The War of 1812

Which One Was That?

The victory of the USS Constitution over the HMS Guerriere in the War of 1812 by Anton Otto (credit: The Navy-Naval Historical Center)

“The Star Spangled Banner,” Tecumseh, the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson, the burning of Washington, D.C. and the Library of Congress: These are the schoolbook flashcards associated with the War of 1812. Yet while the war was vividly remembered for the first 50 years after it was fought, its history has largely failed to capture imaginations since then.

In this hour of BackStory we go beyond the trivia to take a closer look at the War of 1812. On the occasion of its bicentennial, we ask what this now-obscure war did to shape the United States. Why did we fight it to begin with? What did we have to prove and did we prove it? What drama and passion did Francis Scott Key see in this war that inspired him to pen the “Star Spangled Banner”? What about this war have we chosen to remember and how ?

We want your input as we shape this episode. Do you remember being taught the War of 1812 in school? If so, how was it taught and what facts or stories about the war stood out to you? What is your sense of how the war shaped the country, if it shaped it at all? What did we gain or lose from fighting it? Please share your stories, questions, and ideas below.


Comments (9)

{Discussion is closed
  1. Sherman Dorn

    You *have* to talk with Mills Kelly (George Mason University) and the students in his spring class who discovered the inaccuracy on a Maryland historical sign… in the middle of a class on historical hoaxes.

  2. Sherman Dorn

    One correction: the relevant historical sign was at the National Museum of American History about the name of the building where the flag was sewn that was flying at Ft. McHenry during the night that inspired the Star Spangled Banner.

  3. Charles Ambler

    Listen to historian Andrew Lambert’s BBC History Magazine May 12th podcast on the War of 1812, where he pokes fun at what he claims is the American textbook view that the US won the war. Lambert argues it had nothing to do with maritime rights and everything to do with expansionism. And the British clearly won.

  4. Hillary Levine

    You absolutely must talk with John Stagg, a favorite Montpelier speaker. He rocks!

  5. Skihee

    I do not remember the war being taught other than to say it caused The Star Spangled Banner poem to be written and that Dolly Madison saved the portrait of George Washington from the burning of the White House. I think the two things that stand out for me that bring that war to ones consciousness are two pieces of music: Dvorak’s 1812 Overture and the 50’s or 60’s song about the Battle of New Orleans. I think one of the funniest things I heard about the latter of the two songs is that when a British tourist was visiting the states, he became somewhat fearful that we were still celebrating that victory more than 100 years later!

  6. MnProf

    Coming late to this story (don’t have time to catch the Circuit broadcasts!), but one more bit of legacy:
    Folks may have heard the phrase “We have met the enemy, and he is us!” but have forgotten/not known that it was first uttered in Walt Kelly’s comic strip “Pogo.” (See Wikipedia:
    Fewer may realize that Kelly was adapting the report of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry about the Battle of Lake Erie (one of the few decisive American victories): “We have met the enemy and he is ours.”
    It is likely that Kelly’s version is far better known now than Perry’s original!

  7. Josh Venner

    Conservative talk show host and historian Michael Medved describes the War of 1812 as a “frustrating and inconclusive war,” one that probably did not need to be fought and was “poorly managed.” Among Medved’s books and downloadable history programs is an audio show on the War of 1812. Perhaps he would serve as an interesting source to interview for your upcoming program.

  8. R Scott McLeish

    I grew up in Southern Ontario and attended the Royal Military College of Canada, eventually becoming a Chinook helicopter pilot in the Canadian Air Force (now once again the RCAF). While the War of 1812 may not be well known and may now seem insignificant in the US and the UK, it was a very important War in the making of Canada. At the time, Upper and Lower Canada were still colonies of the British Empire and thus were given some professional military protection from the UK. In addition, there were militia units in all provinces. Also, many Indian tribes were situated in Southern Ontario and West of Lakes Erie and Michigan. Most were loyal to the British and had signed treaties with the Crown. The US regards this war as a British attack on the USA, however, Canada regards it as a US attack on Canada with the goal of defeating the remainder of British North America and making it all part of the USA. This, from our perspective, was the goal of the US military. Our goal was to maintain British sovereignty over “Canada”. In order to protect ourselves, the British Regulars, the Canadian Militia and loyal Indian tribes went into the US, both to capture American Forts and troops, as well as defend Canada from US incursions headed for Southern Ontario, Queenston Heights, Stoney Creek, Chrysler’s Farm and other ventures that were headed for Montreal and Quebec City. If the US had won the war, Canada would now be part of the US. Since we defended our territory, and repelled invasion, it is our opinion that we achieved our objective and the US did not. It was both this war and the American Civil War that helped convince the Canadian Provinces to come together in a Confederation to become Canada. Part of the Confederation was to form a national military force to defend Canada against US invasions. Although never attacked, Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, was built to protect the eastern end of Lake Ontario and the St Lawrence from US attacks. Fortunately, Canada was never involved in another formal war with the US, as we would not stand a chance against the growing overwhelming military forces in the US. We now enjoy joint defense through NORAD and other military agreements to defend both of our nations from attack on Canada/US (CANUS) territories. Since World War I, Canadian and US forces have served together on many occasions in the fight for freedom and democracy.