A Forgotten War: A Memorable Peace
Baltimore is located in the heart of Maryland, along the tidal portion of the Patapsco River, an arm of the Chesapeake Bay. It was founded in 1729 and named after Lord Baltimore, a member of the Irish House of Lords and the founding proprietor of the Maryland Colony. The inner harbor of Baltimore is quite a tourist attraction with its panoply of shops and restaurants. Camden Yards, where the Baltimore Orioles play, is one of baseball’s great cathedrals. Situated in poetic proximity of that ball yard, just two blocks away, at 216 Emory Street, is the house where Babe Ruth was born. If your tastes, however, are partial to the literary and the macabre you can pilgrimage through the busy streets to the home where Edgar Allan Poe penned some of his immortal tales.
This year brings other attractions to Maryland’s largest city. This past June 18 commemorated the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. As the battle of Baltimore raged, Francis Scott Key, negotiating the release of prisoners on the HMS Tonnant saw, “by the dawn’s early light,” the bombardment of Fort McHenry and was inspired to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The lyrics of the first stanza, put to the music of a British drinking song, officially became our national anthem 117 years later. You can visit the American History Museum in Washington D.C. and actually see the flag that quickened and then emboldened Key to such patriotic heights.
The War of 1812 is the last time an invading army penetrated American soil, unless you count the 19 hijackers that flew planes into our buildings on the mortally wounding morning of 9-11. The war gave us such enduring salutations as Admiral James Lawrence’s dying words on the decks of the U.S.S. Chesapeake, “Don’t Give up the Ship” and Oliver Hazard Perry’s hastily written note after winning the Battle of Lake Erie, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” Like the Korean War it is an unjustifiably forgotten war, as each was sandwiched between two other greater and more cataclysmic events. Both wars seemed to settle nothing as everything after hostilities had ceased reverted back to the status quo ante. History textbooks in Great Britain hardly acknowledge the event of 1812, seeing it as a sideshow compared to the vast Napoleonic war raging in Europe.
Yet America’s second war with Britain was inextricably tied to the British Empire’s death struggle against the military genius and ambition of Napoleon Bonaparte. Discipline in the British navy was harsh and sailors took every opportunity to desert to the American merchant shipping industry, which was hungry for experienced sailors. Some 11,000 naturalized citizens from Britain plied their trade on American ships. This uncongenial development gnawed at her Majesty’s navy thirsting for manpower. Determined to reclaim their sailors, British frigates menacingly stationed themselves just outside U.S. harbors, in clear view of American shores. Searching ships for contraband they impressed thousands of sailors back into His Majesty’s service. These depredations inflamed rising politicians like Henry Clay and the war drums began to beat. It wasn’t long before President James Madison sent a message to Congress listing grievances against Great Britain that smoldered into a declaration of war. It was the first time America declared war against another nation.
Declaring war and preparing for war, however, are two separate matters. Buffeted by two vast oceans, a false sense of security prevailed and the upshot was a woefully unprovisioned military. Moreover, the United States had opted not to re-charter its National Bank; with private bankers in the Northeast opposed to the war, financing the army and navy became hotly problematic. The Northeast provided virtually no militia for the war effort (conscription was never legislatively authorized) demonstrating that while America rendezvoused with the idea of union, the two remained stubbornly unbetrothed.
Fortunately, Great Britain was too preoccupied with Napoleon to devote all its resources to the war in North America. Instead, Britain roused the tribes of Native Americans in the Northwest Territory they ceded to the U.S. pursuant to the Peace Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution. The British saw the Indians as natural allies and a buffer to their Canadian colonies. The tribes were only too willing to accept arms to fight an enemy that continued to encroach on the ancient lands of their fathers. Under the charismatic leadership of Chief Tecumseh, an Indian confederation wreaked havoc on frontier settlements until Tecumseh was ultimately killed at the Battle of the Thames.
With America’s attempts to seize British Canada thwarted and, shortly thereafter, the abdication of Napoleon, Britain was now able to send over its veteran armies. Because Baltimore was believed to be the target, Washington was left virtually undefended and the British army marched into the nation’s capital virtually unmolested. In retaliation for Americans burning government buildings in Canada, the White House (then known as the Presidential Mansion), the Capitol, Library of Congress and the navy yards were torched. Dolly Madison, whose magnetic personality and social gifts made her an enormously popular First Lady, became a national heroine when she added courage to her cache of virtues by coolly refusing to leave until the original copies of the Declaration and Constitution were secured. She then, with a burst of savoir-faire, ordered Gilbert Stuart’s full-length portrait of George Washington be removed. When the portrait could not be unscrewed from the wall she either cut the picture from the frame or provided the razor for it to be done. Accounts vary, save Dolly Madison’s resolve that the British would not claim the portrait of the nation’s greatest hero as a trophy of war.
With Washington burned to a crisp, American demoralization ran deep when the peace treaty was signed in Ghent, Belgium. It was a document that did not address any of the original points of contention. With Napoleon out of commission, Britain no longer needed to impress sailors, though the Treaty of Ghent was utterly silent on the issue. In one of those ironic caprices of war, 18 days after the treaty was signed, Andrew Jackson repelled a massive British invasion at New Orleans. In an age of slow moving communication, neither side heard the news about Ghent. This profited America, whose citizenry was buoyed by one of the most stunning one-sided victories in military history.
So while the war settled none of the points for which it was fought, it settled plenty. It crushed any talk of the Northeast seceding in protest against the war and in the process destroyed the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton that backed it; it made Andrew Jackson president and the common man the most important constituency in America. It ushered in the “Era of Good Feelings” where sectionalism, for a time, yielded to the ideal of national union, it established distinct national identities for both America and Canada which was formalized by the Rush- Bagot Treaty of 1817 that demilitarized the Great Lakes and made the Canadian-American boundary the longest unfortified border in the world. Indeed, save for a brief flirtation with the Southern Confederacy, England has remained America’s closest and most trusted ally.
Since neither side gained or lost territory, it is fair to say the conflict was essentially a stalemate. The real losers were the Native American tribes. The Battle of New Orleans irrevocably gave the sprawling North American continent to Americans and left the Indians dispossessed, powerless and at mercy of history —- always an unforgiving mistress amid the forces and duress of rapid technological change. It might have been different if during that “perilous fight” a brick fort on the Baltimore harbor had, amid the red glare and bursting of bombs, surrendered the colors Francis Scott Key immortalized.