Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The War of 1812, a Victory for whom?

An interesting article written by Andrew Lambert appeared today in the BBC History Magazine, titled: When Washington Burned. In this article, Lambert contests the old assumption of many American historians that the war of 1812 between Britain and the US was a victory for the latter.
I agree with the overall sentiment and would like to elaborate further why this was the case.

The article begins by documenting the defeat of the American frigate Chesapeake by the HMS Shannon, captained by James Lawrence and Sir Philip Bowes Vere de Broke respectively. According to Lambert, the battle ended within 11 minutes, and resulted in the deaths of 48 American seamen out of a crew of 370, compared with the deaths of 23 British seamen onboard the Shannon with a smaller crew of 320 (pp.53). Despite Broke taking both a musket and a cutlass to the head, he survived to become a national hero, unlike Lawrence who died six days later after receiving a gunshot to the wound and severing his femoral artery.

This victory was far from a one off incident, the history of the conflict is written in American blood. A common occurrence throughout the war was the fear the Americans had towards the Indian warriors who at the time had sided with the British. For instance, Brigadier General John. P. Boyd, clinging on to Fort George (one of the few victories the Americans were able to claim) decided to set up six outposts around the entrenchments. Throughout the days and nights, the British and Indians made quick and brutal strikes, thereby keeping the Americans on edge. After being attacked on July the 8th, Lieutenant Joseph Eldridge and thirty men pursued the Indian attackers deep into the woods. None returned. The few who's mutilated carcasses hadn't later been found became British prisoners. (2010, Taylor. A, pp.228)

In the article, Lambert also remarks that one of the reasons for the US declaring war was in response to the British practice of impressing former subjects and forcing them to serve in the British navy against the French. This was considered by Madison to be a form of imperialism and thus the US had no choice but to defend itself. Having said this, many 'War Hawks' in congress had imperialistic motives of their own, for instance Henry Clay (Kentucky) and John Calhoun (South Carolina) - saw the war as a means of expanding west into Indian territory and north into Canada. (2010, Reynolds. D, pp.116)

Lambert also remarks that in august 1813, 4,000 men lead by Admiral Cockburn marched on Washington and occupied the capital. Not only this, but after the Americans had burned their own navy yard, the British were left to eat the dinner President Madison had prepared at the White House! (pp. 55) By the time the British had arrived at Capitol Hill it was abandoned. Cockburn had no intention of sacking the city, but he did wish to avenge the burning down of the parliament building in York (now Toronto) at the hands of the Americans. For revenge, he decided to burn down the newly constructed White House, the Senate building and the President's Mansion (2010, Reynolds. D, pp.117).

At the end of the article Lambert remarks that:

"Despite the facts, American historians have spent the past 200 years claiming to have won the War of 1812. Canadians, with better cause, celebrate their success in defending their country. But the British quickly forgot the war." (pp.56)

It is a strange thing that a war consisting of so few victories for the Americans would be considered a victory. Prior to the war, ideological and national ties were not deeply rooted, and a a result many people crossed the border at whim in order to serve their own self interest and obtain land and various other promises from the respective governments. According to Alan Taylor, it was not until after the war that the patriotic historians:

"Made foils of the people on the other side of a newly significant border. Those histories subtly distorted the war by imposing on the past the nationalism spawned after the conflict and because of it. By writing of the Americans fighting the British as distinct nations, each united, the patriotic historians obscured the civil war waged for the future of the empire and of the continent, a civil war that had divided Americans, Indians, and the Irish during a lingering age of revolution." (2010, pp.458)

In that sense, the war was a victory for the US. A victory because it united a previously divided country under false pretenses and helped turn peaceful attitudes towards the British into treason, as evidenced by the demonisation of the Federalist party from then on.

(2012) Lambert. A, When Washington Burned, History Magazine, BBC, Volume 13, no. 5, May 1st, pp.53, 55, 56)
(2010) Reynolds. D, America, Empire of Liberty, Penguin Books, London, pp. 116-117.
(2010) Taylor. A, The Civil War of 1812, Vintage Books, New York, pp.228,458

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