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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.

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Q: Other American wars in the 19th century were largely about grabbing territories. Was that the case here?

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A: If you think of this as a land grab, it fits into a larger history of American expansion. But that's not what caused this war.

Canada wasn't the end. It was the means. The end was to force Britain to give up their maritime activities.

Q: What can we learn from this war today?

A: The importance of military preparedness.

We were woefully unprepared for this war. The Republicans were anticipating what one anti-war Republican expected would be a holiday campaign -- that Canada is to conquer herself through the principles of fraternity.

Q: Sounds like something that we heard from Vice President Dick Cheney about the Iraq War, that we'd be "greeted as liberators," right?

A: That was the view. Also, we had a huge 15-1 population advantage.

Q: What went wrong?

A: Our military establishment was woefully unprepared and there were a lot of incompetent officers. Soldiers were recent enlistees who were ill-trained and without combat experience.

We faced a formidable foe -- a tough army in Canada aided by Indian allies who played a significant role in the defense of Canada -- and the logistical challenges of waging war on a distant frontier.

Q: Outside of the Revolutionary War, this is the only war in which the U.S. was invaded by a foreign power. Many people know about the burning of the White House in 1814, and the first lady, Dolley Madison, is often credited with saving the portrait of George Washington. Is there anything about the invasion that we misunderstand today?

A: The popular view is that Washington D.C. was burned, but they only burned the White House, the Capitol, and the state and treasury department. We burned the Naval Yard to keep it out of their hands during our withdrawal.

That was undoubtedly the low point of the war. But it was followed a month later by one of the high points, when the British threatened Baltimore but the Royal Navy couldn't subdue Fort McHenry. That inspired the writing of "The Star Spangled Banner."

And then, in the last great campaign, the British were decisively defeated at New Orleans, and that was a game changer in how we remember the war.

Q: Why does this war fascinate you?

A: I was intrigued because as a graduate student, it seemed to me that it was an ill-advised war. But people in academia thought it was just ducky even though they were dead set against the war in Vietnam.

The Federalists made the anti-war argument in the 1812 era, and these modern academics regarded them as a bunch of throwbacks and elitists. That's not true. They had a pretty coherent program of military and financial preparedness and avoiding war with Great Britain.

Q: What alternative was there to war in 1812?

A: Peace is the alternative. You don't have to go to war.

You live with the consequences of the world war in Europe. We're making money, we're doing OK, and our rights are going to be encroached on by both sides. That's life in the big city. Nobody really threatened our independence. You just wait for the war in Europe to end, and the problems go away.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.


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