The War of 1812: America’s Hidden History
If you thought America won its independence in the 18th century, you'd better guess again. In reality, while 1776 saw the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it wasn’t until 1783 that the Americans won the Revolutionary War, 1789 when the first president was inaugurated, and 1815 when America won the War of 1812 and finally took her rightful place among the nations of the world.
Though it rarely rates more than a page or two in textbooks, the War of 1812 was America’s bloody, bloody coming out party. Discounting slipping educational standards, is there a reason why the War of 1812 has remained America’s hidden war? Here are five things you didn't know about the War of 1812, which began 200 years ago today.
5. Canada Beat the U.S.
The first two years of the War of 1812 were fought along the Canadian border. The U.S. thought their northern neighbor would be easy pickings and decided to invade with just a few thousand men. They didn’t even want the territory, they just wanted to tick off the British (who were still nominally in charge of Canada). But instead of an easy march to Hudson Bay, America's troops were repulsed at every turn. The Canadian forces even captured Detroit from a panicked American general in one of the biggest upsets in our military history.
4. Europe Didn’t Take the U.S. Seriously
Yes, the Americans won the Revolutionary War and the redcoats left the coast. But in merry old England little changed in the attitudes of the British toward their former colony. In fact, most of Europe didn’t think the democracy would last more than a decade. To show their scorn, most European countries, but most notably England and France, refused to recognize the right of U.S. ships to ply international waters.
When Britain was fighting Napoleon, the U.S. exercised its legal right to neutrality and tried to trade with both nations. The British, seeing the U.S. as still within their sphere of influence, harassed American ships and captured their sailors as part of an effort to squelch Franco-American trade.
3. America Almost Didn't Agree To War
From the first shots fired at Lexington, today’s history books portray the outcome of the American Revolution as self-evident. The scrappy colonials fighting for equality and democracy were morally superior to the soldiers for hire employed by the bloated British Empire.
The thing is, the Revolutionary War was not a moral victory. Yes, Washington was elected president, but democracy was extended only to white men who owned land. Fighting between political parties sometimes led to murder, such as in the Burr-Hamilton duel. Common folk rose up in arms to protest their continued oppression in what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. Europe was right – there was a chance that the newly-united states wouldn’t survive. Even at the start of the War of 1812, just over half the Congress voted to go to war and the New England states, those closest to the British in Canada, refused to form militias and fight.
2. Most of the Fighting Took Place Because the Mail Couldn’t Travel Fast Enough
One of the main reasons the War of 1812 started was because of British trade restrictions against American merchant ships. Even though the British were busy fighting Bonaparte, all through 1811 and into 1812, negotiations were going on to lift those bans. On June 16, 1812, the British lifted their trade restrictions and it looked as though peace was assured. But – due to the slow speed of the mail – Congress declared war on June 18, 1812 without knowing that their biggest grievance had already been addressed.
The same problem happened at the end of the war. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24, 1814 and the most decisive battle of the war, the Battle of New Orleans, took place on January 8, 1815. While the Americans rejoiced at a clear (though needless) victory, the 2,400 British soldiers who were killed or wounded probably wished the mail had been marked "Priority."
1. The British Torched the White House
In August of 1814, the British won the Battle of Bladensburg and occupied Washington, D.C. Washington was seen by the British as an easy target (which is was) and one that would greatly affect U.S. morale (which is did.) After the British occupied the town, they set about systematically burning down public buildings, including the White House. First Lady Dolly Madison and her slaves managed to save many of presidential paintings and other art objects, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the slaves' contribution to saving our nation’s heritage was publically acknowledged by a U.S. president.
Another little known fact about the burning is that it was a major point of contention between the already fissured North and South. The Yankees lobbied to have the capital rebuilt north of the Mason-Dixon line in Philadelphia but the Southerners won out and the national capital remained in slave territory for another 50 years.
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