In a Robert Heinlein novel, the War of 1812 is mentioned dismissively as a brushfire conflict on the fringes of the Napoleonic Wars. I'm not sure that the average Briton has any awareness of it at all. But in the US and Canada, the war matters.
In my hometown of Baltimore, the war is very, very personal. When I first moved here, I was surprised to find a Maryland state holiday called Defenders Day on September 12. Say what?
It turns out that September 12 was the land part of the Battle of Baltimore, where the militia stopped the advance of British troops, allowing time to prepare for the naval part of the battle, which was the defense of the city at Fort McHenry.
The reasons for the war are murky. On the American side, there was a feeling that Britain was dissing our new little republic. Their blockade of the Continent was interfering with our trade with France, and they were impressing sailors from American ships to serve on British vessels. If we fought, we could teach them respect and maybe collect Canada and add it to the United States.
I suspect that in Britain, the fighting was seen as a bloomin' nuisance, just get those colonials out of the WAY, please, while we take care of Boney. I do know that the issue of impressing American sailors to serve on British ships was taught in my school as a huge infringement of our sovereign rights, but it looked very different after I read Life in Nelson's Navy by Dudley Pope. It was a lesson in different points of view.
But to get back to the personal element of that war here in Maryland. With Napoleon defeated and exiled to Elba in 1814, battle-seasoned British troops were freed up to come to North America and administer the spanking those Americans so richly deserved.
The British Army was perhaps the world's finest. They won the Battle of Bladensburg in Maryland, looted Alexandria, and burned the American capitol in retaliation for the Americans burning York (now Toronto) in Canada, which had been done in retaliation for burning–oh, never mind. War really is hell, and sorting out causation can be like separating warring kindergarteners.
After burning our capitol, the British marched on, determined to clear out that "nest of pirates" in Baltimore. The city was one of the chief ports of the US, and the title was honestly earned, though Baltimoreans preferred the term "privateers."
The British troops were led by Major General Robert Ross, a distinguished veteran of the Peninsular War. With the might of the empire bearing down on the city, the local citizens, white and black, rich and poor, dug in grimly because that's what you do when enemies threaten your homes. The territorial instinct is powerful. Earthworks were dug, 22 merchant ships were sunk in the mouth of the harbor to prevent the British ships from entering, and both regular troops and militia took positions and prepared for whatever might come.
At breakfast on the morning of September 12, 1814, Ross announced that that night he'd dine in Baltimore or hell. Bad move, because it wasn't Baltimore he dined in.
I've heard that in traditional European warfare, it was considered unsporting to shoot at the commanders in battle. The colonials hadn't gotten that memo. The Mayhem Consultant, a Baltimore native, can instantly name the two teenage sharpshooters who shot General Ross at the Battle of North Point. Wells and McComas were both firing and it wasn't clear which of them fired the fatal bullet into Ross. Both were killed shortly thereafter, but they became local heroes. Streets are named after them.
The rest of the story all Americans know. The British fleet bombarded for 25 straight hours. (That is a HUGE amount of bombardment!) Fort McHenry, a star shaped stone structure, fired back and held firm. And out in the harbor, a Maryland lawyer named Francis Scott Key was marooned on a truce ship for the duration of the battle. He and two others had gone out to negotiate prisoner exchanges and they weren't allowed to leave since they had seen British ship placements and the like.
After a harrowing night of rain and bombs, the morning came and revealed "That our flag was still there." It must have been an unbelievably inspiring sight for Scott Key and other watching Americans. Key wrote his proud, patriotic poem, which was being sold in the streets in broadside form almost immediately. Later his poem was set to the tune of "Anacreon in Heaven," a popular but famously difficult to sing club drinking song.
There were actually two flags at Fort McHenry. Because of rolling thunderstorms, the smaller storm flag actually flew over the fort during the night. At 17 X 25 feet, it wasn't -that- small, but in the morning, with rain and bombardment over, the commander of the fort raised the 30 X 42 foot flag that is "the Star Spangled Banner." That flag is now in the Smithsonian. It had to be restored since so many people had cut souvenir bits off.
The war was ended by the Treaty of Ghent on December 24th, 1814–and because of slow communications, the US beat the Brits in the Battle of New Orleans after the treaty had been signed.
Ft. McHenry is now a national park and a lovely place to visit. It's beautiful and intact, with water on three sides and pleasant breezes blowing off the bay. The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore was celebrated with a huge festival this past weekend. Tall ships from around the world, fireworks, and battle reenactments. It's a proud memory in the state's history, and Maryland knows how to throw a party.
So what was the end result of the war? No borders changed. The Canadians didn't want to join the US, go figure. A national sense of identity was firmed up on both sides of the border (though there is still that Anglophone/Francophone issue up there.) Having declined to become American states, Canada became a steadfast, invaluable member of the British empire ever after. And after the dust settled, the United States, Britain, and Canada have been pretty darned good friends ever since.
And after all that, the young United States acquired a stirring, hard to sing song that has since become our national anthem. (I blogged about national anthems once.)
If you're American or Canadian or British, what did you learn about the war? Do you have any thoughts about it, or about the Star Spangled banner? Or do you think that we should have chosen America, the Beautiful as an anthem instead? <G>