Happy 200th Birthday, War of 1812!
A primer on America’s most bumbling, most confusing, and most forgotten conflict.
The war was not over, however, and the British prepared for a large counteroffensive in the summer of 1814. By August they had amassed a large force along the mid-Atlantic coast, preparing to deal the Americans their greatest humiliation of the war. After easily dispensing with the small militia force in place to defend the capital, 4,000 Royal Marines marched into Washington. Madison and his government had left in such a hurry that British officers found a dinner for 40 sitting uneaten in an executive mansion dining room. They stuffed themselves before torching the place and moving on to burn the Capitol and various other public buildings around the city. Their efforts amounted to little more than vengeance for the American burning of York (Toronto) the previous year, and the troop headed north. But the British incursion stalled in Baltimore. A small garrison of American troops withstood a siege of Fort McHenry in September, the sight of which inspired the lawyer and sometime poet Francis Scott Key to scrawl out the words to the “Star Spangled Banner” on the back of a letter.
Both sides had proven able arsonists, but in the absence of clearer objectives and more decisive victories, there wasn’t much reason for war to go on. It was entirely characteristic of the conflict that efforts to negotiate peace had begun even before any fighting had broken out back in 1812. But when news arrived to envoys in Ghent in October that an American fleet had held off a British invasion of New England, the way to an agreement was cleared. On Christmas Eve, 1814, the two sides signed the Treaty of Ghent, which was simply an accord to end the war. Envoys agreed on prisoner exchanges and little else. Neither side lost or gained anything and the border between the United States and British Canada went unchanged.
If the inconclusive and unsatisfying Treaty of Ghent had truly been the end of the War of 1812, Hofstadter’s assessment may well have been correct. After nearly two and a half years of fighting, the country was nearly bankrupt, New Englanders remained bitterly opposed to the war to the point of contemplating secession, and the conflict had yielded no appreciable gains. It would take the war’s final irony—a technically unnecessary battle contested after the treaty had been struck—to make it anything but “ludicrous and unnecessary.”
News from Ghent had reached neither the 5,000 British troops gathering to take New Orleans nor Andrew Jackson and the force of 4,000 that he had dug in to defend the city and the control of the Mississippi River that came with it. Jackson, the frontier upstart from Tennessee, was already earning a national reputation for his vigorous Indian fighting across the Southeast, but he would become a national hero at the Battle of New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815. Occupying well-entrenched positions, Jackson’s troop would easily repulse the British attack and inflict heavy casualties.
Though Jackson’s famous victory at New Orleans didn’t force a reconsideration of the peace terms, it had the effect of transforming the entire meaning and perception of the war. When the news of the battle reached Washington in February, Congress ratified the Treaty of Ghent not as the indifferent conclusion to a stalemate but as a seemingly great triumph over the old empire. The war had become a glorious redeclaration of independence; its missteps were forgotten and a new generation of national heroes was born—Andrew Jackson first among them. It was fitting that he would eventually come to dominate the age that the war ushered in as a national symbol as powerful as George Washington had been to the Revolution and its aftermath.
When we sing the words to Francis Scott Key’s hastily composed poem that would later become the national anthem, we may not be aware that we are revisiting the War of 1812. Nor are we generally aware that the song’s first verse is phrased almost entirely in the form of a question. “O say can you see,” the narrator begins, initiating a lengthy query as to whether or not the flag above Fort McHenry has survived the previous night’s relentless shelling from British ships. The War of 1812 was carried out amid similar questions about the Revolutionary legacy and the endurance of nation itself. But the popular perception of the war, like the dawn’s early light in the “Star-Spangled Banner,” ultimately gave affirmative answers to those questions—answers that would last until the Civil War raised them anew.
James Lundberg M. is an assistant professor of history at Lake Forest College.