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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    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?

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.

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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.

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

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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