“The scene witnessed,” begins a newspaper dispatch from the front lines of an American war, “was horrible beyond description.” Lying scattered across the battlefield were “the mangled limbs and mutilated bodies of the poor fellows who were exploded into eternity.” The correspondent for the Connecticut Courant continues, “Those who were alive were objects of the most wretched commiseration, they passed me in bodies of twenty and thirty, led to the water’s edge, their eyes burnt out, their faces perfectly raw and black.” The wounded men, the story concludes, were “living monuments of human misery.”
This did not take place in Normandy or Vietnam or Iraq, but by the shores of Lake Erie. And the “living monuments of human misery” were American soldiers and militiamen charged with a task that few of their descendants now remember: to invade and capture a land that was then British territory, and today Canada.
Two centuries ago on June 18, the U.S. Congress — the assembly of the then fledgling, insecure Republic — declared war on Great Britain. The plan dreamed up in Washington was simple: wrest control of Britain’s remaining territories in North America and then bring a humbled empire to the negotiating table. What followed is now known as the War of 1812, though the conflict — a largely confused, indecisive affair — dragged on until the end of 1814.
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As its bicentennial is commemorated, the war occupies a small, strange space in America’s historical imagination, cast in a shadow by the liberating glory of the earlier Revolutionary War and the trauma and horror of the Civil War, which followed five decades later. Some historians characterize it as a second chapter in the U.S.’s struggle for independence; others say it was a footnote to the great Napoleonic wars taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. And some just find it exasperating. Richard Hofstadter, the eminent 20th century American political historian, described the War of 1812 as “ludicrous and unnecessary,” the product of an era “of fumbling and small-minded statecraft” and “terrible parochial wrangling.” It’s almost an inconvenience, a story that doesn’t fit in the grand procession of American history.
For the Americans who know something about it, the War of 1812 is a string of myths, isolated, framed snapshots of heroism. It’s the smoke-shrouded naval bombardment that gave birth to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s when the British sacked Washington and burned down the President’s house — a humiliation somehow redeemed by First Lady Dolley Madison’s rescuing a painting of George Washington. And for those who were particularly attentive in school, it’s the war in which future President Andrew Jackson thrashed the British at New Orleans (a battle fought, unbeknownst to both sides, after American and British envoys had settled peace terms across the Atlantic).
Whatever snippets have been committed to memory, though, they don’t quite add up. “Americans have found a way of both forgetting and remembering various bits and pieces of the war,” says John Stagg, a professor of history at the University of Virginia and the author of The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent. “But what they’re left with, in and of itself, makes no sense.”
North of the border, in Canada, there’s no shortage of mythmaking either, but the narrative there does make more sense. Rather than get swallowed up by the rebellious Republic to the south, the defiant British colonies that comprised Canada would peaceably emerge as an independent nation with a political system drawn much more from London than Washington. “It’s a very defining moment for Canada,” says Mark Zuehlke, a Canadian military historian. “If those invasions had succeeded, we probably wouldn’t exist.” From the war, Canadians gained an array of national heroes — not least Laura Secord, a dowdy housewife turned Paul Revere, who, as one fanciful account goes, crept past enemy lines with a milk pail in hand and cow in tow to inform the unsuspecting British of an approaching American force.
Even as it slashes spending and lays off public-sector workers, the conservative administration of Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper is pumping in funds — more than $28 million — to commemorate the war’s bicentennial. The Canadian government is minting special coins, issuing stamps, erecting new monuments, revamping museum exhibits, paying for dozens of historical reenactments and even launching its own War of 1812 smart-phone app. While historians applaud Harper for his interest in Canada’s heritage, some see a political agenda. “They wish to have Canadians identify with the military and conservative values,” says Terry Copp, director of the Laurier Centre for Military and Strategic Disarmament Studies and a leading Canadian military historian. “By the time we get through the fall, there’s going to be a lot of ink spilled, a lot of fireworks exploded.”
In contrast, in the U.S., no national bicentennial commission has been set up to coordinate or fund a memorial. Maryland — home of Fort McHenry, the redoubt that inspired Francis Scott Key — is the only American state to take the war seriously. It has issued a commemorative license plate. The U.S. Navy has planned a number of ceremonies celebrating some of its surprising victories over the mighty British fleet. But the real arena of the war was on land, running along what’s now the U.S.-Canada border. And the U.S. Army remains conspicuously silent as the bicentennial approaches. “It’s very hard to commemorate blunders and what looked like fairly pointless exercises,” says Copp.
A Just War?
It’s also hard to commemorate a conflict whose origins are still debated and misunderstood. In a message coaxing Congress to war, U.S. President James Madison argued that Britain had pursued “a series of acts hostile to the United States.” With the Napoleonic wars raging across Europe, the British navy had taken to shanghaiing Americans in foreign ports and at sea to fill out its wartime fleets. Already bristling at laws intended to thwart American merchants from trading with France, many in the U.S. grew infuriated by what they saw as blatant disrespect of their young nation’s independence and neutrality — no small matter for a country whose future was still very much in doubt.