This Day in History 6/18: The War of 1812

USS_Constitution_vs_GuerriereIt just figures that the first day of the US Open at Bethpage Black gets rained out.  It shares an anniversary with another unhappy accident.

Today is the 197th anniversary of the War of 1812, one of the strangest wars in American history.  It’s been called many other names, such as the “Second War of Independence” or “Mr. Madison’s War”, after the sitting President James Madison.  My favorite name for it, however, is the “War of Faulty Communication,” since a simple advance in technology would have prevented not only the war even being declared, but would also have stopped its largest battle from even starting.

The young United States was fighting largely for respect.  Both Napoleonic France and Great Britain, in constant warfare since 1793, wanted to use the U.S. as leverage in trade and military gamesmanship.   American trade suffered from British harrassment–especially the “impressment” of sailors–and French meddling.  Furthermore, in defiance of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, the British remained in forts on America’s western frontier, providing arms and supplies for local Native groups to raid on encroaching American settlements.

Yet when Congress passed the war resolution on June 18, 1812, many of the major abuses by the British were being resolved.  A month before, the prime minister died, and Lord Liverpool formed a new government, one which sought a more accomodating stance with the United States.  On June 16, just two days before the declaration of war, Parliament voted to rescind many of the aggressive maritime measures that caused American anger in the first place.  If there was even a telegraph line, let alone a phone or the Internet, this war would’ve never happened.

If you asked the generals on both sides, it shouldn’t have happened–not in their military conditions in 1812.  Britain was in no shape to get into another conflict.  It was busy in the Peninsular War in Spain against Napoleon, as well as leading the alliance against the French via the mainland, aiding their Continental allies as the French armies got stuck in Russia.  Britain controlled the seas with its huge navy, but it was needed to blockade Europe, and few ships could be spared.

The United States was in worse shape.  The standing army was only about 7,000, and recruits were hard to come by outside of the South and West.  The war was extremely unpopular in New England, where they threatened secession if their commerce was further curtailed.  The navy was virtually nonexistent: a whopping 14 ships, with 6 frigates and no heavy-hitting ships of the line, compared to Britain’s 600 vessel monster.

The war was concentrated on the high seas, the Great Lakes, the coastal towns of the Chesapeake Bay, the western frontier and the Gulf coast.  Most battles were small affairs, especially in the west where the British had to use Canadian militia and native allies to buttress their small ranks.  This changed in 1814, when the waning of the Napoleonic Wars allowed Great Britain to allocate more resources to the American front.  This resulted in the burning of Washington, DC and the siege of Baltimore–the very same siege that gave birth to our national anthem.

By December of 1814, the war was tiring on both sides.  Britain wanted to maintain a strong hand in shaping post-Napoleonic Europe, and the war in the Americas weakened its position among its allies Austria and Russia.  The United States, meanwhile, wanted to end a costly conflict that had few clear victories and some disastrous defeats.  Both sides signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 28, 1814, which ended the war.

Or did it?

Somehow, Andrew Jackson did not get the message.  Maybe his DSL connection was down, or the network admin was doing maintenance.  Instead, he decides to give the British the beating of a lifetime.  On January 8, 1815, Jackson’s Americans soundly defeat an invading British force at New Orleans.  It made Jackson a national hero, but it never should’ve happened.  It wasn’t until the next month, when the British invaded Mobile, Alabama, that news reached the South of the peace treaty. 

So what did the War of 1812 teach us, kids? 

(1) Always check your messages.  It’ll avoid unfortunate misunderstandings and prevent escalation of conflict.  Jackson needed a Blackberry.  Lord Liverpool should’ve Twittered his actions.

(2) Never get caught with your pants down.  You’ll end up running like the US Army at the shameful Battle of Bladensburg in 1814.  It was widely considered the worst defeat in US military history.

(3) Always get the “last licks.” The schoolyard prepares us for the battlefields of life.  Jackson ended up with the last punch in 1815.  In 1828, he’d be elected President.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “This Day in History 6/18: The War of 1812

  1. blighter

    And I, for one, am quite thankful that Jackson did not get the message about the war’s end. Else we would not have the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s excellent “Battle of New Orleans” song. One of my all time favorites, which will now be running through my head for the rest of the day…

    In 1814 we took a little trip,
    along with Col. Jackson down the mighty Mississip.
    We took a little bacon and we took a little beans,
    And we fought the bloody British in the town of New Orleans…

  2. Pingback: This Day in History 1/8: The Battle of New Orleans « Mr. D’s Neighborhood

  3. Pingback: Myths of Our Founding: Carol Berkin on Teaching the Revolution « Mr. D’s Neighborhood

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