War of 1812 bicentennial: USA shrugs as Canada goes all out


By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY

LEWISTON, N.Y. – When the first big battle of the War of 1812 is re-enacted this fall, the U.S. 1st Artillery regiment will mount an ear-splitting barrage. The Yanks will point their cannons at British redcoats across the Niagara River in Canada. They will wear blue. They will curse King George.

  • Re-enactors, pictured on May 6 in Ontario, Canada, stage the Battle of Longwoods. The original occurred March 4, 1814.
  • By Dave Chidley, The Canadian Press, via APRe-enactors, pictured on May 6 in Ontario, Canada, stage the Battle of Longwoods. The original occurred March 4, 1814.
  • _____

By Dave Chidley, The Canadian Press, via AP

Re-enactors, pictured on May 6 in Ontario, Canada, stage the Battle of Longwoods. The original occurred March 4, 1814.

Unlike 200 years ago, they will all be Canadians.

Many Americans aren’t that into the War of 1812 — not like Canadians, anyway — so the latter often play the former in re-enactments along the international border here.

“For the weekend, I’ll have to be a turncoat,” says John Sek, 60, an English-born Canadian who will play a U.S. Army gunnery captain in the Battle of Queenston Heights. “There isn’t the same interest in the war on your side.”

To grossly generalize: Canadians, whose forebears helped repulse several U.S. invasions in 1812, regard the war that began 200 years ago Monday as a crucible of national identity. For them, its bicentennial is a big deal.

Americans, on the other hand, are familiar with the 1959 hit song The Battle of New Orleans and have a vague image of Dolley Madison fleeing the White House ahead of torch-brandishing Royal Marines with a portrait of George Washington under her arm.

Although they are supposed to study the war in high school, many can’t recall exactly who fought it (the United States and Britain), why (trade issues, freedom of the sea, westward expansion) or who won (unclear).

Congress has declined to create a national bicentennial commission. In New York State, the last two governors have rejected, for financial reasons, proposals to create a state commission.

Lee Simonson, Lewiston’s War of 1812 coordinator, has had to organize the town’s part of the Battle of Queenston Heights re-enactment without any state funds to pay for soldiers’ meals or black gunpowder. In the binational commemoration, he says, “we’re the little brother.”

This attitude could mute enthusiasm for the commemoration of a war that historians say secured the Revolution of 1776 and shaped the new American nation.

There are exceptions. Maryland — whose governor has participated in 1812 re-enactments — has issued War of 1812 license plates, and an official bicentennial commission has plans for a three-year, $25 million commemoration.

The bicentennial also is being promoted by the U.S. Navy, which traces many traditions to the war and hopes to use it to remind Americans, in a time of military budget cuts, of its own importance.

Canadians have their uses for the bicentennial, to which the federal government has committed $28 million. Plans include a new war memorial in Ottawa; more than 100 events, including re-enactments; commemorative stamps and coins; renovation of historic sites; and a phone app for battlefield tours.

It’s part of an effort by the Conservative Party prime minister, Stephen Harper, to foster a more unified national identity by celebrating Canada’s historic roots, including military victories and its British heritage.

A poll last year found that while 17% of Canadians say the War of 1812 was the most important war in forming their nation’s identity, only 3% of Americans feel that way. More than one of three Americans say there were no significant outcomes from the war — or none they can name.

A war to forget

Many Americans don’t know what to make of a war that historian Richard Hofstadter once called “ludicrous and unnecessary” and Brown’s Gordon Wood more recently deemed “the strangest in American history.”

It began with a declaration of war by Americans who did not realize, because word traveled by sea, that the British government had granted some of their key demands several days earlier.

It ended with a battle that took place, again unknown to the participants, two weeks after a peace treaty was signed in Europe.

The Americans picked a fight with the world’s greatest military power, which they were unprepared to fight. The U.S. Army was a shadow of the one that won the Revolutionary War; the Navy had about 16 ships, compared with more than 500 for the British.

Even worse, the United States entered the war with an entire section —New England— vehemently opposed to it. What followed was equally bizarre, especially an early string of U.S. naval victories. James Grossman, director of the American Historical Association, says it’s as if Serbia had smacked around the U.S. Air Force in 1999.

The war featured a major naval battle on Lake Erie; the burning of the Canadian and the American capitals, as well as Buffalo; and, in the midst of everything, a duel between two U.S. generals in western New York. “Unfortunately,” historian John Elting once noted, “both missed.”

In an age when officers were gentlemen and units largely homogeneous, the war’s most famous battle (New Orleans) was won by an assemblage of soldiers, sailors, Marines, Indians, freed slaves, slaves and pirates commanded by a rough-edged country lawyer from Tennessee named Andrew Jackson.

In history, unfortunately, novelty does not guarantee fame. Forced to compete with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, the War of 1812 fights obscurity for several reasons:

•Confusing causes. Was the war fought to stop Britain’s seizing of U.S. sailors from U.S. ships to serve in the Royal Navy? Or to end trade restrictions? Or to seize Canada? Or to open the American West to settlement without interference from British-allied Indians? Or all of the above?

Take impressment — the seizing of sailors Britain claimed were British. New England, the region whose citizens suffered most from the practice, was the one most opposed to the war. British policies hampered the region’s sea trade; war ended it.

Many of the war’s biggest proponents in Congress came from landlocked states such as Tennessee and Kentucky, which saw impressment as part of a pattern of British mischief that included support for Native Americans who blocked westward expansion.

•Leaders with feet of clay. The war made some great men look bad. James Madison wasn’t much of a war president; he became the only one ever driven from the White House. His sainted predecessor, Thomas Jefferson, wasn’t much of a seer; he’d predicted the conquest of Canada “will be a mere matter of marching.”

Although the Americans established a beachhead in their initial assault on Queenston Heights, victory turned into defeat when raw, untrained militia troops, ignoring the pleas of their general, refused to cross the river.

•Britain’s heart wasn’t in it. For the British, preoccupied with war in Europe against Napoleon, 1812 was a sideshow. “They sent their B team,” says Maj. John Grodzinski, who teaches at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Jim Hill of the Niagara (Ont.) Parks Commission recalls an old saying: “Canadians are sure they won the War of 1812, Americans are pretty sure, and the British never heard of it.” British Prime Minister David Cameron admitted as much on his last visit to the White House, joking, “We so much more prefer talking about defeating the French.”

•An inconclusive conclusion. The war, which ended for lack of (British) interest and (American) money, “is ignored today because it was a tie,” Grossman says. “A narrative that doesn’t end definitively is hard to make interesting.”

Some try by calling it “The Second American Revolution.” Historian Alan Taylor of the University of California-Davis writes that the war “looms small in American memory … because it apparently ended as a draw that changed no boundary and no policy.”

A war to remember

It’s easy to forget that the War of 1812 gave America its national anthem, whose lyrics Francis Scott Key wrote after watching the British shelling of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. (The melody came from an old English drinking song.)

For all its foibles, historians say the war is one to remember for several other reasons:

•The United States was here to stay. Ever since the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781 that ended the Revolutionary War, much of Europe still regarded the United States as an upstart and its democracy an experiment.

Like a kid who stands up to a playground bully and gets a bloody nose but makes a point, the United States upheld its national sovereignty by defending itself against British harassment at sea.

Moreover, “the war gave Americans a sense of what it meant to be an American,” says Denver Brunsman, who will publish a book next year on the impressment issue. “Part of that was to volunteer as free citizens for military or naval service.”

•It shaped the American future, economically, diplomatically and militarily. The war killed the idea of America as an agrarian nation with a weak military, static borders and a quasi-isolationist foreign policy. President Jefferson had tried to withdraw the nation from European trade to avoid war, and he was notoriously suspicious of manufacturing and its attendant “wage slavery.”

Yet after what Brunsman calls “the war’s near death experience” — Army humbled, Navy bottled up, capital sacked — “even the party of Jefferson and Madison realizes that it’s not enough to be an agrarian power, that the country needs to make things. It needs to be more like Britain.”

That included a strong military. Winfield Scott, a young Army officer, was taken prisoner in the disaster at Queenston Heights. When the war was over, he and other veterans reformed the Army to avoid a repetition of the mistakes they’d seen.

The war established that the United States would not expand into Canada and would grow west and south. The defeat of Britain’s Creek Indian allies cleared the way for the spread of slave-based cotton planting into Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi and set the stage for the Civil War.

•The rise of Andrew Jackson.Old Hickory made his name at the Battle of New Orleans by giving the war a happy ending (for Americans). The victory marked the beginning of his political ascent and that of a class of people — white men of limited means — previously excluded from American politics. It was the end of Federalists, the party of Washington and John Adams, who bitterly opposed the war and looked foolish after Jackson’s victory.

•The biggest losers. Although there is much debate over who won the War of 1812, it’s clear who lost it: Native Americans east of the Mississippi. The Indians in the Great Lakes states hoped for British support for a sort of buffer state against American expansion. With the end of the war, they lost any hope of independence from, or equality with, the settlers.

Jeffrey Pasley, a University of Missouri historian, calls 1812 the last war “in which there was any doubt about the outcome” of a military clash between the two cultures.

•Canada stayed British. By repulsing the American invasion, the Canadian colony began its march toward self-rule in 1867 and created a pantheon of national heroes.

They include Gen. Isaac Brock, who died in the defense of Queenston Heights; his ally, the Shawnee chief, Tecumseh; and Laura Secord, a 37-year-old housewife who reportedly walked 20 miles in May 1813 to warn a British commander of an impending American attack.

Today Brock’s statue stands 18 stories high on a column overlooking the Niagara River — and Lewiston. “Thanks to the war,” says John Sek, the Canadian re-enactor who wears a blue coat, “we’re not waving an American flag today.”

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