The War of 1812 is “the war we don’t know too much about” in America. The same holds true in Britain, where the conflict on the North American continent was a sideshow—the United States declared war on Great Britain in June 1812, the same month that Napoleon invaded Russia. Only two groups have deep memories of the war fought in North America between 1812 and 1815: Canadians and the people of the native tribes.It is the war of “Don’t give up the ship,” the war that gave America its national anthem, saw the White House burned, and made a folk hero of a rough-hewn Tennessee militia commander who would ride his popularity to the presidency, forever changing American politics.
But it also had elements Americans would just as soon forget, and indeed, for the most part they have. During the first two years, United States troops often did not perform well and frequently their commanders were buffoons; the garrison at Detroit surrendered without a fight. The New England states continued commerce with the enemy and threatened to secede. Accepted rules of warfare were violated, giving free reign to fire and sword and terror among civilians north and south of the U.S.–Canadian border. And in the end, the war appeared to be a stalemate: not an inch of territorial boundaries changed.
But as the new documentary The War of 1812 from PBS makes clear, the conflict is one that should be better remembered and more thoroughly studied. The United States could have lost its northern Atlantic seaboard and a sizeable portion of what is now the Midwest—or could have annexed part of Canada—if just a few things had gone differently. The war also marked the last best hope for the native tribes to retain sovereignty over lands east of the Mississippi.The two-hour HD program debuts October 10, 2011, at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time (as always with PBS programming, check your local station’s listings for show times in your area). Narrated by Joe Mantegna, it utilizes the now-familiar documentary formula that blends paintings and drawings with live-action re-enactments, maps, authoritative-but-personable experts (26 of them), and professionally done readings taken from diaries and letters. But if this formula is familiar, it is handled very well in War of 1812, and the information presented is informative, at times fascinating, and a welcome insight into a long-neglected topic. It is also balanced, presenting multiple viewpoints including Euro-American, Native American, Canadian, and to some degree African American. A companion book, The War of 1812: A Guide to Battlefield and Historic Sites was published by Turner Publishing Company.
The War of 1812 grew out of the Napoleonic Wars. To embargo France, Britain’s warships began stopping American merchant vessels, seizing “contraband” cargo destined for France and crew members they claimed were British sailors who had deserted. The American president, James Madison, took his nation to war to protect its sovereign rights, but the war was also viewed by some as an opportunity to expand the United States by invading and seizing parts of Canada. Madison himself thought Canadians would view the Americans as liberators and welcome them with open arms.The Canadians greeted them with arms, all right, but not of the open kind. Repeatedly, poorly led American citizen-soldiers met defeat at the hands of determined and better-led Canadian citizen-soldiers. In one instance, the Canadians prevailed though they were outnumbered 5 to 1. The war established a new level of national pride in Canada and increased the colony’s standing in the British Empire. Not until 1814 would U.S. land forces find the leaders they needed and reach the level of training and competency required to win significant victories.
Ironically, several of the most famous U.S. victories, including its first one in this war, came on the water, where the much larger British Navy should logically have prevailed. The victory of USS Constitution over HMS Guerriere was the first triumph of American arms, giving the nation a much-needed morale boost.
What the land campaigns lacked in professionalism, they more than made up for in brutality. Homes and villages of American citizens, Canadians and Indians were torched, the residents killed or left to face winter without food or shelter. After an American raid burned the Canadian capital of York (now Toronto), the British retaliated by seizing Washington, D.C., and burning the White House. The story of these events is depicted through narration, re-enactments, and diary excerpts.One other group had a major stake in this war. Some leaders among the native tribes, most notably the Shawnee Tecumseh, saw an alliance with the Canadians and British as a way to halt the Americans’ continual westward expansion. If Britain prevailed, it planned to annex part of what is now Minnesota into Canada and create an Indian nation out of the Indiana-Illinois-Michigan region as a buffer zone. The alliance with Britain was a roll of the dice for the tribes, one that came up snake eyes. Both the U.S. and Canada would claim victory at war’s end; the Native American tribes were clearly the losers, abandoned by their red-coated allies.
Among the better-known events depicted in the documentary are the bombardment of Fort McHenry, which gave us our national anthem, and Andrew Jackson’s lopsided victory over British soldiers outside New Orleans. But the great value of the documentary is the time it spends depicting and explaining events that usually go unmentioned, and it manages to do so on both strategic and personal levels.
Other than a few nitpicks—one of the maps used includes the state of West Virginia, which wouldn’t break away from the Old Dominion and become its own state within the U.S. for another 50 years—the only disappointing part of The War of 1812 is that at times it seems too hurried as it races to cover in two hours widespread events that took place over the course of four years. Producers Lawrence R. Hott and Diane Garey have created a very watchable and informative documentary, however—one well worth viewing as the bicentennial of this war approaches.
The War of 1812 documentary is a production of WNED-TV, Buffalo/Toronto, and Florentine Films/Hott Productions, in association with WETA Washington, D.C.
About the Author:
Gerald D. Swick is senior online editor for the World History Group and has written for numerous publications. Among his most recent work is “Omen at Philippi,” about the first land battle of the Civil War, which appeared in America’s Civil War magazine.
To learn more about the War of 1812, see these articles on HistoryNet: