I knew that there was a war in 1812, but it was mixed up in my head with Napoleon & Moscow and I wasn’t really sure who was fighting in the 1812 war … but it turns out it was a war between the British & the United States of America. My lack of knowledge of it seems to be indicative of how important it actually was to the UK (as opposed to the US) but that’s getting ahead of the story a bit. The experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Kathleen Burk (University College London), Lawrence Goldman (University of Oxford) and Frank Cogliano (University of Edinburgh).
The programme was split into three sections – first the context, then the war itself and then a brief discussion of the aftermath & what the war meant to the countries involved. A major part of the context is the on-going war between Britain and France. Partly it was fought via trying to force the US to trade with one or the other party, and imposing sanctions when they disobeyed. But another part of that context is that the British were in dire need of sailors to man their warships, so pursued deserters (or those they could tenuously claim had deserted) even when said men were no longer British citizens. So British Navy ships would stop US ships in international waters, and board them to look for “deserters” who’d then get taken back & put to work in the British Navy. But these so-called deserters may not’ve been deserters at all and may’ve become naturalised US citizens. Or maybe were US born US citizens who’d been impressed into the British Navy at some point in the past despite not being British.
The incidents that actually kicked off the war were two fold – reflecting both parts of this context. Firstly the British said that the US was no longer allowed to sell salted fish to the West Indies, because the British wanted the Canadians to supply it instead (which would keep the money in the Empire). And a US warship (as opposed to a US merchant ship) was boarded by British Navy forces, 4 men were killed and 4 “deserters” including native born US citizens taken off to the Navy. These insults combined with a sense that if the US didn’t defend its honour then it would be forever walked over by other countries, lead to the US declaring war on Britain.
The war itself Bragg described as desultory. Not many battles, the biggest battle actually happened after peace had been negotiated (in Belgium) but before the two forces in America could be told. There were three main areas where there was fighting – Canada, the Great Lakes region, and the Atlantic ocean/coastline. The US believed at the outset of the war that would be able to just march some of their militia into Canada and the Canadians would lay down their arms and join the US – not entirely a foolish idea for the US, they’d just acquired part of Florida through a similar campaign. But the Canadians didn’t, and the US invasion was pushed back. An attempted land invasion of the US by Canadian militia met equally little success though – both militias being good at defending their own territory but less good at invading.
In the Great Lakes region of the US the British were backing the Native Americans, in particular the Shawnee who tried to unite the various Native American tribes to push the white settlers out of their lands. This was ultimately unsuccessful even with British backing, and this conflict was a major factor in the later campaigns against the Native Americans pushing them out of their lands (including the Trail of Tears). Andrew Jackson who was president when the later persecution of Native Americans was carried out became a war hero during this war partly because of his successful battles against the Creek Indians.
The naval arena was the area where the British had by far the upper hand – their army was bigger too, but the British Navy was the première Navy in the world at this time. However two of the biggest successes for the US came in this area. The Battle of Baltimore, which has been memorialised by the poem that turned into the national anthem of the US (the Star Spangled Banner), and the Battle of New Orleans which occurred just after the peace treaty was signed. However the British did have successes as well – they successfully captured Washington after the local militia fled from the British Army force (that heavily outnumbered them as well as being better trained & armed). Originally the intent was to levy a fine (I think that’s what they said) as an indication that the town was captured, but as the Army marched into the town under a white flag they were fired upon – at which point they put to death the people in the house which had fired on them, and burnt down the various government buildings including the Presidential Palace & the Library of Congress. The experts were keen to point out that with the exception of the house which had fired on the army there was no damage done to civilian buildings.
The war came to an end after about 3 years mainly because the tensions that had lead to it went away – Napoleon was no longer ruler of France and Britain was no longer at war with France. Which meant that they weren’t so worried about US trade, nor were they so worried about tracking down deserters. Public opinion in Britain was also against the war – as being a waste of money & men, for no good reason. Peace was negotiated at a meeting in Belgium, and Burk summarised the treaty as saying not much of anything – nothing had changed since before the war & the treaty didn’t really mention any of the things that the war had been about. The other two disagreed with that as a general statement – but they did agree that from the point of view of Britain Burk was right.
From the point of view of the US this had been much more significant – it was almost a second War of Independence, and they felt they had asserted their right to be treated as a sovereign country. And as the news of one of their biggest victories in the war (in New Orleans) reached the majority of the country at the same time as news of peace did, it looked awfully like they’d won the war. Rather than it having been a bit of a damp squib that fizzled out. And from the point of view of the Native Americans it had been a disaster, which lead to public support for their persecution.