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Friday, July 15, 2011

When did you learn that America lost the war of 1812?

by John MacBeath Watkins

The title of this post is a question that I asked people for a while before giving up because no American seems familiar with this simple fact. Now there's a small ruckus over at The Dish because Jonathan Rausch chose to label it the "Coolest. War. Ever."

Quick reminder: The War of 1812 started because...
a) We were trading with the French, who were at war with the British, and objected to the British efforts to stop us.
b) British ships, desperate for manpower, were taking sailors off of our ships. Granted, some of them had deserted the British Navy, or taken posts on American ships to avoid serving in the British Navy, but still, can you imagine how American voters would respond if some nation was brazenly stopping our ships and impressing our citizens into their navy? The issue was resolved with the defeat of Napoleon in April of 1814, after which the British had no need to impress our sailors.
c) We thought we could conquer Canada, and vastly increase the wealth and territory of our country.

The invasion of Canada was a bust. If memory serves, we lost every land battle in that campaign. In fact, the one land battle we prefer to talk about winning was the Battle of New Orleans, which happened after the peace treaty had been signed, but before word of its signature could reach the generals involved (the Treaty of Ghent was signed Dec. 24, 1814, and the battle took place Jan. 8, 1815.) Another battle, for a fortress on Mobile Bay, also took place after the treaty was signed, and the British won that. We also won a far more important battle, at Plattsburgh, NY, stopping the British/Canadian invasion of America from the north. Those pesky Canadians still had not learned their lesson, resulting in the Pig War of 1859.

The British managed to chase our army out of our capitol and burned much of Washington. Although we won a few single-ship actions, and became about the only country on earth to have a captured British frigate in our fleet, for the most part, the war was a string of humiliations.

Every Canadian or Briton I've asked knew that America lost the War of 1812, and knew if from a fairly young age. Almost no American would admit we lost even when reminded of the historical facts. A professor of American History, asked about this by my girlfriend at the time, said that we hadn't lost -- our "war aims had changed." Apparently, they changed from annexing Canada and changing the British views on what constituted proper behavior for a neutral nation, to a return to the status quo ante bellum.

Of course, if our war aim was to get pretty much exactly what we had before the war, why did we go to war?

Well, it did give us our national anthem, which hardly anybody can sing properly. And the Macedonian, the frigate we captured from the British, was such a status symbol that when Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry went in 1854 to open Japan to trade with America, the Macedonian was his flagship.

(Of course, it wasn't the original, which had rotted away years before, it was a replica built to such exacting standards that it actually fooled at least one man who'd served on the original in his youth. And it was there in part because the steam ships in the fleet couldn't carry enough coal to sail to Japan and back from the nearest port open to them, so they needed a sailing vessel to carry some of the coal.)

The reason I started asking the question was that at the time, we had not yet left Viet Nam, and there were people claiming we should not because America had never lost a war, and we should stay until we won this one. My father, by the way, served in the Viet Nam war, and maintained to the end of his life that we hadn't really lost.

The War of 1812 formally started June 18, 1812, and the ending it was signed Dec. 24, 1814. With the 200-year anniversary of the war coming up in less than a year, perhaps this is a time to look back with a little humility on that adventure. We are now engaged in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, which seems like a lot of wars to try to win. But don't worry, our war aims will change, so victory is assured.

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