September 2, 2013
By Jan C. Ting
The bicentennial of the War of 1812, fought for three years until 1815, is passing with only local commemoration in the United States, although that war resulted in thousands of American and British deaths from both combat and disease, as well as the invasion and burning of the national capital in Washington, D.C. by the British, after its abandonment by the U.S. government.
Most Americans know little about the War of 1812, although the national anthem was written by Francis Scott Key when he observed “The Star Spangled Banner” still flying after the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor in 1814. Baby boomers may vaguely recall the 1959 popular song “The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton, which celebrated a major American victory at the end of the war.
Conversely, the war bicentennial is being nationally celebrated in Canada which was invaded by U.S. armies during the war. The U.S. invasion forged a sense of Canadian identity clearly different from that of the Americans, despite a common culture and language.
Last year, Canada produced commemorative coins for circulation to honor British-Canadian heroes and victories in the War of 1812.
A two dollar coin celebrates the bloody victory of the British frigate HMS Shannon in capturing the American frigate USS Chesapeake outside Boston harbor in 1813. Sixty Americans were killed including the captain whose famous final order was, “Don’t give up the ship!”
A quarter dollar coin was issued for the heroine Laura Secord who, overhearing plans for an American military advance, walked 20 miles through forest and swamp, warning the British troops and their native allies, helping to stop the Americans.
Another quarter dollar coin honors the Shawnee warrior and chief Tecumseh who lead native warriors of many tribes to fight alongside the British and capture Fort Detroit from the Americans. Other quarter coins honor British General Sir Isaac Brock who died leading the charge to repulse the American invaders, and Charles-Michel de Salaberry who organized and led French volunteers to defend Montreal from the Americans.
Quite a contrast with the more recent U.S.-Canada friendship portrayed in the recent Hollywood movie “Argo”.
In Philadelphia a vestige of the War of 1812 is the 142-foot high Shot Tower at Front and Carpenter Streets in South Philadelphia, clearly visible from the I-95 expressway. The Shot Tower was built in 1808 to produce lead shot for firearms after an embargo in 1807 prevented importation, and ended up producing lead shot for the U.S. military throughout the War of 1812.
British raiders of the American coastline routinely freed slaves, helped them flee, and welcomed freed slaves into military service with the Royal Marines. One reason Americans fought so hard to repel British raiders was fear of retribution from freed slaves with guns.