War Of 1812 Seems To Be The Truly Forgotten Conflict

Roundup: Talking About History

Ted Mahar, The Oregonian, 10 Sept. 2004

The Korean War is justly called a forgotten conflict, partly because the process of forgetting coincided with the war itself.

But for a truly forgotten conflict, the War of 1812 seems the one to beat.

Do you know who started it? Do you know why? Can you name two heroes from it? Do you know when it was fought?

The History Channel documentary"First Invasion: The War of 1812" answers these questions, insofar as straightforward answers are possible, and unfolds an epic of heroism, chicanery and shifting motives that could inspire Shakespeare, G.B. Shaw or John le Carre.

The simplest answer is that the war was like a Part 2 of the Revolutionary War and included a few veterans of both sides -- but no French. But then again, the French war with Britain may have been the slim edge in the eventual Yankee victory. The main U.S. adversary, again, was Britain, and each side felt the other started it.

Americans felt that England forced war on its victorious former colony by fomenting native peoples against frontier settlers, by blatantly violating maritime laws and traditions, by stopping American ships and impressing their crews into the Royal Navy and by other outrages. When Congress finally voted to go to war with England -- by the narrowest such vote in our history -- British leadership took the position that it had been aggrieved by, approximately, an impudent whelp that needed a sharp thump on the nose.

This is where the French come in. And where the motivation gets fuzzy. England took America lightly because it was more thoroughly engaged with Napoleon ashore and at sea. The French emperor finally met his Waterloo at Waterloo, Belgium, in June 1815. Just a few months before that, Americans and the British signed the treaty that formally ended the War of 1812 in Ghent, Belgium.

Had England been able to throw its undistracted full might at us in 1812, history surely would have been mightily different. As it was, American forces endured defeat after defeat. And the vindictive British did not merely rout militias and thinly spread regular troops but often pillaged towns and then burned them. The British could come and go at leisure, as there was almost no U.S. Navy to impede them.

comments powered by Disqus