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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.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:06 PM | | Comments (7)


John, you make an understandable mistake.

The great victory of the War of 1812 wasn't the war. It was the status quo ante bellum treaty that you mention at the end. We lost the war, and won the peace.

More seriously, Henry Adams has a nice bit on it in his History. Rakes the British over the coals for their representation at the peace conference. Does go a bit soft on his grandfather, but that's to be expected.

Very interesting article!


'Alas poor York, I knew her......... well?' (Groan!)

Yes, those damn Yankee troops did, indeed set ablaze my fair home town of ye olde York (now the bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis of Toronto), back in 1813; specifically the fully-stocked munitions magazine at Fort York, and the apparently vulnerable Parliament buildings of Britain's Upper Canada, situated in muddy York, on the banks of Lake Ontario.

On a sad note for the victorious American invaders, their commander, Zebulon Pike, and several of his soldiers were killed in that huge 'magazine' explosion on their initial offensive gambit against Fort York. Don't mess w/ fire!

The British military, in a seeming tit-for-tat-like retaliatory counter measure would later march down to Washington D.C., and summarily torch the Capitol building and the White House. (As you, kind Prof. Mci., earlier noted.)

I guess we could call that adversarial military exchange an historical draw. But who's counting? HA!

Prof. Mci., regarding The Battle of the Thames, it was interesting to read in the current Wiki posting there of, that a major percentage of American fighting men led by future, yet short-term president William Henry Harrison, hailed from Kentucky, w/ Isaac Shelby, the then-63-year-old governor of Kentucky and much-decorated American Revolutionary War veteran, heading up the large 'bluegrass state' contingent.

In the lead-up to the aforementioned (by Prof. McI.) Battle of Lake Erie, the Wiki source points out how the natural sand-spit/ harbor of Presqu'ile, jutting far out into Lake Erie from its north shore, played a major strategic role in the ultimate U.S. victory.

Ironically, today, Presqu'ile (Provincial Park) along w/ nearby Point Pelee (National Park)
are two of the premier bird-watching locales in all of North America; a virtual mecca for ardent birders come the annual Spring avian migration. Who knew that this area once figured majorly in early U.S. vs British military operations. It's current bucolic nature belies its violent past. (Not unlike many former Civil War battlefields, today, that now appear so peaceful and scenically pristine; yet witnessed some of the most brutal bloodshed, and military mayhem imaginable, back in the early-to mid1860s North/ South clashes.

And who really knows what would have become of Detroit if the Brits had held on to that eponymously named fort, claiming it for Queen-and-Country within the geographic bounds of then- Upper Canada?

Hmm........... Detroit, Canada. Has a kind of neat ring to it, no?

I'm sure the enterprising Henry Ford, and future pop-music mogul, Barry Gordy Jr., would have found some other obliging town to launch their lofty dreams............. Ford Motor Co. and Motown Records, respectively.

Now all you Baltimore folk, enjoy the pageantry and spectacle of the upcoming tall-ships extravaganza. Always a visual treat, for sea-lovers and landlubbers, alike; whatever the official occasion.

Who really cares who won that silly War of 1812, anyhoo?

Mere water under the bridge, I say. (Spoken like a true, blue Canadian, 'fence-mending', unofficial small "d" diplomat. HA!)


Yes, Alex, it was a silly war - but who won it was not insignificant. At the time we were trying to resist the thuggery of Napoleon. Whatever the sensitivities about the horrible old Leopard, self-serving aggression from the young United States was not helpful to the cause of freedom.

"horrible old Leopard"

I see what you did there.

Nice prog about the 1812 business by PBS here:

The recent PBS documentary about the War of 1812 was a really worthwhile watch -- a production of Buffalo's WNED, which also serves (and derives funds from) a large Canadian audience in southern Ontario.

What was most striking to me was how the story of the war is different in so many communities -- well-remembered in Canada as a time when we came into our own and "beat the Yanks" in many battles, but a very different story for aboriginals, who joined the British in an ultimately futile attempt to hold onto their land. Very different as well as for Americans, as John explains in this post. Then there are the Brits, who barely remember it since they were distracted by the Napoleonic wars.

It definitely was a historic moment that has come to mean many different things to many different people. A lesson for us all in how history comes to be interpreted.

And yet, America seems to be one of the few former British colonies that doesn't constantly carp about having been a colony.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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