Want to learn more about the War of 1812? Go to Canada.

John Kelly
Columnist September 23, 2013

I learned two things during this recently ended summer:

1. Canada has a completely different take on the War of 1812 than we Americans do.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

2. England has no take on it at all.

My vacation journeys took me to both countries, and in each of them I was reminded of that old saying, “History is written by the winners.”

Not that there were necessarily any winners in the War of 1812. It was an odd little conflict. I always thought it was about American sailors being press-ganged into the British navy, but apparently it wasn’t — or wasn’t only. The greatest battle of the war — the Battle of New Orleans — just happened to have been fought after the war was over. Oops.


A banner decorating a lamp post in Prescott, Ontario, commemorates the War of 1812, which is apparently a bigger deal in Canada than it is here. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

About the only definitive thing you can say about the War of 1812 is that it gave us a great national anthem.

It was during a drive through Ottawa that I first noticed something weird. Downtown streets had banners depicting Canadian War of 1812 heroes, men such as Sir Isaac Brock and Charles de Salaberry and a woman named Laura Secord, who was apparently “the Heroine of Beaver Dams.”

Next we visited the small Ontario town of Prescott, on the banks of the St. Lawrence. Lampposts there also were decorated with War of 1812 banners.

Why would our North American brothers (well, cousins) want to remember a war that they lost?

“The little joke among 1812 enthusiasts is that the War of 1812 is perfect,” said Bill Pencek, executive director of Maryland’s War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission. “The Canadians know they won. The Americans think they won. The British don’t even know there was a war.”

Do Washingtonians know there was a war? I haven’t seen any banners up on our lampposts. I fear we are losing the banner race to the Canadians.

Of course, what would the District commemorate? Canada’s official War of 1812 Web site has a section headlined: “Did you know: Canada would not exist had the American invasion of 1812-1815 been successful.” The District, on the other hand, was burned. That’s not exactly something you want to trumpet.

“I think that on the planet, it is Maryland and the province of Ontario that remember it and are commemorating it the most,” Bill said.

Maryland is commemorating it because that’s where a lot of the action was. The Chesapeake Bay was a literal hotbed of the war. My colleague Steve Vogel has written a wonderful book, “Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation,” that focuses on the depredations of the hated Adm. George Cockburn and the bombardment of Baltimore that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen his famous poem.

Bill said Maryland towns such as St. Michaels, Queenstown and Havre de Grace are marking the anniversary. Banners are up in Annapolis and soon will be in Bladensburg, where U.S. forces were first routed by the Brits. ­Brookeville, ­the Maryland town that briefly hosted James Madison after he fled Washington, has big banner plans for next year.

And there are ambitious plans for something called the 560-mile Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail that touches portions of Virginia, the District and Maryland. Already signs are going up on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, just a few of more than 150 markers that will be erected in the three jurisdictions.

“Fever may not have caught on yet, but it will increasingly in 2014,” Bill said. Much of Maryland’s efforts are understandably focused on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was written outside Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. (You can find info at www.starspangled200.com.)

So, I think the Canadians are winning the War of 1812 Bicentennial so far. Maryland is coming in second. Washington? Well, maybe it’s concentrating on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Meanwhile, England is sleeping. When I was in London earlier this month, my daughter Beatrice and I visited the National Army Museum. The exhibits there are arranged chronologically. We’d made our way through the Battle of Waterloo and the Peninsular Wars and were well into Crimea and Afghanistan before having to backtrack to find any mention of the War of 1812. There was a single plaque, labeled “War in North America, 1812-1815.” The conflict was reduced to five paragraphs, including,“The Americans’ first attacks were defeated, but in 1813 they did succeed in burning York (now Toronto). In retaliation, a British force occupied Washington and burned down the White House.”

As we continued our amble through the army museum, Beatrice said, “Wait a minute. Was there anything on the Revolutionary War?”

Not that we could find. And I’m almost positive we won that one.

john.kelly@washpost.com

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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