One of the most oft-overlooked wars in American history, the War of 1812 is kind of like a bad sequel to a much more exciting movie. In this case, the original film is the American Revolution and the War of 1812 is really AmRev II: the Hubris. Since no one really won and the reasoning for the war was something that could have been avoided.
No one likes a stalemate.
When people refer to interesting things about the War of 1812, they usually mention the Star-Spangled Banner, Dolly Madison saving George Washington’s portrait from the torch, or the fact the Battle of New Orleans was the most New Orleans thing ever, and it happened after the war ended.
We’ll go a little deeper than that.
New England almost seceded from the Union.
Secession from the Union was a concept that had been hanging around long before the South used it to trigger the Civil War. In this case, the New England states were so against the war that they considered seceding from the United States and forming their own country. When President Madison called up the Massachusetts militia, Governor Caleb Strong refused to send the troops, so Madison sent no troops to defend New England. New England even tried to negotiate a separate peace with the British.
Europeans don’t think of it as its own war.
While Canada may revel in the ass-kicking it gave Washington, D.C., and various states around the U.S. may revel in their own victories over the hated British, the actual British don’t call the War of 1812 by its American name. To the Europeans, the War of 1812 is just an extension of the Napoleonic Wars, a new theater in the fight against Imperial France.
The 1812 Overture is not about the War of 1812.
On that note, every July 4th, you can hear Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture blaring to the explosions of fireworks across the United States as Americans celebrate their independence. It makes for a pretty great spectacle. The only problem is that the legendary musical piece has nothing to do with the U.S. 1812 was the same year Napoleon marched his Grand Armeé on Moscow, and the Russians responded to the impending fall of their capital by burning it before the French arrived. In the overture, you can even hear parts of the La Marseillaise, the French national anthem.
The British deployed a 1st rate Ship of the Line on the Great Lakes.
Imagine a massive ship with three gun decks and 112 guns, carrying some 700 British sailors just floating around the Great Lakes. That’s what the British Admiralty launched in 1814 in an attempt to wrest control of the lakes away from the Americans. The HMS St. Lawrence was built on Lake Ontario in just a few months. Her presence on the lake was enough to secure dominance on the lake for the British for the rest of the war.
It marked the first surrender of a British Naval squadron.
Despite the eventual British dominance on the Great Lakes, control of the massive bodies of water swung back and forth throughout the war, and was probably the theater where the Americans saw much of their success. Delivering blows to the vaunted Royal Navy was great for U.S. morale and terrible for British morale. American Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry constructed a fleet of ships just to challenge British dominance on the lakes. At the Battle of Lake Erie, he forced a British naval squadron to surrender for the first time in history.
His dispatch to Gen. William Henry Harrison contained the legendary line, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
We burned their capital first.
The British did manage to torch Washington, and the city was nearly abandoned after its destruction, but it wasn’t just a random idea the British had – Americans actually burned their center of government first. The capital of Upper Canada was at a place then-called York, but today is known as Toronto. Americans burned the provincial parliament and looted key sites, taking the mace of Canada’s parliament (which President Eisenhower later returned) and a British Imperial Lion (which the U.S. Naval Academy has not).
The U.S. was saved by a giant storm.
Everyone knows British troops marched on Washington and burned the major buildings of America’s young capital city, including the White House. What they may not know is that the fires that should have raged through the night were extinguished relatively quickly by a freak tornado – some thought it was a hurricane – that hit the area just hours after the British advance. The storm even forced a British withdrawal as the storm killed more British troops than the American defenders.
It was the first time Asian-Americans fought for the US.
Asian-Americans may have fought for the United States before the War of 1812, but the defense of New Orleans marked the first time any historian or chronicler mentioned Asians at arms during wartime. When the pirate Jean-Baptiste Lafitte famously came to the aid of Gen. Andrew Jackson and American troops in New Orleans, he enlisted several “Manilamen” – Filipinos – from nearby Saint Malo, Louisiana, the first Filipino community in the United States.
It saw the largest emancipation of slaves until the Civil War.
One of the weaknesses of American society at the time was the institution of slavery, a weakness the British would attempt to exploit at every opportunity. The British Admiralty declared that any resident of the United States who wished to settle in His Majesty’s colonies would be welcome to do so, all they had to do was appear before the British Army or Navy. American slaveholders believed it was an attempt to incite a slave revolt, which it may have been. Nonetheless, the British transported thousands of former slaves back to Africa, the Caribbean, and even Canadian Nova Scotia.
Some even joined the British Colonial Marines, a fighting force of ex-slaves deployed by the British against the Americans.
It also saw the largest slave uprising – against the invader.
While the British were rousing slaves to join the fight against their oppressors, other slaves were joining forces to fight the British for the Americans. One Muslim slave named Bilal Muhammed was the manager of a plantation of 500 slaves on Georgia’s Sapelo Island. When the British attempted to land on Sapelo, Muhammed and 80 other slaves fought them back into the sea.
Maine was almost given to Canada as “New Ireland.”
During the American Revolution, the area we know as Maine was a haven for colonists who wanted to remain loyal to the Crown. Their ambitions were, of course, supported by the British government in Canada, who sent a significant force to defend what was then New Ireland. The British gave up New Ireland after the American Revolution in order to cut the French Canadian provinces off from the coastal areas. By the time the War of 1812 rolled through, it was almost ceded again, but the Treaty of Ghent made no changes to the borders, and the British withdrew
The war brought about an unopposed political party.
Today we have Democrats and Republicans at each other’s throats, constantly fighting to some end. Back then, the parties were the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Federalist opposition to the war, which ended with the view that America had won by not losing the second war for independence, pretty much ended the Federalist party, leaving just the Democratic-Republican Party as the sole party in a new “Era of Good Feelings.” After the election of 1824, that Era was over, and the party was split into two factions, depending on how much they liked Andrew Jackson’s policies.