Pity the War of 1812. Its bicentennial is at hand and events are planned for all over North America, from Canada and the Great Lakes to the Mid-Atlantic and the South. But good luck finding someone who can explain in 10 words or less what the war was about.
Some historians see the war as a last gasp by England to control its former colonies, and it’s sometimes called the Second War of Independence. At the time, Americans viewed the war “as an opportunity for us to throw off Britain once and for all,” said Troy Bickham, author of a new book out this month called “The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire and the War of 1812.”
But in Canada, the War of 1812 is seen as an attempted land grab by the U.S. The U.S. invaded Canada and at one point controlled Toronto, but the British, seeking control of the Great Lakes, won Detroit and other important ports.
The War of 1812 was also complicated by what Bickham calls “parallel wars.” The British were fighting the Napoleonic Wars in Europe at the time, while the U.S. battled Native Americans allied with Britain for control of frontier territories from Michigan to Alabama.
Amid the muddle, a few important episodes stand out, from decisive battles to the burning of the White House. Some events are being commemorated with programs, exhibits and military reenactments, from now through the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans, in 2015. Other key moments from the war involve important artifacts or historic sites that can be seen any time. Here are some details on Eastern Seaboard events:
The War of 1812 inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner” after soldiers at Fort McHenry in Baltimore raised an American flag to mark a victory over the British on Sept. 14, 1814. The fort is now a National Park site (nps.gov/fomc/index.htm). The original manuscript for the song will be part of a War of 1812 exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St., Baltimore, opening today.
Also in Baltimore is the “Star-Spangled Sailabration” Wednesday through June 19. It will include a parade of 40 tall ships and naval vessels, an air show featuring the Blue Angels and other festivities (starspangled200.com/). The flotilla is one of several organized by Operation Sail, Inc., which has partnered with the U.S. Navy to mark the War of 1812 bicentennial, with additional tall ship events scheduled June 30-July 5 in Boston and July 6-8 in New London, Conn.
In Washington, D.C., you can see the flag that inspired the national anthem, tattered with age and on display in a darkened room to help preserve it, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (americanhistory.si.edu/starspan gledbanner). At the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, paintings of key figures from the war will be part of a show called “1812: A Nation Emerges,” opening Friday.
Britain had 600 ships while the U.S. had just 17, including the USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides, which Bickham says was the most important ship in our fleet. You can visit the ship in Charleston, Mass., just outside of Boston (history.navy.mil/ussconstitution/history.html).
The British also sought to control Lake Champlain, but they were thwarted by an unexpected American victory in Plattsburgh, N.Y., in September 1814. The town is scheduling reenactments, lectures and other events starting later this year (champlain1812.com).