“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.”
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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.
There were other reasons too. Madison’s Democratic-Republican Party drew much of its support from the landed gentry and rural folk of the South and what was then the American West — a vast borderland threading the Mississippi basin up to the Great Lakes. “An incipient kind of manifest destiny,” says Stagg, inflamed many here, and there was a growing desire to punish the British in Canada, who it was thought were abetting Native American tribes in the region hostile to American encroachment. A successful campaign against weak, sparsely populated Canada and its native allies could settle the future of the frontier.
Closer to home, Madison’s Democratic-Republicans also wanted a cudgel with which to beat their real enemies — the rival Federalists, whose base lay in the more developed, urban states of New England where trade and good relations with the British Crown mattered far more than westward expansion. “The war was brought on as much by internal tensions as external ones with the British empire,” says Alan Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and the author of The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Indian Allies and Irish Rebels.
In the heated buildup to the war (and indeed, while it was waged), the Democratic-Republicans saw the Federalists as crypto-Brits, Tory traitors who would sell out the American Republic and trade secrets and supplies with the enemy (some Federalists did aid the British in Canada while the war was fought). The Federalists, in turn, painted the Republicans as demagogic quasi-Frenchmen who would sooner ally themselves to the imperialist warmonger Napoleon — a figure who loomed large in the imagination at the time — than their real brethren in the U.K. (No one had any idea in 1812 that the ambitious Corsican would be defeated and imprisoned within three years.)
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Not one Federalist in Congress voted for what was called “Mr. Madison’s war.” Had three votes swung in the other direction in the Senate, the measure would not have passed at all. As the news of war trickled north, many Federalists reacted with anger and despair. The Courant in Connecticut, a paper with Federalist loyalties, published the lines, “Dissatisfaction, disgust and apprehensions of the most alarming nature have seized on every mind … The evil is here, it is upon us.” Until the Vietnam War, no foreign conflict would be as unpopular and divisive in the U.S. as the War of 1812.
The Future of a Continent
Those who supported the war did so with a fair amount of hubris. The sparse population of Upper Canada — now Ontario — was indistinguishable from the country to the south. “They were essentially Americans who crossed the border because land was plentiful,” says Copp, and the allegiance of these “late loyalists” was a source of concern for the British. Thomas Jefferson, a former President, boasted that capturing Upper Canada would be a “mere matter of marching.” A dispatch in the Palladium, a paper in Frankfort, Ky., invoked the noble cause of the Revolutionary War: “May the mighty spirit which animates the feeble frame of the veteran hero, diffuse itself among the military sons of our country, and enable them to tear from the ramparts of Quebec the last emblem of British power in America.”
But the first American invasion of Upper Canada ended in ignominy. “The U.S. needed a professional army in the worst way, but they didn’t have it,” says Taylor. “They had to fall back on calling up state militia, men who were complete amateurs, with virtually no training or discipline.” Nor did it help that the general in command, William Hull, was deemed later by one of his subordinates as an “imbesile [sic] or treacherous commander.” After grandiosely marching into Canada, Hull dithered, retreating back to Detroit, where a British counteroffensive smaller in size, led by Sir Isaac Brock and the Shawnee war chief Tecumseh — two other figures now mythologized in Canada — barely had to fire a shot before Hull opted to surrender himself and his 2,500 troops. Most of the captives were “paroled,” sent back to their homes after promising to no longer fight. The few hundred, including Hull, who were kept as prisoners were described by a British officer as “the poorest looking sett [sic] of men I have seen for a long time.”
This, in a sense, set the tone for the rest of the War of 1812. By the Great Lakes and over the Niagara and St. Lawrence rivers, American and British forces — a motley combination of regulars, Canadian militia and indigenous war bands — bumbled and skirmished. Battles were by and large short-lived and inglorious, characterized more by confusion than strategy. Poor planning on the American side led to countless deaths as the result of disease, hunger and the cold — not bullets or bayonets. Militiamen drafted into the war effort thought it a justifiable occasion to loot and plunder: few Americans remember that the British raid up the Chesapeake and the burning of Washington in 1814 were, at the time, considered to be retribution for the 1813 American ransacking of York, now Toronto. Desertions were commonplace on both sides. Despite the sensationalism of the American press, there are numerous reports of whites, not just natives, scalping their enemies.
The war’s end was brought about less by the facts on the ground in North America — the U.S. was on the verge of financial collapse as a result of having to revitalize its military — than the British desire to focus its energy on combating Napoleon. On Christmas Eve, 1814, in Ghent (modern-day Belgium), British and American delegations settled for peace. “[The British] wanted out of the war and offered the U.S. a pretty sweet deal,” says Taylor — swapping vast sections of territory seized in Michigan and the Great Lakes for the modest inroads the U.S. had made into Upper Canada.
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When the news of peace eventually reached Washington, the Americans were “giddy with relief,” says Taylor. The truce proved fatal, though, for the refusenik Federalists. Just months earlier, a bloc of vehemently anti-war Federalists had convened at a conference in Hartford, where the prospect of New England’s secession from the Union hung over proceedings. They decided against it, but agreed on a set of tough, non-negotiable demands to take to the American capital. When they arrived, the war was over and the mood ebullient. “They are treated with contempt and brushed aside,” says Taylor. The Federalists, never able to shed the stigma of their opposition to the war, suffered badly in the next round of elections and by 1820 were more or less dead as a political force.
But the war rang a far more tragic death knell for another set of people. At Ghent, the British didn’t negotiate any special dispensation for the confederation of Native American tribes that fought on the British side. “There’s a real sense of betrayal. The [Native Americans of the Western frontier] saw the War of 1812 as the last chance to actually hang on to their territory,” says Zuehlke, the Canadian historian. “Imagine how different the North American landscape would be had the British pushed for some kind of an independent nation for the [Native Americans].”
Instead, the U.S.’s westward expansion took flight. “There’s a fallacy,” says Stagg of the University of Virginia, “that some people assume because you have no decisive outcome, the war had no decisive consequences.” A new generation of American politicians and generals emerged following the war, trading on their service on the front. The 1813 Battle of the Thames, where a much larger American force defeated a cornered British and native contingent, and killed the charismatic Tecumseh, launched the political careers of one President (William Henry Harrison), a Vice President, four Senators, 20 Congressmen and three governors.
Rapidly in the years that followed, the Americans displaced and disappeared the indigenous tribes they once feared. The institution of slavery, which buoyed the then booming Cotton Belt, stretched across much of the lands whose security was guaranteed by the Treaty of Ghent. And as a result, the seeds of a new, far bloodier American conflict were sown.
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Correction: The original version of the story said that James Madison was a Republican. He belonged to what was called the Democratic-Republican Party.