Nov 12

The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, by Donald Hickey ★★★★★

If anybody has been following the recent books that I’ve been reading and reviewing, many of them are centered around history, and recently, of early United States history. The war of 1812 has not been well taught in school, and so I decided to fill in a few of the gaps in my education. Hickey’s text has been well reviewed on Amazon, and, not wishing to read all the books available on this war, settled with this book. It is quite condensed, without wasted words, but very complete and detailed. Hickey especially points out the conflict of Americans regarding this war, which was not strongly supported by the nation as a whole.

Hickey outlines the events that led up to the war. It was mostly complaints about British control of the seas, and their interference with American merchant vessels. Britain was fighting a war with France and needed as many sailors as possible, yet many of their sailors were “jumping ship” and working on American merchant vessels since life was safer and the pay was much higher. Britain would confront American ships, and make off with any sailor that was British, leaving some merchant vessels devoid of sufficient sailors. Britain also imposed highly restrictive areas to which American vessels could sail and thus limit American trade to Britain’s enemies, while America wished to maintain neutrality with both Britain and France. This was not a new problem but had been an issue since the end of the Revolutionary War.

The nation was quite split on whether or not war should be declared. The northern Federalists were very opposed to war, while the southern Republicans were more than eager to engage in battle. (Please note, the Republican Party of 1812 was NOT the Republican Party that we know of today). Madison, being a Republican, was eager for war. There were just three problems. 1) Half the nation was dead set against war, 2) The USA at that time had essentially no army or navy, nor constitutional means of building an army or navy, and 3) nobody, Federalist or Republican, showed interest in financing the war. Such issues needed to be addressed before declaring war, but not to either Madison or the Southern Republicans. War it will be and war it was.

The war was really broken down into three years of battle, 1812, 1813, and 1814, though the last year extended into 1815, the peace treaty was signed by the Brits on Christmas eve of 1814. The year 1812 began with high hopes, with plans for the invasion of Canada on three fronts, as well as assertion of control of the high seas. The invasion of Canada went poorly, and in the end, more land was lost than gained. Fort Dearborn (Chicago), Detroit, Mackinac Island, Niagara, Queenston Heights all fell, owing mostly to inept generalship, but also to the extensive British use of Indians throughout the war. It is no wonder that further Indian problems persisted in America; the Indians were definitely not the peace-loving innocent natives that popular imagery paints them to be. On the seas, the tide went the other way for the US, with victories from the US Constitution, as well as other smaller ship battles. This was unexpected, being that the British were considered an impregnable force on the seas. Additionally used were privateers (pirates), small quick ships with a few guns which acted independent of the US government, and which raided British merchant ships. This was a significant cause of grief for the British. In all though, 1812 was a bad year for the USA. New taxes were needed since outgoing trade was no longer taxed, and embargos (especially to Canada and Britain) only led to massive smuggling operations, free of taxation. The British were quite humored to note that American loyalty to their country quickly disappeared when a good financial deal could be offered.

The year 1813 showed a bit more promise to the USA, though it was quite mixed. Canada invaded US soil, taking Detroit. In return, the US sought to control Lake Erie, and had successful sea battles to that end. William Harrison was successful in re-taking Detroit, followed by the victorious battle of the Thames, where the Indian chief Tecumseh was killed. Lake Ontario battles were a mixed success, with the greatest defeats being from the weather. The battle of York was a success for the US, though the Canadian town was thoroughly looted and then burned. In return, Fort Niagara was captured by the British, and Buffalo burned to the ground. Attempts to take Montreal were failures owing to the greater defenses in that town. Southern battles also took place, which were mostly against the Indians. The Indians in conjunction with the British led to the massacre of Fort Mims. Andrew Jackson took command of the southern US army and multiple battle successes then ensued. The seas were quieter. The British now traveled in convoys, avoiding battle. They formed a blockade of the Atlantic coast, blocking most heavily the south since the Brits knew that it was the South and not the New England states that produced the war. The Brits commenced raids in the Chesapeake bay area. The only real US navy accomplishments were from the continued harassment on the high seas from privateers. Meanwhile, an unacceptable peace treaty was offered by Britain. The US enforced a more strenuous trade embargo, which was impossible to enforce, and violated by both the Federalists and Republicans. The US approached bankruptcy, and a national bank was unsuccessfully proposed.

The year 1814 was also a mix of losses and successes in battle. In Europe, the French were defeated at the battle of Leipzig, and though Britain still needed troops in Europe, was able to free up more ships and troops for the American campaign. Successes for the Brits in overrunning Prairie du Chien (in Wisconsin), as well as gaining control of lake Erie and Mackinac Island were countered by the Americans re-occupying Detroit. Multiple battles around Niagara were indecisive, some being quite bloody. Attacks from the British on and along Lake Champlain eventually resulted in American victories, with battles both on the lake and at Plattsburgh pushing the Canadians back into Canada. In return, the British extended their sea blockade into the New England waters. Eastern Maine was occupied by British forces. Chesapeake raids led to the burning of Washington DC, though the battle for Baltimore was a small victory for the US. It was at this time that the bombing of Fort McHenry was unsuccessful for the Brits, leading Francis Scott Keys to pen the Star Spangled Anthem. This battle was not necessarily a victory for the US. Meanwhile down south, Andrew Jackson was successful in his campaigns, including battles for Mobile and Pensacola (then officially owned by Spain), as well as the major battle of New Orleans. US sea losses included the US President and US Constitution.

Though the year 1814 had a mix of losses and successes, it was going horribly on the home front. Recruitment for the military was largely unsuccessful, and desertions frequent. Though illegal, there was massive trade occurring with the enemy. Congress was recalled to emergency session, but splits between the Federalists and Republicans made any compromise impossible. Tax increases to pay for the war with a failing economy was futile at best. The New England Federalists held a convention titled the Hartford Convention to solidify Federalist opposition to the war. Recommendations were presented to Congress. Though well-meant, the Hartford Convention was quickly spun as a traitorous movement.

A peace treaty was becoming increasingly important, since this war was hard on both the economies of Britain and the US. In addition, other nations were affected such as Russia, who depended on US shipping and thus eager to see an end to the war. Initial British propositions were found completely unacceptable to the US. The book’s author Donald Hickey notes that of all US successes, that of diplomacy to end the war was the U.S.’s greatest success. The ultimate decision was to return to status quo ante bellum, i.e., simple return to all conditions before the war started, including lands occupied by one or the other nation, and by return to all of the high seas policies which triggered the war in the first place. Interestingly enough, those high sea policies quickly became irrelevant following the war, since war also ceased in Europe, and so impressment (the British forcing return of sailors) and trade restrictions were no longer relevant. In my estimation, if the US would have waited, those problems would have solved themselves earlier.

Quickly after the war, the US spin doctors were able to frame the war as a victory to the US. The Republicans sold the war as a second and affirmative Revolutionary War against Britain. In reality, the war accomplished nothing but greater division in the US. Both political parties (the Federalists and Republicans) were on their last gasps. The US was plunged into deep debt. The Indian problem was probably made worse (for the Indians) through it all. Good did come from the war. The US realized the futility of trying to bring Canada into the fold of these United States. The US realized the necessity of having a standing army and strong defense system. Several US presidents were victorious generals of the war— William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson. Thankfully, the death toll was more from disease than from combat fatalities.

We were taught in grade school that before the Viet Nam war, the USA had never lost a war. Yet, the war of 1812 was a war that was essentially lost, since it accomplished nothing but lost lives and lost property. The issues at stake before the war were not resolved. It was a futile effort of the young USA attempting to assert themselves in a crazy world. Yet, it leaves one wondering about all the wars that the US has engaged in. The war of 1812 was a war that never should have been fought. What about the other wars? The civil war essentially started at the birth of our Republic in 1789, and continues to this day. Massive lives were lost both on the side of the North and the South, yet we are rapidly retreating into another form of slavery at this time, and race relationships have never been worse than now. The Spanish-American war was a strange animal that didn’t serve many purposes except to change the hands of several islands. The first world war should never have been fought, yet WWII was the expected child of WWI. We created more misery than good in those two wars. The USA did achieve world hegemony, though it is uncertain (in my mind) whether that was really a good thing. The Korean and Viet Nam wars were either the result of the outcome of WWII or a consequence of European colonization of the world. Others view American history as showing a particular proclivity of Americans to go to war, yet that simply isn’t true, as every nation has a tendency to war, especially when they gain (or desire) military hegemony. It is intrinsic to fallen human nature to fight. Even the most outspoken anti-war Pacifists ultimately find excuses to defend themselves or their honor when challenged. There is only one Prince of Peace to whom we should all be bowing, and, outside of Him, we will know no peace.

This book is a wonderfully written book, hard to put down, chronicling of a very stupid and unnecessary war. It is no wonder that it is a forgotten war, or, when remembered, remembered in such a fashion as to distort history into saying something contrary to the truth. Reality does sometimes hurt, but it is a better alternative than living in a fantasy world.

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