Two hundred years ago this month, the United States of America declared war on the mighty British, the country with the most powerful navy in the world at the time. The war went on for two and a half years and led to over 2000 American military deaths, over 60% of which were soldiers from Kentucky. The War of 1812 is the origin of the national anthem of the United States and it helped form the reputation of at least two Presidents, Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison.
Given the above facts, I found it strange how little noise is being made about this important bicentennial anniversary. I brought this up to an acquaintance with a good understanding of military history and he pointed out that it is easy for Americans to look at our ultimate success and our final victory at New Orleans and see ourselves as the victors, but the war was really won by the British military, if it was won by anyone at all.
Curious, I decided to do some reading on my own and watch this awesome PBS special on the War of 1812. I learned that the war ended primarily because the British government was content to end it. They were done fighting with the French for the time being and no longer had any need to impress American sailors and control entry into U.S. ports, two of the stated causes of the war. The British did not feel the need to grant the U.S. more territory, another major goal, and the Treaty of Ghent declared that all land should be retained by its prewar owners. So, in focusing attention on the War of 1812, we would have to acknowledge a failure to achieve the desired outcome of annexing at least part of Canada and a number of U.S. military failures, for instance leaving Washington D.C. open to attack which led to the burning of almost all the government buildings. We would also be reminded that many Native Americans fought for the British because of their understandable frustration with the government of the United States, and, subsequently, that the U.S. government went on to marginalize and mistreat Native Americans in ways that most all of us find shameful today.
So, perhaps the War of 1812 doesn’t warrant celebrating like the American Revolution or D-Day, but I think it is a mistake to let the opportunity to learn about the conflict pass us by. There are several great stories of heroic acts by Americans, such as Dolly Madison’s last minute decision to save a famous portrait of George Washington as the British were entering Washington D.C. and an epic victory at sea despite the disadvantages suffered by the American navy, but there is a more important reason to study the War of 1812. What we learn from our past informs our future, so we should want to understand this conflict as much as those few in which we all agree we were the victors and were clearly fighting on the right side. Most importantly, we need to make sure the leaders of tomorrow have the chance to understand it, too.
Here are a few great places to find information and teaching resources for the War of 1812:
PBS’s special on the War of 1812
PBS’s War of 1812 classroom site
An American Experience lesson plan for high school: Dolley Madison: Were there two wars for American independence?
The National Guard History Museum
The Library of Congress War of 1812 Web Guide
The National Archives Digitized resources for the War of 1812
The Kentucky Historical Society