The Forgotten Conflict
Why is a war with such a profound impact as the War of 1812 largely forgotten today? One reason is that it looked more to the past than to the future. Americans saw the war as a vehicle for vindicating U.S. sovereignty, as a way of completing the American Revolution. In fact, the contest is still called ‘America’s second war of independence’. The war also resembled the colonial wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in that it originated over issues in Europe but was fought in North America. It is the only U.S. war to fit this pattern.
Great Britain and France had been at war off and on since 1689 in what is sometimes called the Second Hundred Years War. At issue was who would dominate Europe and the wider world. The French Revolution touched off a general European war in 1792, and when Britain joined France’s enemies the following year, the two nations found themselves in the final phase of their century-long struggle for power. The French Revolutionary Wars (1793–1802) ended with a temporary suspension of hostilities as a result of the Peace of Amiens, but shortly thereafter the two nations resumed their struggle in the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815). The War of 1812 was a direct outgrowth of this contest.
In 1805, the British tightened their control over the high seas by winning a decisive naval battle against a combined French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar. But six weeks later, Napoleon won an equally decisive battle at Austerlitz over Britain’s allies on the Continent. These two battles left the major antagonists supreme in their respective elements but unable to effectively engage one another. France sought to break the deadlock by targeting the British economy with the Continental Decrees, which barred all British ships and goods, and even neutral ships and goods that had passed through Britain, from the Continent. The British retaliated with the Orders-in-Council, which banned all ships and goods that had not passed through Britain from the Continent. The British later modified the Orders-in-Council to establish a more conventional naval blockade of the Continent, but the effect was the same. American merchants seeking to trade with Europe were caught in the middle and suffered extensive losses. Between 1807 and 1812, Britain and France and their allies seized some 900 American ships for violating their decrees or for committing other transgressions.
The French and British restrictions, and the property losses they entailed, threatened U.S. prosperity and cast an ominous shadow over U.S. relations with both nations. In addition, other British practices on the high seas put a further strain on Anglo-American relations. Most exasperating was the British practice of impressment, which was the removal of seamen from American merchant ships to fill out the crews of the undermanned Royal Navy. The British professed to target only their own subjects, but American tars often got caught in the dragnet. Between 1793 and 1812 an estimated 15,000 Americans were forced into British service. The United States could usually secure the release of those seamen whose American citizenship could be proven, but the process could take years. In the meantime, American victims of impressment were subjected to the harsh discipline of the Royal Navy and to all the horrors of a war that was not their own.1
After a futile attempt to force the European belligerents to show greater respect for American rights with trade restrictions, the United States in June 1812 declared war on Great Britain, mainly to force her to give up the Orders-in-Council and impressment. War was undertaken, in other words, to vindicate America’s neutral rights. In the language of the day, it was a war to secure ‘Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights’. These issues do not resonate with people much today. Nations no longer go to war over neutral rights, and this has doubtless contributed to the obscurity of the war.
Because the United States in 1812 could not challenge the British at sea, it targeted Canada instead. Britain’s North American provinces contained only 500,000 people (compared to 7.7 million for the United States), and the loyalty of the old French population as well as the recent American immigrants who had moved north to take advantage of cheap land and low taxes was open to question. Many Americans expected to be welcomed as liberators. They anticipated what Republican anti-war critic John Randolph of Virginia called ‘a holiday campaign’.2 ‘The idea has been very prevalent’, conceded a Republican newspaper as the campaign of 1812 was winding down, ‘that Canada might be easily conquered.… It was supposed that the show of an army, and a few well directed proclamations would unnerve the arm of resistance and make conquest and conciliation synonymous’.3
Targeting Canada added to the confusion over what had caused the war. Today most Canadians, and some Americans, are convinced that the maritime issues were a blind, a pretext to seize and annex Canada. It is easy to see the appeal of this idea. Not many people today can explain the finer points of neutral rights under international law in the Age of Sail, but everyone can understand a land grab, and a war undertaken to seize Canada fits nicely into the larger framework of American expansion. But this interpretation confuses ends and means. As Henry Clay, the leading congressional War Hawk, put it in late 1813, ‘When the War was commenced Canada was not the end but the means; the object of the War being the redress of injuries, and Canada being the instrument by which that redress was to be obtained’.4
Further adding to the obscurity of the War of 1812 was its outcome. It is sometimes said that everyone is happy with the result. Americans are happy because they think they won; Canadians are happier because they know they won; and the British are happiest of all because they have forgotten all about the war. Although this assessment ignores the First Nations, who were the biggest losers, it is a fair summary of the public memory of the war in the three nations.
Americans might point to a host of impressive victories: on Lake Erie, Lake Champlain, and the high seas; at the Thames and Baltimore; and, most of all, at New Orleans. News of Jackson’s spectacular victory in defence of the Crescent City reached Washington several days before the peace treaty that had been signed at Ghent, and this timing played an important role in forging the myth of American victory. Americans soon convinced themselves that Jackson’s victory had produced the treaty that ended the war. In truth, however, the nation had failed to conquer Canada, and the maritime issues that had caused the war were not even mentioned in the peace treaty. At best the nation emerged from the war with a draw, and this inconvenient fact probably clouded the public’s memory of the conflict.
There are other factors that have clouded the public memory. One is the unusual name of the war. It is the only U.S. war that is known by a date, and Americans were slow to embrace that name. The conflict was called ‘the War of 1812’ less than three months after the declaration of war, but it was commonly referred to simply a ‘the war’ or ‘the war with (Great) Britain’ or ‘the war with England’.5 After it was over, the preferred label was ‘the late war’ or ‘the recent war’ or ‘the recent war with (Great) Britain’. It was not until the end of the Mexican War in 1848 that Americans found it necessary to distinguish between their two most recent wars and that the term ‘War of 1812’ caught on. It was only in the 1850s, when many aging veterans published their memoirs, that the phrase ‘War of 1812’ finally came into common and general usage.6 But shortly thereafter, the Civil War, which in so many ways dwarfed the earlier wars with Britain and Mexico, swept those conflicts deep into the recesses of America’s public memory. As much as anything else, the Civil War was responsible for transforming the War of 1812 into a forgotten conflict.
The Legacy in Canada
Once the War of 1812 ended, Canadians were eager to put the contest behind them. They willingly resumed their commercial and social relations with their neighbours across the border, and they even took part in a grand peace ball on the Detroit River frontier. But forgetting the war proved impossible. The war had exposed the tepid loyalty or outright disloyalty of many prewar American immigrants, and the British responded after the contest by making it almost impossible for Americans to acquire land in Canada. The end of American immigration, coupled with a sharp drop in British military spending, sent Canada into a prolonged depression. Compounding this problem were repeated delays in attempts to settle claims against the British government for wartime damages. This contentious issue left a bitter legacy.7
Moreover, the threat from the United States never really abated. American public officials continued to talk publicly about the desirability or the inevitability of Canada joining the Union. Cross border raids carried out in the 1830s and 1860s further fuelled distrust. The immediate effect of the war was to strengthen the bonds between Canada and the Crown, but Canadians had little choice but to keep a wary eye on the United States.
After the Confederation was established in the 1860s, Canadians became increasingly aware of how crucial the War of 1812 had been in shaping their history. Already they had built a monument to Isaac Brock, the British general who had captured an entire American army at Detroit before being killed at Queenston Heights less than two months later. Brock was soon joined by other heroes: the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, who spearheaded native resistance in the West, and Laura Secord, whose timely warning of an impending U.S. raid, helped set up the victory of the British and First Nations forces at Beaver Dams. By the 1890s, Canadian Ernest A. Cruikshank was producing documents and studies illuminating the war, and with his work Canadians embraced the conflict’s legacy and the American name for the war.
But Canadians, like Americans, proved selective in how they remembered the war. Local militia units were credited with an inflated role, and those residents, many of whom were recent American immigrants or of French descent, who wanted to sit out the war were forgotten. So, too, were those who engaged in outright treason, most notably a group of defectors under the leadership of Joseph Willcocks, who served with American forces on the Niagara frontier in a unit known as the Canadian Volunteers.8
Still, the war always meant more to Canadians than to Americans, perhaps because so much was at stake. The U.S. conquest of most or all of British Canada might well have meant that a separate nation would never emerge. Given this danger, it is easy to understand why Canadians might see this struggle as their war of independence. Indeed, in a public opinion poll conducted in 2000, Canadians ranked the war as the third most important event in their history after the establishment of the Confederation in 1867 and the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885.9
Although young people in Canada today do not know as much about the war as previous generations, the Conservative Government of Steven Harper has pumped millions of dollars into an advertising and education campaign designed to elevate the profile of the war. The Harper government also reversed a longstanding policy that refused to officially honor any military units that fought in a war prior to the establishment of the Confederation. As a result of the new policy, the government in Ottawa has awarded War of 1812 Battle Honours to Canadian units that perpetuate units raised in British North America during the conflict. The government initiatives are part of a larger movement in Canada to acknowledge and commemorate the Bicentennial of the war. Given the range of activities involved, the Canadian public is unlikely to forget about this war and how it affected their homeland anytime soon.
The Legacy in Great Britain
To the British, the War of 1812 was never more than a sideshow of the more important Napoleonic Wars. It received far less press at the time, and it was quickly forgotten by the public once it was over. This is not surprising as although the British held on to Canada and their maritime rights and gave the fledgling young republic a rude awakening by occupying Washington and burning the public buildings there, their hopes of extracting major concessions when they were in the driver’s seat in 1814 were dashed by the successful defense of Baltimore and Plattsburgh and by growing public weariness with the war and the taxes that it necessitated. Although the Battle of New Orleans had no impact on the peace negotiations, the defeat was so lopsided that few British subjects had any desire to remember it. The British public preferred to remember the glories of Trafalgar and Waterloo rather than anything that had occurred on the other side of the Atlantic. Although the University of London sponsored a major international conference on the war in 2012, otherwise the Bicentennial generated little interest in Great Britain, and the very phrase ‘War of 1812’ is still likely to conjure up, to the British, images of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.10
One consequence of the war, however, was to exacerbate army-navy relations in Great Britain. Although in reality the two services cooperated pretty well during the conflict, especially in a host of operations in the Chesapeake, there was a tendency to blame any defeat in joint operations on the other service. Thus after its defeat on Lake Champlain, the Royal Navy put the blame on the army’s ranking officer, Sir George Prevost, claiming that he had hurried the British squadron into battle before it was ready. Similarly, the army blamed its defeat at New Orleans on the navy, claiming that it was driven by an obsession with prize money and that it had failed to provide adequate logistical support.
The legacy of the war for the British government was more complex. The British public might be eager to forget the war, but British leaders did not have that luxury because of the continuing threat posed by the growing and expansive republic to the south of Canada. British officials had concluded at the end of the war that relying on the indigenous peoples to help defend Canada was not a long-term solution that was likely to work. Hence, the British abandoned their First Nation allies.
The only obvious alternative was to beef up the defenses of Canada quite significantly. The construction of Rideau, Ottawa River, and Welland canals made the British less dependent on the St. Lawrence River and thus promised more secure supply lines but finding the resources to defend Canada effectively was another matter. Despite considerable money spent, study after study showed that much more was needed, and yet Canadians made it clear that they considered this an imperial responsibility to which they were unwilling to contribute.
It did not take British officials long to conclude that their best option was to seek an accommodation with the United States. An assertive and aggressive America that looked west or south for new territory need not threaten Canada, nor was it likely to pose a danger to Britain’s two principal foreign policy objectives in the nineteenth century: maintaining a balance of power on the European continent and keeping the sea lanes open to British trade.
In the years after 1815, the British sometimes sacrificed interests elsewhere in the Empire to keep the United States happy. A commercial treaty in 1815 was followed by the Rush-Bagot Agreement in 1817 that demilitarized the border. A series of boundary agreements followed between 1818 and 1846 that fixed the border between the United States and British Canada in those places where it was in dispute. The road to accord was a bumpy one, and there were even a couple of war scares, but each side realised that it had more to gain by remaining at peace. The Treaty of Washington in 1871 was a landmark in the process. It resolved most of the outstanding issues. By the 1890s, issues that had once caused tension had either been resolved or had faded away. As a result, a genuine accord emerged.
By the early twentieth century, it was clear to many people that Britain and the United States shared not simply a common language and a similar culture but also a host of fundamental values that included an attachment to liberty, the rule of law, and free markets. A virtual alliance emerged between the two co-belligerents in World War I, and that turned into an actual alliance in World War II. That alliance endures today, and the accord that undergirds it explains why the Pax Britannica of the nineteenth century gave way relatively seamlessly to the Pax Americana of the twentieth.
The Legacy in the United States
In contrast to Canada and Great Britain, Americans, riding the crest of the wave of victory that the successful defence of Plattsburgh, Baltimore, and New Orleans seemed to have brought, showed no desire to put the war behind them. For more than a generation after 1815 the conflict played a central role in the public memory, shaping the military, political, and cultural landscape of the republic and opening the door to a territorial expansion that extinguished Native American land claims and pushed American settlement ever further west. For the generation that controlled the nation’s destiny until the Civil War, the War of 1812 was a defining moment, an important benchmark, that shaped the growth and development of the young republic.
The Army and Navy
One of the lessons learned by the United States was the importance of preparing for war in time of peace. Like the Federalists before them, Republicans during and after the war embraced the ancient Roman doctrine: ad bellum pace parati—to ensure peace prepare for war. The postwar army was set at 10,000 (plus another 2,000 in the corps of engineers), which was four times the size of the peacetime army adopted by Republicans at the beginning of their ascendancy in 1802. Republicans also enacted a naval expansion program during the war, a program that was continued afterwards. Although the nation was forced to pare down its military establishment when the panic of 1819 and the ensuing recession cut into tax revenue, it nonetheless carried a much larger army and navy after the War of 1812 than before. There was a certain irony in this because the world was a far less dangerous place after the War of 1812 than it was before the war.
Both services also emerged from the war with a cadre of leaders who had proven themselves on the battlefield. The postwar army was dominated by Andrew Jackson, Jacob Brown, and Winfield Scott as well as a host of lesser lights who had starred in the war, including Alexander Macomb, Edmund P. Gaines, and Zachary Taylor. By the same token, the postwar navy was dominated by men who had proven themselves in the War of 1812 at sea: Stephen Decatur, Oliver H. Perry, Thomas Macdonough, William Bainbridge, and Charles Stewart.
Both services had emerged from the war with a greater sense of professionalism, and the steady influx of fresh army officers from the U.S. Military Academy combined with the creation of the Board of Naval Commissioners ensured that this commitment to professionalism would continue. As a result, both services found themselves better prepared to carry out their duties and help the nation achieve its objectives in future wars.
The Political Aftermath
The unmistakable political winners in the war were the Republicans. They claimed that the war had been a success, and they took credit for that success. As a result, Republican popularity after the war soared. The war helped make four presidents: James Monroe, who had served as secretary of state and secretary of war; John Quincy Adams, who had served on the peace delegation; Andrew Jackson, who had defeated the Creeks at Horseshoe in 1814 and the British at New Orleans in 1815; and William Henry Harrison, who had defeated the Native Americans at Tippecanoe in 1811 and a British and indigenous force at the Thames in 1813. A fifth future president, Zachary Taylor, launched his military career with the successful defense of Fort Harrison in the Indiana Territory in 1812. The war also helped make three vice presidents: Daniel D. Tompkins, who had served as the wartime governor of New York; John C. Calhoun, one of the leading War Hawks in Congress; and Richard M. Johnson, who had been a congressional War Hawk in 1812 and was credited with killing Tecumseh in the Battle of the Thames the following year.
Those who served in the army or navy during the war or had been called out for militia duty had an advantage in the pursuit of any elected office, and those who had actually taken part in combat had an even greater advantage. The Battle of the Thames, which became a kind of Bunker Hill in western myth and legend, was particularly fruitful in this respect. It produced a president (Harrison), a vice president (Johnson), three governors, three lieutenant governors, four U.S. senators, twenty congressmen, and a host of successful candidates for lesser officers.
The Federalists, on the other hand, were the big political losers. Although their steady gains in congressional and state elections during the war suggested that their opposition to the conflict had considerable appeal, once the war ended that appeal dissipated. Those who had opposed the war were now dismissed as traitors who had abandoned the nation in its time of need, and all the wartime failures were blamed on them. The party was headed for the dustbin of history anyway because it was out of touch with the rising spirit of democracy and territorial expansionism that marked the postwar nation. But the taint of opposing America’s second war of independence hastened the party’s demise. The Federalists put up their last presidential candidate in 1816, and although the party lingered on in several New England states for another decade or two, it was but a shadow of its former self.
The principal target of the United States during the war was Canada. Although Quebec was virtually impregnable, with stout defenses and accessible to the Royal navy in warmer months, sparsely populated and poorly defended Upper Canada seemed to be within reach. Whether the United States could have or would have held on to this territory if it were conquered was rendered moot by the failure of American arms. Canada remained in British hands at the end of the war, which left the young republic to the south without any leverage to win concessions on the maritime issues.
Although the United States did not conquer Canada during the war, it did acquire territory from another European power, neutral Spain. Spain, which had lost East and West Florida to the British in the Seven Years War, had won the territory back in the settlement at the end of the American Revolution. But Spain’s control over the Floridas remained weak. In 1810, the United States had seized a slice of West Florida, claiming that it was part of the Louisiana Purchase. In 1813, it occupied the rest of West Florida—the territory south of the 31st parallel between the Pearl and Perdido rivers (about 6,000 square miles)—and it retained this after the war ended.
More important was the boost that two victories over the indigenous peoples gave to U.S. expansion in the West. The defeat of the Native Americans and the death of Tecumseh at the Thames led to the collapse of the great Shawnee leader’s western confederacy. Thereafter, most of the Native Americans who had been allied to Britain made peace with the United States and either switched sides or sat out the war. This treaty, coupled with another nineteen signed after the Anglo-American conflict was over, opened the door to unfettered U.S. territorial expansion in the Old Northwest.
Much the same happened in the Old Southwest in the wake of Jackson’s decisive victory over the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend in March of 1814. The following August, Jackson forced all Creek leaders, friend and foe alike, to agree to the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which transferred some 23 million acres of Creek land to the United States. This was one of the largest land grabs in American history, and it opened the door to U.S. expansion into the Old Southwest.
The indigenous peoples were the biggest losers in this war. Not only did they lose the two major wars with the United States, but they suffered proportionally more deaths in the war (7,500 compared to 10,000 for the British and 20,000 for the United States). Article IX in the Treaty of Ghent was supposed to restore the Native Americans to their status as of 1811, but the United States claimed that this provision was superseded by the treaties signed during and after the war. The British showed no interest in contesting this position but instead abandoned their native allies (some 80 percent of whom lived on the American side of the border). This left them without a European ally to serve as a counterweight to the United States and put them entirely at the mercy of the expansive young republic.
In a host of different ways, the War of 1812 shaped the American cultural landscape. One effect was to boost the Anglophobia that still persisted from the American Revolution. While the war was raging, the U.S. House of Representatives issued a major and lengthy report that accused the British of complicity in the Native American atrocities in the West and took the British to task for depredations against civilians in the Chesapeake and for the mistreatment of prisoners of war.11 Republican newspapers and magazines printed this inflammatory document and continued to report similar British misdeeds long after the war was over. Especially galling to Americans was the Dartmoor Massacre, which occurred after the war was over when local militia serving as guards fired on Americans in a British prisoner-of-war facility, killing six and wounding another sixty. The bad feeling that persisted after the war was a convenient issue for aspiring politicians to exploit and an additional obstacle that the British had to overcome in their ongoing search for peaceful relations with the United States.
On a more positive note, the war gave Americans a host of symbols that helped define the nation. The U.S. frigate Constitution earned its nickname in its first battle and ended the war with an unblemished record of successful cruises that gave ‘Old Ironsides’ iconic status. The U.S. flag enjoyed a new-found respect from Americans, and although the Fort McHenry flag remained in private hands until the twentieth century, it was periodically hauled out for display, reminding Americans of the successful defense of Fort McHenry. Today the flag is preserved in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and is one of the nation’s most treasured physical relics from the war. Similarly, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, which the Fort McHenry flag inspired, became an increasingly popular tune and was finally designated as the national anthem by Congress in 1931. The term ‘Uncle Sam’, first used in 1810 to refer to the U.S. government, came into wide usage during the war even though the popular image we associate with the name did not appear until Thomas Nast started using it in his Harper’s Weekly cartoons in the 1870s.
The American rifle also emerged from the war with an elevated status, although it took a song in the 1820s - ‘The Hunters of Kentucky’ - to fix the name of the weapon and to suggest, however inaccurately, that it had been a game-changer at New Orleans. (In reality, U.S. artillery did most of the damage in the battle). In addition, U.S. regulars wore grey coats on the Niagara frontier in 1814 because of a shortage of blue material. Cadets at the U.S. Military Academy wore grey uniforms for the same reason, and after the war they continued this tradition to honour the performance of the regulars.
Americans also derived sayings from the war that enjoyed considerable popularity. ‘Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights’ was appropriated by various groups up to the U.S. Civil War to promote their causes.12 In the election of 1840, the Whigs elevated William Henry Harrison to the presidency with the slogan ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler too’. Even more lasting were the slogans that came out of the naval war. ‘Don’t give up the ship’, which Captain James Lawrence supposedly uttered after being mortally wounded in the Chesapeake-Shannon engagement, became the slogan of the U.S. Navy and persists today in general conversation. Likewise, Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry’s succinct after-action report – ‘We have met the enemy and they are ours’ - also endures in the lexicon of everyday usage.
Two of the biggest symbols to emerge from the war were Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans. As the man who had overcome a host of obstacles and imposed his will on a rag-tag army to defeat the Creeks in the Southwest and the British on the Gulf Coast, Jackson emerged from the war as the outsized American hero who put his stamp on American history after the war. With his reputation for personal courage and determination and his commitment to democracy and slavery as well as the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and territorial expansion, he seemed to epitomise all the best and worst of growing young republic.
Jackson’s greatest victory, at New Orleans, took on a life of its own. Major cities around the nation celebrated its anniversary on 8 January every year until the Civil War, and the battle transformed the way that the War of 1812 was remembered. Americans forgot the causes of the war and lost sight of how close the young republic had come to military defeat and financial collapse. What they remembered instead was how they had beat back British attempts to invade the United States, not only at Plattsburgh and Baltimore, but even more so at New Orleans. In this climatic final battle, Jackson’s army had single-handedly defeated the conquerors of Napoleon and the Mistress of the Seas, and in the eyes of most Americans that was all that mattered.
Today most Americans remember the cultural legacy of the war but not the war itself. That has changed to some extent since the commemoration of the Bicentennial. Although the United States lagged behind Canada at first, several federal agencies - the U.S. Navy, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Postal Service - each played their part in commemorating the war. With Maryland taking the lead, those states that had a role in the war were also active, and local 1812 sites everywhere hosted major events to commemorate their 200th anniversaries. As a result, the American public received a long overdue education on the War of 1812.