That nice little war
We’re cranking up a celebration of the War of 1812 in Baltimore, with a tall-ships “sailabration” (sounds like a used-car ad), fireworks, a new overture for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and whatnot. It’s a big deal for Baltimore—Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and all that. I’m fine with it. History is a good thing to know and appreciate.
Complete history is even better. The War of 1812 was not one of our more heroic moments as a nation.
It began over impressment, a legitimate issue. Seamen were deserting from the harsh life on British warships to work on the comparatively easier American merchant marine. The Royal Navy, not caring a fig for American sovereignty, stopped and boarded American ships, taking away any seamen they claimed to be British deserters.
This is the sort of quarrel that would ordinarily be resolved by diplomacy. But there were complications. First, the British did not, in fact, think much of American sovereignty. Second, the young Henry Clay and his fellow War Hawks in Congress thought that Britain’s distraction with Napoleon was an excellent opportunity to make a grab for Canada. So we went to war.
It was a disaster. The attempt to invade Canada was a fiasco. In fact, the British took Detroit. (After the war, they made us take it back.)
Then the British, not intending to reconquer America but give us a good smack, approached Washington. At Bladensburg, the heroic American militia skedaddled at the first sight of British regulars, and the British marched into Washington—President Madison having fled—and burned the Capitol and the White House.*
Afterward, Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane sailed up the Chesapeake to administer a similar whipping to Baltimore. But Fort McHenry withstood bombardment, and the death of Major General Robert “I’ll dine in Baltimore tonight, or in hell” Ross took the sand out of the British infantry, who withdrew.
This we have decided to count as a victory.
There were actual victories: General William Henry Harrison at the Battle of the Thames, in which Tecumseh was killed, which along with his previous victory at Tippecanoe, was to elevate Harrison to the presidency, for a month. There was also Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s naval victory in the Battle of Lake Erie. The greatest, of course, was the Battle of New Orleans, the triumph that made Andrew Jackson a national hero and eventually president.
In one of the many oddities of this strange little war, it was fought two weeks after the peace treaty was signed, but before word could get across the Atlantic from Ghent.
And the main result of the Treaty of Ghent? Status quo ante bellum.
But hell, it’s always good to have an excuse for fireworks and an overture.
*The burning was a retaliation for American acts. During the brief interval before being chased out of Canada, American troops plundered the city of York (now Toronto) and burned the Legislative Assembly.