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Why America forgets the War of 1812

Author Don Hickey discusses the reasons for the conflict and how it's remembered by our northern neighbors.

By Randy Dotinga / June 8, 2012

Writer Don Hickey says in his view, America lost the War of 1812 – not a popular opinion, he says. 'The common view is that the war ended in a draw,' Hickey said.

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Quiz time! Remember that famous movie about the War of 1812? You know, the one with that one big star and the other big star?

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You don't. No one does since there hasn't been one. In fact, the conflict has only inspired two or three films, and those are largely forgotten. (It probably didn't help that the 1958 one starring 12,000 extras and Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson was envisioned as a musical.)

It wasn't that the War of 1812 lacked drama. Our nation's capital actually got invaded, and the Battle of New Orleans actually occurred after a peace treaty has been signed thanks to the lack of rapid communication.

Even so, the war -- which actually lasted from 1812-1815 -- just hasn't fired up our imaginations.

What gives? As the war reaches its bicentennial this month, I called Don Hickey, professor of history at Wayne State College in Nebraska, to ask him that question.

He's the author of 1989's epic "War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict," which was updated and revised for a reissue this year. Hickey talked about the reasons for the war, the way our neighbors to the north look at it (they got invaded, after all) and the reasons why we could have avoided this conflict entirely.

Q: Why don't we remember the War of 1812 very well?

A: It's forgotten because the causes don't resonate much today.

We went to war to force the British to give up the removal of seamen from our ships and restrictions on our trade with Europe.

Nowadays, nobody goes to war to uphold maritime rights.

And to confuse the issues of causes, we invaded Canada.

We could not challenge Britain on the high seas, so we thought we'd conquer Canada and force concessions on the maritime front. That made it look like a land grab, and that's the way it's looked at north of the border.

Q: Do you think we lost the War of 1812, making it one of very few defeats for the United States in major conflicts?

A: By my count, we lost the War of 1812 and we lost Vietnam.

That's not a widely held opinion in the United States about the War of 1812. The common view is that the war ended in a draw.

But we invaded Canada in 1812 and in 1813, and in the west in 1814, and all three invasions pretty much ended in failure. It doesn't look like we achieved our war aims.

Q: At the time, Britain was busy with a giant conflict of its own, a war with France that made it crack down on shipping. But the war definitely concentrated minds in Canada, which got invaded. How is the war remembered in Britain and Canada?

A: Let me give you an old saw, a loose paraphrase of what a Canadian historian once said: Everybody's happy with the outcome of the war. Americans are happy because they think they won, the Canadians are happy because they know they won and avoided being swallowed up by the United States, and the British are happiest because they've forgotten all about it.

He didn't mention the biggest losers, who were the Indians.

Q: What happened to the Indians?

A: I estimate the American deaths were 20,000, the British at 10,000, and Indians at maybe 7,500, but that was a much larger proportion of their population.

They lost two decisive wars, one in the old Northwest (the area around Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin) and one in the old Southwest (mostly Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi). That really opened the door to American expansion, and they were left without any allies that they could line up with against the U.S.

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