1812: Wrapping Up

Francis Scott Key Edward Percy Morgan
Francis Scott Key points dramatically at Fort McHenry from the British ship he was stuck on. The artist here has a very liberal impression of how prisoners are treated on warships. Photo Credit: Edward Percy Morgan

Within a few months of the Battle of New Orleans, the War of 1812’s last shots were fired, and everyone involved immediately began to wonder what had been the point of the damn thing. The question of the war’s significance has loomed large ever since.[1] On paper at least, the war resolved nothing. The British reserved the right to haul off any British deserters by the ear if they caught them on American ships, though they never bothered to use it. Likewise, their agents would continue to meet with many of the western tribes on the engorging American borders, though their promises and offers of support rang hollower than ever. Certainly both nations seemed eager to move on from the conflict.

In the more general American histories consulted by the author, the War is typically overshadowed by the Revolution, or seen as a kind of direct to video sequel. Perhaps it’s this sense of refrain, and their complete inability to actually conquer anything, that led many Americans then and now to cast themselves as the defenders of Liberty, once again battling the sinister British Empire.[2] This mythologizing started almost immediately. When word of Andrew Jackson’s triumph at New Orleans reached the other states, the narrative included a story told by one George Poindexter, claiming that the British passphrase for sentries on the night of the battle was “Beauty and Booty”, suggesting the British were looking for their chance at an old fashioned sack of New Orleans. While the story is completely false, it helped Americans pretend they had been the heroic underdog that won a defensive war against all odds. Insofar as we remember the War that myth continues to do this day. One only has to buy an overpriced ticket to any sporting event in the United States to hear its echo.

The British themselves also seem less interested in discussing the conflict, seeing it as a sideshow on the Napoleonic road from Russia to Waterloo. It’s an interesting parallel, casting the British in the role of liberty’s defender against the imperial menace of Napoleon Bonaparte. Once again, such a narrative light downplays Britain’s failure to achieve success on the offensive. In several histories, the Battle of New Orleans was left out completely. While the battle’s occurrence after Ghent meant it could not influence the Treaty, this still ignores its significance as a decisive American victory, as well as more recent evidence suggesting General Pakenham was under orders to take the New Orleans, even if he heard a peace treaty had been signed.

This does a disservice to the War of 1812, which casts a long, if subtle, shadow over modern times. While the United States and Great Britain can consider the war a draw that also doesn’t mean there weren’t winners and losers to the conflict. All historians are affected by perception, so let’s consider this entry entirely the author’s personal and amateur opinion of the war’s impact.

1812 canadian war douglas coupland
Artist Douglas Coupland’s 2008 statue in modern York (Toronto) beautifully sums up the war from a Canadian perspective. A toy Canadian soldier stands in triumph.

If anyone could claim to have “won” the War, the honor goes to Canada. Before the war, the United States had been eyeing Canada as a somewhat inevitable acquisition. The population was small, spread out, and much of its French and American diaspora were already sympathetic to the United States. Indeed, when the war started many Canadians flocked to the arriving American forces. Yet men like Isaac Brock and the American’s own appalling actions in conquered territory helped knit the various factions of Canada together. English, French, and First Nations tribes found common cause to fight off their grabby southern neighbor, and in doing so found they shared more with each other. It hardly formed a perfect union, but 1812 gave Canadians their own personal trial by fire as a commonwealth. It’s something Canada is still aware of today, and polling suggests that most Canadians still consider the war important to their national identity.[3]

The other “winners” of the War of 1812 were the rare American leaders who actually came out of the conflict with a win under their belts. For James Madison, the news of the New Orleans helped complete respin the narrative of a deadlocked war into a plucky American triumph. His opponents in the Federalist Party completely collapsed, allowing Madison and his successor James Monroe to cherry-pick the ideas of the Federalists they had always liked in the vaguely nonpartisan “Era of Good Feelings”.[4] John Quincy Adams had also been instrumental in getting Russia to mediate the end of the war, a nice feather in his political cap. Both Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison effectively turned their military victories into political ones, though Harrison’s was admittedly short lived.

Harrison’s career also came at the expense of those who “lost” the War of 1812. With Tecumseh’s death on the frontier and Britain’s effective abandonment of a native buffer state, there was little internal or external support for the kind of unified resistance the Native Americans needed to stop the westward expansion of the United States. Before 1815 had ended, men like Jackson’s comrade John Coffee were already “negotiating” treaties that wrung ever greater concessions from the bordering tribes. For the Shawnee this must have come as no surprise to be pushed further west, but for the tribes that had aligned themselves with the United States it must have been a sad surprise to be cast aside so quickly. The hard edge, racist attitude the United States had towards their neighbors was perhaps best personified by the fate of Chief Taskanugi Hatke, otherwise known as Brigadier-General William McIntosh.

William_McIntosh_by_Charles_Bird_King
William McIntosh, seen here prior to being set on fire, stabbed repeatedly, and then scalped for abetting crimes against the entire Creek nation. Photo Credit: Charles Bird King

As the twin titles might suggest, McIntosh was the son of a Scotsmen and a Creek daughter of the Wind Clan. He was the cousin of Georgia Governer Troup, and had fought alongside Jackson at Horseshoe Bend, and later helped the United States invade Florida in the first war against the Seminole Confederacy. He was also a slaveholder with two plantations in Georgia, and a strong proponent of adopting European dress and property law. Yet by 1822, his own cousin had decreed that all tribal lands within the state of Georgia were null and void. By 1825 McIntosh became infamous as one of only six chiefs to sign the treaty that affirmed the cession of Native American lands in Georgia, in exchange for cash and lands in what became Oklahoma.[5] Furious, the other Creek leaders killed him for selling them out, before beginning the forced march known to history as the Trail of Tears. It is a betrayal that should sit heavier on the national conscience.

In the end, the War of 1812 was summarized well by the Battle of New Orleans. Both were loud displays of sound and fury, signifying nothing in particular. No territory formally changed hands, but the experience left a mark nonetheless. For the fledgling United States it marked a chance where, with a little narrative revision, they could claim to have fended off the Evil Empire. Ironically for Canadians it was a chance to claim the same. And for Creek, Shawnee, and countless others, it eclipsed their last chance to avoid being trapped on the continent with their genocidal neighbor to the east. As is so often the case though, that depth has been lost on most Americans, glossed over by an ode to martial prowess. We would be better served to remember it.[6]

[1] Well, as large as it can within the tiny circle of armchair Napoleons who still talk about it.

[2] Looking at you, History Channel. If historical scholarship were a restaurant, the History Channel is that weird regular who shows up all the time, leers at the waitresses, never tips, and draws Hitler mustaches on all the paintings when no one is watching them.

[3] Diamond, J. Aronovitch, D. 2012. The War of 1812: Stupid but Important. The Globe and Mail. Available at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/the-war-of-1812-stupid-but-important/article547554/ it’s actually fascinating to read that some Canadians regard Tecumseh with a sense of loving ownership, as this comedian puts it. Or as this book frames it. All three of those links also dovetail nicely with the fact that Canadians are by and large less comfortable with a sense of militancy in their flavor of patriotism, and attempts by chickenhawks like former Prime Minister Stephen Harper to stoke it have typically fallen flat.

[4] The Federalists admittedly looked rather silly putting together their grievances at Hartford Convention, in light of the Battle of New Orleans, and well, the end of the war.

[5] The jury is still out on why McIntosh did this. Either he was hoping to nab much of the cash for himself, or he was pragmatic enough to know the greedy and thuggish United States would never leave them alone. Either way, he gave then President Jackson the piece of paper he needed to commit one of the most infamous genocidal crimes in American history. He’s regarded by the Creek the same way striking unions regard industry scabs.

[6] And also to kick Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill, but that’s neither here nor there.

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