Two hundred years ago, on June 1, 1812, President James Madison sent his “war message” to Congress, and soon a divided Congress declared war on Great Britain, with 79-49 the House vote and 19-13 the Senate vote. Only three of those pro-war Senators were from New England.
So began the War of 1812. We don’t really know much about it. That’s entirely understandable. Other than a few memories burnished almost in isolation in the history books – the USS Constitution’s successes, Francis Scott Key at Fort McHenry, Oliver Hazard Perry on the Great Lakes, the Battle of New Orleans – the War of 1812 was largely a bungled, mismanaged fiasco.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t learn about the War of 1812. It had a profound and lasting effect on the future course of the new American nation. But reading its tangled history is like learning a slew of guilty secrets about your family forebears. Though I love history, recounting that of the War of 1812 is not my intent here. I’d just like to tell you a few things about it that perhaps you didn’t know.
- “Remember the Raisin” became a battle cry of the time. As the Alamo, the Maine, and Pearl Harbor would become motivators to future generations, the crushing 1813 defeat at the River Raisin in Michigan whipped up the martial zeal of the Americans against the enemy. That enemy was the really the American Indian, not the British Redcoat.
At the Raisin, a joint force of Brits and Indians had overrun a poorly constructed, unguarded and unpatrolled American encampment. The Indians scalped 100 Americans during the fight, and later on they returned, drunk, and began scalping the wounded, burning the village, and tomahawking those fleeing the flames.
- Two American presidents, prominent in the War of 1812, got to the White House because they won more battles than they lost against Indians. William Henry Harrison, victor at Tippecanoe Creek in Indiana in 1811, had an epitaph that read “Avenger of the Massacre of the River Raisin.” Andrew Jackson defeated the Creek Indians at Horseshoe Bend in the South, and got them to surrender 23 million acres of their land in the peace agreement.
- The Indians were the real losers in the War of 1812. Their lands and the vast expanse of Canada were the objectives of the “War Hawks” in Congress. Indians, led by the warrior-statesman Tecumseh, had been allied with the Brits ever since the cessation of the Revolutionary War. Britain hadn’t withdrawn all its troops from the West, and they harassed and opposed settlers moving west. But with the death of Tecumseh at Thames – his British allies had fled from the field – and the eventual withdrawal of British forces at war’s end, the native tribes had no more hope of uniting or defeating the Americans.
- James Madison, scholar and writer, was a terrible president. His wife Dolley, outgoing, bodacious, and full of personality, would probably have been a better chief executive. Madison was shy and diffident; he appointed a crew of political lifers and self-dealing ne’er do wells to run the war effort.
- Dolley Madison saved the portrait of George Washington from destruction when the Brits burned the White House and the US Capitol in retaliation for the burning of Toronto. According to legend, President Zachary Taylor referred to Dolley as "first lady" at her funeral. Before her husband was elected president, Dolley served as a hostess for President Thomas Jefferson. As first lady, she was known for her flamboyant parties, strong personality, and as a supporter of many charities, including the Washington City Orphan Asylum.
- Impressment of seamen by Britain was probably overstated as a cause of the War of 1812. The states of the Northeast, maritime in their economies, were largely against the war. Yes, the Brits did impress sailors, most of whom were in fact deserters from the British Navy. Only a few hundred Americans were snatched onto British ships. The biggest hue and cry about “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights” came from states of the South and West. It was an excuse. The War Hawks wanted Indian land and Canadian land.
- Canada was a winner in the War of 1812. Americans thought it would be easy to take over Canada, and invaded three times, only to lose each time. Canadians celebrate the war as a heroic defense against and a formative moment in their country’s emergence as an independent nation. The War of 1812 bicentennial is big deal in Canada, as they celebrate heroes such as Isaac Brock and Laura Secord.
- As mentioned previously, Northeastern states resisted “Mr. Madison’s War." Massachusetts and Connecticut refused to send soldiers to fight in Canada. Secession was seriously considered, then abandoned, at the Hartford Convention of the two states in 1814. But emissaries from the convention, sure of an American defeat, were on the way to Washington to “speak plainly” to Madison when word came that the American had won a big victory at New Orleans. They stayed in Washington for a while but slunk back to New England after the Treaty of Ghent as ratified, ending the War officially in February 1815.
- Rockets did have red glare at Fort McHenry. They were inaccurate but intimidating British missiles called Congreves. They looked like giant bottle rockets, long sticks that spun around in the air, attached to a cylindrical canister filled with gunpowder, tar and shrapnel. The “bombs bursting in air” were 200 pound cannonballs, designed to explode above their target. The British fired about 1500 bombs and rockets from ships in Baltimore Harbor and only killed four of the fort’s defenders.
- Uncle Sam came from the War. In Troy, New York, a military supplier named Sam Wilson packed meat rations in barrels labeled U.S. According to local lore, a soldier was told the initials stood for “Uncle Sam” Wilson, who was feeding the army. The name endured as shorthand for the U.S. government.
- The ill-fated General Custer got his start in the War. George Armstrong Custer “Remembered the Raisin,’ having spent his youth in Monroe, the city that grew up along the Raisin. In 1871, he was photographed with War of 1812 veterans beside a monument to Americans slaughtered during and after the battle. Five years later, Custer also died fighting Indians at Little Big Horn, one of the most lopsided defeats for U.S. forces since the River Raisin battle 63 years before.
- The DuPont Chemical Company got its start in the War too. Pierre DuPont de Nemours had fled the French Revolution with his sons and settled in Delaware. When a British fleet invaded up Chesapeake Bay, the sons’ powder factory rushed a supply of gunpowder to the scene, and the artillery was able to drive away the invaders.
- The Burning of Washington in August 1814 turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The “President’s House” (as it was then known) was rebuilt in sturdier form, with elegant furnishings and white paint replacing the earlier whitewash. The books burned at Congress’s library were replaced by Thomas Jefferson. Tom was broke and needed money. He sold his wide-ranging collection to the government for around $20,000. It became the foundation for today’s comprehensive Library of Congress. The previous library had been limited largely to works of a legal nature.
- The War of 1812 could have been avoided had there a telephone or telegraph. Britain was ready to deal and had rescinded the Orders in Council just before Madison’s war message went to Congress. Then in 1814, the U.S. and Britain agreed to peace two weeks before the battle of New Orleans.
- Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, the climactic musical piece in America’s Fourth of July celebrations in Boston and elsewhere, had nothing to do with the War of 1812. It was composed in 1880 in commemoration of Russia’s defeat of Napoleon at Borodino, near Moscow. The piece was first played at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in 1882.
- For roughly a century, the conflict didn’t merit so much as a capital “W” in its name and was often called “the war of 1812.” The British were even more dismissive. They termed it “the American War of 1812,” to distinguish the conflict from the much greater Napoleonic War in progress at the same time.
We should never forget the lessons that history can teach us, and military history is particularly thrilling and instructive. Wars are, unfortunately, sometimes the only choice that a nation can make. The War of 1812 was not one of those choices. What might have happened to the Native Americans, had the war not been waged, and had their leader Tecumseh survived to unify them? Would Harrison and Jackson ever have become presidents?
We’ll never know, of course. But we do know, as General Sherman – William Tecumseh Sherman, named for the great Indian leader - said to a military school’s graduating class in 1879:
“You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, War is Hell!”