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.