The textbook says that British Sailors were hiding on American ships, and that the Americans got upset when the Brits started searching our ships. Then it glosses over the whole war, mentioning only the Battle of Ft. McHenry & the writing of the Star Spangled Banner. However that’s not even half the story. The War of 1812 is interesting because three countries were involved, and all three claim victory!
Britain and France were at war, again. England’s King George 3 had gone crazy, his son, George 4 was now in charge. In France, Napoleon Bonaparte was like a Hitler without the mass genocide – he wanted to dominate ALL of Europe. England was trying to stop him. America had declared our neutrality, in part because we couldn’t afford to get involved, and also because there was a lot of money to be made by supplying both sides. Neither France nor Britain were happy about that, the French because they felt we owed them for their help in the American Revolution, and the Brits because they felt that stopping Napoleon was good for the world, and everyone else should be on their side.
The Brits had the world’s best Navy at the time, but they needed sailors and money. So the Brits did two things: First, any ship sailing to a French port must first dock in Britain and pay a fee, otherwise you would be considered the enemy and attacked as such, regardless of the colors flying on your mast. Second, they began boarding American ships and forcing Americans to serve in the British Navy. President Madison, the Father of the Constitution, knew that Congress had to authorize a war, so he asked, and they approved.
America felt they couldn’t take Britain on the seas, so they decided to attack British Canada. It did not go well. One entry point to Canada was Detroit. A woman named Lydia Bacon was there with her husband, and she left a diary (available online for free!) of her time there. From her diary entries, it seems that Mrs. Bacon had more courage and fortitude than General Hull, who surrendered the Fort with very little fight.
Every attempt by the Americans to conquer Canada failed. It was only at sea, of all places, that America had any victories. The USS Constitution, AKA Ol’ Ironsides, beat two British frigates, & the privateers gave the Brits fits. By 1813, however, the Brits had blockaded the Eastern Seaboard & the invasion from Canada was all the way down to Ohio. It wasn’t until 1814 that the Americans started to have some victories – mostly because they got rid of many of the American Revolution has-beens, and brought in younger, fresher, more creative leaders, who formed the army into an actual army instead of a patchwork of militias.
In 1814, the Brits made their way by sea to Washington DC, and burned the White House. Thanks to First Lady Dolley Madison’s quick thinking, several important papers and the portrait of George Washington were saved. The Brits moved on to Baltimore next, because that was the home port of most of the privateers. On September 14, 1814, the bombing of Ft. McHenry began. Francis Scott Key was on board a British ship, and watched through the night. In the morning he penned the words that became our National Anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.
The Treaty of Ghent was signed before the Battle of New Orleans, but because the news reached America after the news of Andrew Jackson’s win in New Orleans, many thought the Treaty was a result of Jackson’s win.
In the end, the Americans claimed victory because the Brits capitulated. The Brits claimed victory because the borders remained unchanged. The Canadians claimed victory because Canadians, not British regulars, had held off the Americans in two battles. So everyone involved thought they were the winners, but really, everyone lost. There were lives lost on all sides for what amounted to a draw. With that thought, I leave you with this completely inaccurate, but hilariously funny Canadian song: