The War of 1812, still seeking a little respect


Tom Freeman's painting of the August 24, 1814 burning of the White House by British troops during the War of 1812. (White House Historical Association)

You will be forgiven for not noticing that the bicentennial of the War of 1812 is nearing full swing.

No such dispensation could be granted for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, of course, as it is impossible to miss the armies of reenactors, the newspaper special sections, the magazine covers, the Civil War travel packages — all this, even though sesquicentennial has none of the zing of bicentennial.

Other anniversaries are much in the news. On Memorial Day, President Obama kicked off the 13-year commemoration planned for the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. The 100th anniversary of the sinking of a ship (admittedly, the Titanic) and the 60th anniversary of a queen (British, no less!) have drawn mountains of publicity in comparison to the War of 1812.

It gets no respect, this Rodney Dangerfield of American wars.

Some 36 percent of Americans say there were no significant outcomes to the War of 1812, or if there were any, they could not name them, according to a recent poll by the Canadian research firm Ipsos Reid for the Historica-Dominion Institute.

While 17 percent of Canadians consider the War of 1812 the most important war in the formation of their nation’s identity, only 3 percent of Americans feel the same way. (True, Americans have a lot more wars to choose from than Canadians.)

Historians duel over which deserves the title of most obscure major American war, Korea or 1812. Clay Blair titled his fine 1987 history of Korea “The Forgotten War”; Donald Hickey, one of 1812’s foremost scholars, countered two years later with “The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict.” (J. MacKay Hitsman named his book “The Incredible War of 1812,” but he was Canadian.)

There are pockets of enthusiasm, to be sure, nowhere more so than in Maryland, which kicks off three years of commemorations with the “Star-Spangled Sailabration” beginning Wednesday in Baltimore, and where the cars sport War of 1812 license plates and the governor (Martin O’Malley) shows up at 1812 reenactments on horseback, dressed as a Maryland militia officer.

The Maryland Historical Society on Sunday opened “In Full Glory Reflected,” a major exhibit on the war, and on June 17, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will premiere “Overture for 2012” by Baltimore native Philip Glass, who composed it as a companion piece to Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” which will also be performed.

But in New York, site of some of war’s most important fighting, funding for a state War of 1812 commission was blocked for three years before a token amount of money for bicentennial programs was allotted in March.

Its anonymity is certainly no fault of the war itself, which has a gripping plot: Upstart nation with a tiny army and even smaller navy declares war on former colonial master, one of the most powerful nations on earth, and nearly gets blown off the map, but rallies in the end to squeak out a moral victory.

The war, which was declared on June 18, 1812, featured some of the most dramatic episodes in the nation’s history. These are familiar to most Americans, but as floating moments in time, ones they often can’t quite place in the War of 1812:

The dastardly British burning of Washington. Quite a few folks think that must have been during the Revolutionary War; never mind that the White House and the Capitol, not to mention Washington, did not exist.

The USS Constitution’s great victories at sea. Nope, “Old Ironsides” did not fight during the Revolutionary War. Yep, War of 1812. Oliver Hazard Perry’s message after his signal victory on Lake Erie — “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” No, that wasn’t from a “Pogo” cartoon strip.

Most at least know the Battle of New Orleans happened in the War of 1812, though almost all knowledge comes from Johnny Horton’s 1959 hit “Battle of New Orleans,” a song that manages to get almost every fact wrong. (“Colonel Jackson” and his men did not make a little trip “down the mighty Mississipp’ ” — Major Gen. Andrew Jackson and his army were in Alabama. Need we go on?)

A popular theory as to the war’s anonymity is that no one can figure out why it was fought. The Revolutionary War was fought for American independence. The Civil War was fought to preserve the union and/or end slavery. World War I was fought to save Europe. World War II was fought to save the world. Vietnam was fought to stop the spread of communism.

But the War of 1812? Well, it was fought to end the British practice of impressment. And to end onerous trade restrictions. You know, Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights. Or actually, it was about Western expansion — the first major war of American imperialism, as a (British) scholar recently called it.

The dilemma was captured perfectly in a War of 1812 video last year from College Humor, in which an American officer struggles to explain to his wife what the war is all about. “It might have something to do with taxes,” he muses.

The hardest point for many Americans to accept — and one reason the war is overlooked — is that the United States declared war. A lot of Americans assume Britain, still sore about losing the Revolutionary War, launched the war to reclaim its colonies.

Consumed with its titanic struggle against Napoleon’s France, Britain had no interest in launching a new conflict on an enormous continent across the ocean.

The British had a with-us-or-against-us mentality — not unlike that of the United States after Sept. 11, 2001 — and regularly trampled on American sovereignty. They seized American sailors of suspected British origin to man Royal Navy ships, and they severely restricted American trade.

Bowing to this British behavior would leave Americans “not an independent people, but colonists and vassals,” President James Madison believed. The War Hawks — an aptly named band of members of Congress from the South and West— were eager to see North America cleared of the British, allowing unimpeded expansion to the west, and, some hoped, to the north.

On some levels, historian Alan Taylor argues, the conflict is best seen as a civil war, completing unfinished business from the American Revolution. The Americans and the loyalists who had moved across the border had competing visions for the future of the North American continent, neither involving the other.

The only thing greater than the confusion over what the war was about is the disagreement over who won.

Canada would have the best claim, except that technically it did not yet exist — it was then British North America. But multiple American invasions of the colonies of Upper Canada (today Ontario) and Lower Canada (today Quebec) ended in failure.

The successful defense set the stage for Canada’s future independence and nationhood. Among the calamities Canadians believe they thus avoided, named by 6 percent in the Ipsos Reid poll: Sharing American citizenship with Snooki and the cast of “Jersey Shore.”

The British preserved their position in North America, but the war was hardly an unqualified success. Waging the war proved enormously expensive, the Royal Navy suffered shocking defeats at the hands of the fledgling U.S. Navy, and the British army met with disaster at New Orleans.

As for Americans, they endured humiliating defeats on the Canadian frontier, the disgraceful loss of Washington and a government that was bankrupt by the war’s end (having refused to raise taxes to pay for it — another precedent!). Yet a string of victories at the end of the war — including at Baltimore and Plattsburgh — allowed the United States to emerge from peace negotiations in Ghent with decent terms. The Americans may have lost militarily, Hickey has observed, but they won the peace.

The only point virtually all scholars agree on— as required by guild regulations governing the assessment of American wars — is that Native Americans were the big losers. British efforts to establish an Indian buffer state in the Old Northwest were abandoned at Ghent, and America’s westward expansion continued inexorably.

Some argue that Americans want to remember only victories, and that therefore they have forgotten the War of 1812, which ended in failure. Or as a draw. Or with no clear-cut victory. But it was certainly more of a success than Vietnam, and no one has a problem remembering that war.

A bigger factor may be the name. The War of 1812 is a singularly poor name for a war that lasted nearly three years. The Spanish-American war, everybody knows the contestants. The Barbary Wars are nothing if not atmospheric.

But the War of 1812? It has a clerical feel, something to be filed after the Enabling Act of 1802 but before the Panic of 1819.

Despite such challenges, there are signs of hope for the War of 1812 in the Ipsos Reid poll: 77 percent of Americans believe it had a significant impact on the nation’s identity. Certainly, Americans of the day believed that.

“The war has renewed and reinstated the national feelings and character which the Revolution had given, and which were daily lessening,” said Albert Gallatin, the former treasury secretary who helped negotiate the treaty. The people, Gallatin added, “are more American; they feel and act more as a nation; and I hope that the permanency of the Union is thereby better secured.”

The war left America with its national anthem, and its most enduring icon, the Star-Spangled Banner. It firmly established the sovereignty of the United States and cleared the path for Canada’s eventual independence.

For those reasons and many others not involving Snooki, the War of 1812 deserves to be better remembered and better respected.

Steve Vogel is the author of “Through The Perilous Fight,” an account of the British invasion of the Chesapeake in 1814, to be published next spring by Random House.

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