The Warts of 1812: The Unglamorous Truth About a Hyped-Up War

Forget the bombs bursting in air over Baltimore. The conflict actually started with a botched U.S. invasion of Canada. 

A historical reenactor watches tall ships dock at the Port of New Orleans during a War of 1812 bicentennial celebration. (Reuters)

Former President George W. Bush drew both titters and groans last month when he teasingly implored Michelle Obama to rescue his freshly unveiled presidential portrait if an invading foreign army ever decides to set fire to the White House again. This was, of course, a reference to First Lady Dolley Madison, who so boldly saved George Washington's portrait as the British army cut through Washington, D.C., in August of 1814 and set public buildings ablaze -- one of the few widely recognizable episodes that survives from the War of 1812.

Of the many holes in the American national memory, the War of 1812 may be the most gaping. The war that gave America its national anthem, birthed Uncle Sam, and anointed four future presidents as war heroes remains the Jan Brady of American conflicts for good reason: not only was it book-ended by two vastly more significant wars, but its causes weren't sexy, its conclusions were muddy, and its most famous battle took place after peace was declared. And so 1812 remains the only American war known by its date. (Even Congress refused to establish a bicentennial commission, leaving the commemorations up to the states.)

But as history buffs, state and local governments, and (doubtlessly) some zealous reenactors begin the mark the conflict that started on this date in 1812, there is much that modern-day Americans can learn from this clumsy moment in the nation's childhood.

First, some brief background. America -- deeply politically divided, militarily insecure, and fiscally feeble -- was stuck in neutral as the French and British warred in Europe, each demanding that the United States not engage in trade with the other. Unsurprisingly, Britain turned out to be the more austere and hectoring of the two, using its navy to capture, impress, and even kill American sailors at sea and confiscate cargo set for export.

Back in the States, the nation clamored for war. (And what delicious historical irony that just half a century before the Civil War, New England was railing against big government and even talking of secession from the Union!) President Thomas Jefferson, who had stripped down the army to reduce the national debt, chose to avoid war in favor of an economy-crippling embargo. This made the United States both poor and weak by the time James Madison -- effete, Lilliputian, and "too tender" (as one congressional contemporary put it) -- succeeded him.

Congress finally declared war on Britain, with impeccably bad timing: Just a few days earlier, the British foreign minister had decided to rescind the policy towards American trade that had caused all of the hullabaloo to begin with. But word did not reach America in time, and ill-equipped U.S. forces fecklessly staggered into Canada to show the British not to mess with American trade (and to possibly snag some of Canada's sweet farm land). Aided by a confederacy of Native Americans, Canada mostly repelled the invasion and won a large number of battles.

The most ridiculous moment of all featured the United States surrendering the entire city of Detroit without firing a shot in defense. "It was the most colossal screw-up of the war," Alan Taylor, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian explained in an interview. "And it comes at the worst possible time in the first major invasion. The Madison administration was counting on winning a quick victory in invading Upper Canada from the western end via Detroit to render the war popular. And instead, he got a catastrophic defeat."

While the loss of Detroit hardened opposition to the Madison administration and set the war effort back a year, American forces (surprisingly) fared better in crucial naval engagements with the British in the Great Lakes, some of which remain battles of national legend. But the most storied moments in the War of 1812 -- the Battle of Baltimore and the penning of the National Anthem by Francis Scott Key, the British invasion of Washington, D.C., and the Battle of New Orleans -- were almost certainly a product of America's military failures earlier in the war.

"All of those are events that come in the last months of the war when the British were mounting a counterattack against the United States." Taylor explained. "They are all events that lead Americans to think they were on the defensive in the war and that the British were the aggressor. What's lost sight of is that the United States declared the war and conducted the first two years of the war primarily as an invasion of Canada. And so Americans don't remember the battles in Canada because they went so badly for the United States."

But this myopia ultimately served a useful purpose. For a country that was young and divided and lacked a national identity, the legacy of the War of 1812 created heroes like Andrew Jackson and Oliver Perry as well as national symbols and slogans that endure today.

"Those three major events are certainly an important part of the legacy of the war in the public memory," Professor Donald Hickey, author of The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, suggested. "All those symbols of the war have developed an iconic significance. Uncle Sam, the Fort McHenry flag, the Star-Spangled Banner, the Kentucky rifle -- these all help Americans understand who they are and where they are headed as a nation."

Hickey explained that while the nation soon forgot the follies of the war, the strategic lessons of the war's early setbacks ensured that the United States would establish a peacetime army. The Treaty of Ghent, while not addressing any of America's original grievances in prosecuting the war, ensured that Britain never harassed the United States again. And while to European minds the War of 1812 may always signify a far more epic struggle -- Napoleon's ill-fated invasion of Russia -- the draw that the United States managed to eke out in its own war raised its profile among Old World powers.

While it's impossible to look at America today and see many recognizable kernels of our 19th century former self, the two eras have some important features in common. Both are periods of political polarization, sectionalism, and economic uncertainty -- all looming like a shadow over our sense of national purpose. But while the War of 1812 did succeed in boosting the country's self-esteem and enabled its drive to expand westward, today's America has yet to find its new frontier.

"If anything, we're moving in different directions." Hickey said. "We were securing an identity in the early national period and now it looks to me like we are losing that identity."