Spinning the War of 1812


Canadian Blitzkrieg captures Detroit and Chicago!

Toronto and Buffalo left in ruins!

British intervene on Canadian side and capture Washington D.C.!

Sounds like some kind of a fantasy novel, doesn’t it!  Well, it actually happened.  It was the War of 1812, and Americans don’t remember it much, though our National Anthem came out of it.

The Canadians are proposing to celebrate the centennial of the War of 1812 as a ‘great victory’ without stirring up too much anti-American sentiment in the current environment.  Now in the States we have often put somewhat of a different spin on this particular war.  I just happened to be at Fort McHenry recently and that is the site where the British, in the last campaign before the peace treaty, attempted to capture Baltimore and failed.  One Francis Scott Key, on a truce ship in the harbor, waking up in the morning, saw that Fort McHenry had survived the British bombardment and was moved to write the poem that, attached to a challenging tune, has become our American National Anthem.  As a consequence Fort McHenry is one of the few places where the flag is allowed, by presidential order, to fly 24/7. The war ended with pretty much a return to the status quo ante.  The Americans did not come out of it feeling defeated – if anything, they had more confidence than ever.  The New England states, which had been opposed to the war and had threatened succession, were so discredited that after the Federalists were again defeated in the election of 1816 their party was dissolved, and James Monroe, the victorious Dem-Rep candidate, appointed John Quincy Adams, son of the last Federalist President, as his Secretary of State.

Arguably the last serious battle on the Canadian front was in fact an American victory.  It was the battle of Lake Champlain or Plattsburgh, where an American fleet defeated a Canadian one and put an end to thoughts of invasion down the Montreal-Hudson River corridor.  It was, interestingly enough, on September 11, 1814.  The 12th and 13th saw the British failure at Baltimore after they had successfully raided the Nation’s Capital.  And then there was the Battle of New Orleans, which took place after the treaty was signed.  This was the biggest British defeat of the whole war, and it was a long way from the Canadian front.  [One suspects that the Canadians regard all the American defeats as ‘Canadian victories’ and all the American victories as ‘British defeats.’]

On March 31, 1814, the anti-Napoleon Allies captured Paris, and soon after Napoleon abdicated for the first time and retired to the island of Elba off Tuscany.  The War of 1812, to the British, had been merely a sideshow to this major European war.  So for a time the British had thoughts of throwing their full weight on the annoying Americans.  But after the battles of Plattsburgh and Baltimore they gave up that idea and settled on the status quo ante.

The peace treaty was signed in Ghent, Belgium, on Christmas Eve Day of 1814.  At that meeting was future President John Quincy Adams.  News of the treaty had not reached New Orleans when the Battle of Chalmette was fought there on January 8, 1815, the most decisive American victory of the war and one that confirmed the American outlet to the Gulf.  A long way from Canada, however!

Related: “Ottawa to tread carefully in War of 1812 commemorations” by Steven Chase at The Globe and Mail

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