Can a War Get a Little Love?

Article Published: Jan. 26, 2012 | Modified: Jan. 26, 2012
Can a War Get a Little Love?

The War of 1812 was the last completely ‘un-photographed’ American war. Here’s a photograph of War of 1812 veterans holding a reunion years later in New York.
Photo courtesy of the Rochester Historical Society

As far as wars go, the War of 1812 is the Rodney Dangerfield of American conflicts. It gets no respect, I’m tellin’ ya, no respect.

Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this: Have you ever met a War of 1812 re-enactor? Can you name some of the principal military heroes of the war? And what were the exact reasons for us entering in (starting, really) the War of 1812?

Nope. Most Americans (and by using the word, “most,” I may be stretching things) know exactly one thing about the War of 1812: Francis Scott Key was inspired by its 1814 Battle of Baltimore to pen “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which later topped the charts as our official national anthem (that didn’t happen until 1931, but that’s another story).

Even lovers of American history consider the War of 1812 a sort of sequel to the American Revolution. And as with most sequels, it pales in comparison to the original when it comes to characters you can hang your hat on (George Washington! Paul Revere! That traitor, Benedict Arnold!).

But scratch a little deeper, and you’ll find that there’s plenty to love about our second skirmish with our haughty British cousins.

After thumping their redcoat butts fairly convincingly on the Eastern seaboard during the Revolutionary War (1775-83), Americans were feeling pretty good about themselves. The United States still had that new country smell, and our revolution had become the model for others, such as the one in France. We didn’t have any kings around to make us feel inferior, and we had yet to take a good long look at troublesome issues, such as slavery and women’s rights.

Soon, however, that pesky Brit problem rose its ugly, gap-toothed head. England may not have been able to best us on land, but it could be a bugger of a nuisance on the high seas. Despite tensions between the two countries, Britain by 1810 had become our biggest trading partner, importing 80 percent of the cotton and 50 percent of other goods that left America. But we also wanted to do some business with France, who was busy fighting a war with Britain.

The English said, “If you continue to pursue this French connection, you’ll be sorry.”

We said, “Oh yeah? What’re you gonna do about it?”

Well, here’s what they did. The British navy began boarding our trading ships as they neared the European continent. Then they brought everybody on deck and asked the men, “Which of you men were born on British soil?” At that time, the United States was only about 34 years old, so any of the American sailors older than that, plus guys who had come over from Britain after the revolution, would’ve had to raise their hands.

Britain at that time did not recognize American citizenship for persons born in England or in America prior to July 4, 1776. So they confiscated those guys and sent them back to England.

The British were stealing our people! And not just any people either, but some of our most seasoned sea salts — guys who knew how to tie all the cool knots and could tell you whaling stories for days.

That’s enough to start a war, right? Well, that wasn’t even the half of it. Knowing that our westward expansion across the North American continent wasn’t sitting too well with the people who already lived there, England started using Canadian trade routes to arm Native Americans. And we all know that it’s a lot more difficult to bring an entire civilization to the brink of extinction when they’ve got guns in their hands.

In June of 1812, James Madison sent a laundry list of grievances against the British to the U.S. House of Representatives. After four days of deliberation, Congress voted 79 to 49 in favor of a declaration of war against Britain. The Senate concurred, 19 to 13.

It was the first time that we, as a country, had declared war on anyone – and it was intoxicating!
The War of 1812 lasted three years and was fought in three theaters: The Atlantic Ocean, the Great Lakes/Northwest Territories area and in the Deep South. One of its most famous battles is the Battle of New Orleans. It not only propelled military leader Andrew Jackson to fame, hero status and eventually the White House, but also inspired one of the catchier country tunes of the 20th century.

After Jackson ran those rascals out of New Orleans, the Brits lowered their expectations and attacked Mobile, Ala. On Feb. 13, 1815, a day after capturing Fort Bowyer in Mobile, news of the peace treaty arrived, so the 1,000 English guys there abandoned the fort and set sail for home.

Much of the war was fought in Ontario, where the Canadians there sided with their British overlords.

The United States actually captured a good chunk of southern Ontario but, being neighborly, gave it back after the war was over. During the remaining 80-plus years of the 19th century, many Canadians believed they had won the war.

In a 2009 poll, 37 percent of Canadians said the war was a Canadian victory, 9 percent said the U.S. won, 15 percent called it a draw, and 39 percent —mainly younger Canadians — said they knew too little to comment.

You see? There are just too many great bits of trivia involved with the War of 1812 not to celebrate its bicentennial this year. Instead, we’ll probably drown in threadbare stories about the Civil War during its sesquicentennial this year. Man, some wars just get all the love.

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