It is March of 2011 – currently making news around the nation is the hundred and fifty year anniversary of the wave of secessions that sparked the outbreak of the American Civil War – you can fully expect over the next few years to have a regular wave of commentary and news stories about reenactments of the US Civil War, the major events and battles of the Civil War being hashed out again, and of course controversy about the meaning of the US Civil War and the conduct of its key leaders on both sides. All well and fitting, a good dialogue about the US Civil War will be useful and 2012 – 2015 does neatly fall into that one hundred and fifty year mark, I look forward to commemorative currency releases and modified US currency by private mints – perhaps will see a re-release of Confederate paper money, a fun collectible of many years. However amidst the wave of excitement over the anniversary of the US Civil War the bicentennial of another, just as critical, US war is being drowned out, the bicentennial of the War of 1812. There are some local commemorative events being planned, the City of Niagara Falls is putting forward a major commemorative tourist initiative for example, but nationally this is a war which the US has semi-forgotten, which is not surprising considering the conduct of the war but also sad because of its incredible importance in shaping our modern nation.
First off the name of the War of 1812 is an odd one – think about it for a moment, most US wars are named after the antagonists in the war or in the case of multi-combatant wars a catchy summary name is given. World War I (formally the Great War) and World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the War with Mexico, the Spanish-American War, names that mark with whom we fought or signifying a major engagement. The War of 1812 we have a date, you have to dig just to find out with whom we went to war. A more proper, but less tongue rolling name, would be the Second Anglo-American War, this was a conflict between the United States and the Kingdom of Great Britain over a series of unresolved issues from the First Anglo-American War (also known as the American Revolution.) Of particular import for the newly fledged United States was the impact of policies by the British government upon US shipping – the British navy regularly searched and boarded US ships and seized sailors for service in the British navy, under the argument that said sailors were escaped British seaman being returned to their legal duty. (Often, honestly, they were not and the British navy was just filling its voracious appetite for sailors.) There were issues regarding the presence of British military forces in territory that was supposed to have been fully turned over to the United States after 1783 – forces in the upper portions of the modern Midwest that threatened to undermine US political control of the region. Great Britain was also channeling weapons to native tribes in the area as well, fomenting resistance to the rule of the United States over its newly acquired territories.
But this war came in the midst of a period of overall major changes for the United States and it helped redefine how our nation handled itself and it represented some incredibly close calls for the United State as a nation – some historians have called it the Second American Revolution and in many ways their catchy label is a valid one. During this war the United States faced serious internal divisions over the war, politically waging it was a charged issue and many in the United States felt disconnected from the war, especially in the (at the time) populous and economically important New England states. This discontent led to a threatened secession by many of the New England states in 1815, the news of the signing of the treaty ending the war forestalled what might have lead to a collapse of the United States as a nation in 1815. From 1812 to 1815 the United States saw serious armed invasions on its shores, including in 1814 a major assault upon the territory of the United States from three directions – through upper New York southwards, along the coast line against Washington D.C. and against Baltimore, MD, and from the south against New Orleans. In fact the capital itself was burned by the British after their successful routing of US military forces protecting the capital, an event that scattered the national government and put local authority in control of the war effort temporarily.
The War of 1812 also is filled with stirring stories as well – such as the defense of the Great Lakes by a US admiral commanding a fleet of ships built on-location and defeating the British Navy on station on the lakes, a victory critical to the future economic development of the United States. All the commerce that flows along the Great Lakes today, including through the St. Lawrence canal to the Atlantic Ocean, all of that is because the United States gained control of the Great Lakes. The War of 1812 also shifted the United States away from the ideal of a decentralized nation with a minimal federal government to one in which the central government had more authority, more resources, and more power. It even profoundly impacted how the United States addressed issues of national defense and the role of the military.
Over the next few months I’ll be writing a series of posts on this war – both its impact and some of the major interesting events that occurred during the War of 1812 – in the hopes of bringing people’s awareness of it up.