who were picking peaches from a tree!
Meanwhile in the American South, General Andrew Jackson was fighting tooth and nail against any Indian tribe across the South, believing that any Indian was a willing tool in the hands of the British. Though Tecumseh’s confederacy had fallen apart after his death after the Battle of the Thames and the Treaty of Grenville in July 1814 forced the Miami, Seneca, Shawnee, Wyandot, and Delaware Indians to make peace with the U.S., Cherokee and Creek Indians were still allied to protect their land.
Jackson relieved Tennessee militia forces who had suffered defeats against Creek and Cherokee alliances in late 1813 in the Creek Indian War. Jackson’s forces achieved a decisive retaliatory victory in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama in March 1814 effectively destroying further Indian resistance. Later in August 1814, some of the Creek Indians signed the Treaty of Fort Jackson, ceding 2/3 of their land in Georgia and 3/5 of modern day Alabama (23 million acres of land).
Jackson pressed on into Spanish Florida, taking Pensacola’s main fort, and then turned towards New Orleans in November 1814. In the manner of a conqueror, Jackson imposed martial law on the city and rushed his main forces from Baton Rouge down the Mississippi. Meanwhile, the British had brought 7500 soldiers in a 50 ship fleet from the Caribbean, setting up for an attack. After two small skirmishes and bombardments around the city that were stalemates, the Americans scored a surprisingly overwhelming victory in the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815 with only 21 casualties to 2036 for the British.
The victory made Jackson a national hero, influencing New Orleans’ ranking Catholic priest to compare Old Hickory to a gift from God:
“It is Him we intend to praise, when considering you, General, as the man of His right hand…. Immortal thanks be to His Supreme Majesty, for sending us such an instrument if His bountiful designs!”
But, as it turned out, history and 1814 communications technology had a sense of irony, at least for the participants of the Battle of New Orleans, for the Battle was of no consequence. In Belgium, American and British peace commissioners had signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814 ending the War of 1812, but it took until February 11 for the news to reach America, and until February 17 for Congress to ratify the treaty so hostilities on the continent and the high seas continued a month and a half after peace was official!
Despite all the effort, money spent, and lives lost, the War of 1812 ended largely in a stalemate with little accomplished in terms of solving the existing diplomatic issues: The Treaty of Ghent did not solve the maritime issues of trade and blockades, nor the control of the Great Lakes, nor was a Northwestern territory for an Indian buffer state (a British idea) discussed.
Conclusion: Oh… so that’s why we forgot about this war
So the War was a big draw? There was nothing accomplished and everything stayed the same?
Well, not exactly.
While the U.S. was blocked from expanding into Canada and maritime disputes remained unresolved with Great Britain, the Americans did gain significant control over inland territory by destroying Indian tribal alliances through brutal campaigns in the American South and Northwest territory. These advances against native resistance also cemented the status of Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison as war heroes/Indian slayers, and later became the 7th and 9th presidents, respectively. Consequently, native groups suffered great losses of life and land and were forced to either move or adjust their lifestyles.
The War was not a universally agreed upon resolution to the issues with Great Britain. The merchant economy of New England had severely opposed the war and the embargo as it hampered their maritime business with their largest trading partner, Great Britain. In a secret convention in Hartford, Connecticut in December 1814, 26 Federalist anti-war delegates met and adopted a series of states rights proposals and constitutional amendments covering embargoes, military spending, and apportionment of taxes. While the convention did not adopt a measure to secede from the Union, some Federalist delegates from New England did want to secede their anti-war views were so vehement. When word leaked that Federalist delegates supported secession, the public outcry was so great that the Federalist party fell out of favor and was never again elected to power.
So, the War of 1812 gets lost in the shadows in American history because of its uncertain outcome (it was pretty much a tie), it as an American military disaster (Wash. D.C. burnt, territorial gains negligible) its complicated origins (from maritime common law disputes to expansionist desires), and its messy, present politically unpalatable events (slaughters of Native Americans and land conquests).
But that doesn’t mean that we should forget this campaign. The War of 1812 is often referred to as the “Second War for American Independence” because quite literally, the possibility existed for Great Britain to retake their former colony by force. Also, it was a war that drew our national identity. At the time, the War of 1812 was heavily celebrated as a cause for liberty and of utmost importance for the national interest. Victories by the Americans were hailed as glorious and virtuous (in contrast to their bloody reality), and enemies in Britain were portrayed as demeaning, freedom-snuffing, inhumane brutes, while Indian tribes were derided as savages and inhuman. This unrealistic portrayal of war and embellishment of events promoted patriotism, nationalism, and national enemies; making the War of 1812 a war for the nation of the United States.
But we should remember 200 years later that:
- It was the Americans who had declared War on Great Britain
- The United States was able to do enough not to be retaken
- it showed the world that the United States was a power that was not to be pushed around on the high seas
- The U.S. was country capable of expanding their territory.
- By declaring war legally through a constitutional process, by issuing war bonds to pay for the war, and by using national armed forces, the United States had fought a “War for Nationhood.”
Finally, Americans should remember the War of 1812 as instrumental in displaying the need for a strong Navy. From the Great Lakes to Lake Champlain to the Gulf of Mexico, the War of 1812 was fought and controlled by Navies to a great extent. Without a strong Navy, the U.S. learned, their own sovereignty and future control of territory would be in jeopardy.
From the Canadian perspective, a great deal of celebration was in store due to their expulsion of the Americans after their capital was burned and border invaded. Canada emerged with its own set of heroes and martyrs such as Isaac Brock and Laura Secord. Though Canada was a British colony at the time, it was still of its own unique makeup and development. That’s why the defense of Canada in the War of 1812 is and should be remembered as a Canadian victory, not a British stand. Hence Prime Minister Harper’s effort to hype up the War during the bicentennial.
Well, I hope you learned a bit about the War and please celebrate the bicentennial safely… the rocket’s red glare should be handled with gloves.
Until the next Fort McHenry,
Your Faithful Historian,
Eric G. Prileson
Sources and Further Reads:
The Almanac of American History, edited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
The Young People’s History of the United States, James Ciment
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, Jon Meacham
The Causes of the War of 1812: National Honor or National Interest, Edited by Bradford Perkins.
1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism, Nicole Eustace