A forgotten war
Two hundred years ago – 1812 – the United States took a desperate gamble and declared war on Great Britain. Fortunately the gamble was relatively successful and the United States no longer had to be regarded as a “renegade colony” that had temporarily escaped and the ultimate result was a close alliance with England. Unfortunately, the war and the sacrifices of Americans who fought and died has been forgotten. I have seen little observance of the 200 year anniversary in the U.S. and I read that it is largely an unknown war in England.
It proved the word of Benjamin Franklin to be true. He said after the victory at Yorktown: “The War of Revolution is won, but the war of independence is yet to be fought.”
The roots of the war started with American success as merchants. The U.S. merchant fleet doubled between 1792 and 1819. We provided 80 percent of the cotton used in British mills and 50 percent of other goods exported. The sharp growth of American shipping coupled with the war with France made the English nervous. They were particularly unhappy with our growing commerce with France.
The British did not allow a person to change his citizenship plus they needed more merchant sailors. They developed the bad habit of stopping U.S. ships on the high seas and conscripting any sailor born before the U.S. victory in the revolution to service. This, plus blockades of U.S. ports began the rumblings of war.
In addition, the British began supporting Indian attacks along the western frontier and a large segment of the British population wanted to force the U.S. back to colonial status. This led President Madison to ask for a declaration of war on July18, 1812. He certainly faced opposition as the House of Representatives agreed to war by a 79-49 vote however, it was closer in the Senate where it passed 19-13. These were the closest votes on a declaration of war in U.S. history.
The United States was woefully unprepared for war. The president thought that state militias would be the main fighting force. But there was resistance to fighting outside of their native state. The regular army consisted of about 3,500 poorly paid and ill-equipped soldiers. To say the least the early going was difficult. The U.S. attacked Canada and was ultimately repulsed. In addition, the British put together a coalition of Indian tribes under the leadership of Tecumseh and they harassed American settlements on the western frontier. Certainly the U.S. had a lot to learn about modern warfare, but within a year or so they were able to put together successful strategies.
Gen. William Henry Harrison’s army was able to defeat the western Indian coalition and Tecumseh was killed. This ended the organized threat on the western frontier.
But, the U.S. efforts were probably saved by the development of a modern navy and use of creative strategies. Ships such as the USS Constitution, better known as “Old Ironsides,” harassed and sunk British warships. The navy, aided by privateers, were able to capture 219 British ships which was a crippling blow to English commerce.
The land war didn’t go as well with the British capturing Washington, D.C., and burning the capital. However, nature stepped in to save much of the city. During the night a tornado struck followed by heavy rains which put out the fires.
The Napoleonic wars ended, which freed up British troops, however the tide was turning a bit towards the Americans when Thomas Macdonough defeat the British and controlled Lake Champlain. The British noted that the national debt was going up faster than a hot air balloon and there was considerable rumbling about ending the war. Since the French war ended, England didn’t care about the U.S. trading with France. In addition, the American national debt was rising and war appeared to be a stalemate and both sides were anxious to end the conflict.
The treaty of Ghent ended the conflict, but because of the slowness of travel, Gen. Andrew Jackson decisively defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans after the war was over.
The fact most Americans remember about the war is that Francis Scott Key wrote the words of the “Star Spangled Banner” after seeing the flag over the fort which survived a major bombardment.
In general, nothing changed and the boundaries of the United States and Canada remained the same. Yet, the United States emerged as an independent nation and one that would never return to British rule.
Yes, it is a forgotten war, but 2,260 American soldiers died in battle and thousands of others were wounded. We should never forget the sacrifice that these men made to assure our independence freedom.