A Truly Pointless War ... The War of 1812


Mr. Latimer is the author of the recently published book, 1812: War with America ( Belknap Press, 2007).

In their Beginner’s Guide to Canadian Humour, Lynne Stokes and Pamela Chichinskas list 15 reasons why ‘We Can’t Stand Americans.’ Reason number 8 is: ‘Because they don’t know the first thing about Canada, like who our Prime Minister is - or even that we have a Prime Minister, or a different currency. And they glaze over if we try to explain them.’

Covering an area far greater than the United States with barely one-tenth of the population, one might indeed wonder why an independent nation exists north of the 49th parallel, with its own prime minister and a currency bearing the head of the British monarch. But the reason is given at number 12: ‘Because before Vietnam they used to claim they’d never lost a war even though we stuffed them in the War of 1812.’

Well, it wasn’t really Canada that ‘stuffed them,’ but the sole oceanic superpower of the day: Britain. But the Canadian contribution was essential, and Canada proved her loyalty and her value to Britain. Because the only really decisive and lasting result of the war was Canadian independence, one that reverberates through history to 1914 and again to 1939 when in her darkest hours of need, Canada stood proudly by Britain’s side.

So this wasn’t a 'war that both sides won.' Only Britain achieved her aims as they stood in 1812; the United States achieved none of hers, and on that basis it can only reasonably be accounted a British victory. But in truth it was a ‘war that nobody won’; certainly not the dead, or the bereaved, or the maimed, or those rendered homeless.

For it was a pointless war, entered into with expectations that would prove hopelessly unrealistic. Neither was war inevitable in 1812; it almost came in 1794, 1807 and 1808, and it could have been avoided again through diplomacy as in these earlier crises. In truth, ‘free trade and sailor’s rights’ was a poor cause: ‘Never before in the history of enlightened nations,’ declared one 19th century American historian, ‘did such ... an absurd issue result in war.’

And just as Britain was unprepared for war in 1939, so the United States was totally unprepared in 1812. Among those pushing for it - the so-called ‘War Hawks’ - was Henry Clay, quick to invoke the spirit of ’76 but no soldier himself, and with no experience of the horrors that war entails. When Madison protested that America wasn’t ready, Clay insisted he declare war and then prepare for it. It was a recipe for military disaster as the US Army performed woefully throughout 1812 and 1813.

By its end the United States economy was grinding to a halt, the US Navy was blockaded in port, and the US Army faced increasingly hostile odds on land. But construction of reassuring myths in the immediate aftermath helped transform a futile and humiliating adventure that aimed to conquer Canada into one of defending the republic.

Although the reimposition of British rule had never been in the cards, choosing to regard it as a ‘second war of independence’ helped usher in the ‘Era of Good Feelings’ that followed. And Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans, which placed him firmly on the road to the presidency, gave him and his supporters grounds to mythologize it into the greatest military engagement of the war, and the entire conflict into a stunning American triumph; a version of events effectively carved in stone by George Bancroft and Henry Adams.

In some respects all subsequent histories of the conflict remain in the shadow of this interpretation. But it ignores both America’s military failure and the wider context of what Victorians called ‘the Great War.’ Because when considered in world terms it comes as no surprise that, as nineteenth century Canadian historian William Kingsford noted, events in North America between 1812-15 were not forgotten in Britain 'for they have never been known there.'

By 1812 Britain had already been fighting republican and Napoleonic France for almost 20 years; fighting, in fact, for her very survival. North America was a mere sideshow, an annoying distraction while Britain was wrestling with a critical world situation. And who in Europe now cares about the battle of New Orleans when there is Salamanca, Borodino, Leipzig and Waterloo to consider? If it’s difficult enough today to find a Briton who knows that a British force landed on a hostile shore, marched 50 miles inland, beat a force three times its size then burned down the White House, try asking a continental European!

In 1815 the young United States wasn’t worth two bits in global terms, and contrary to another widely promulgated myth, the war didn’t make the world take notice of America. It was not the Monroe Doctrine, but British diplomacy, backed by the irresistible might of the Royal Navy, that prevented the ‘Holy Alliance’ of France, Russia, Prussia and Austria from intervening to restore Latin America to Spain after the war was over.

So what does this tell us today? Well, that wars of choice are profoundly dangerous things. On the night before the British parliament voted for war in Iraq in 2003, Tony Blair told his children that the decision was the hardest one of his life. But it shouldn’t have been anything of the sort: it should have been the easiest, because he should have had no alternative left open to him, just as Neville Chamberlain had no alternative in 1939. Since Blair made his choice, practically nothing has gone according to expectations, either for Britain or America.

Like most wars, that of 1812 lasted longer and cost far more in both blood and treasure than its instigators expected, for as Piers Mackesy noted, wars ‘rarely achieve the political goals that might justify the risks, the cost and the pain.’ James Madison had an alternative in June 1812; he chose not to take it, and almost led his country to catastrophe.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Hal Cockburn - 9/10/2009

When the War of 1812 started America's leaders thought an invasion of Canada would be "a mere matter of marching," as Thomas Jefferson confidently predicted. How could a nation of 8 million fail to subdue a struggling colony of 400,000? Yet, (despite odds of 20 to 1) when the campaign year of 1812 ended, the only Americans left on Canadian soil were prisoners of war. Three American armies had been forced to surrender, and the Canadians were in control of all of Michigan Territory and much of Indiana and Ohio.
After two more years of War and another seven invasion attempts, none of Canada was occupied by American Forces and Canadian/British forces occupied large chunks of land within the U.S., including: the eastern half of the State of Maine (most residents swore allegiance to the King), parts of New York, including Fort Niagara (an American military post on the east bank of the Niagara River at Lake Ontario, and the headquarters of American forces in that area in the early stages of the war). This was captured by British and Canadian forces in December of 1813 and held until the end of the war, Mackinac Island was captured early in 1812, also - a large area west of Lake Michigan, and on the west coast - Fort Astoria at mouth of the Columbia River (occupied by NW company from Montreal).

As American History Professor Donald Hickey states in his new book (Don’t Give up the Ship: Myths of the War of 1812): Who Won the War? "there are actually five groups of participants that must be considered: The biggest winner was Canada; then came Great Britain; and then the Indians living in Canada. The biggest losers were the Indians living in the United States [98% of them were exterminated by the end of the19th Century]; after them came the United States itself, which ... for the first time in its history lost a war.”

By the end of the War U.S. trade had been strangled to practically nothing, the economy was grinding to a halt, the US Navy was blockaded in port, the US Army faced increasingly hostile odds on land, and the nation's capital city lay in ashes. ... And the issue over which America had gone to war -- the impressment of seamen -- was tactfully ignored in the peace treaty and the captured American territory returned. Too soon, the construction of reassuring myths in the immediate aftermath helped transform a futile and humiliating adventure that aimed to conquer Canada into one of defending the republic.These facts (not "myths") can all be found in recent books by Pierre Berton (2001), Donald Graves (1999), Jon Latimer (2007) and Donald Hickey (2008)

Bernard Lyons - 3/23/2009

I find Latimer's interpretation correct.
Overall, the British and Canadian aim was to defeat the US forces and defeat the US invasion.

They achieved their aims.

The US did not stop impressment, and their planned aim to invade Canada aim failed. In this regard, as American Historian John Eisenhower says, this was Americas first Vietnam.

They did however have a victory over the Indians.

And to correct Mr Loewen's, it is a US myth that the final battle of the war was a US victory. The final battle was the Battle of Fort Bowyer, won by the British (and some Sauk Indians continued fighting into 1817).

Harry Anderson - 2/19/2008

There is much that can be disputed in this article but I will limit myself to Latimer's claim about "a version of events effectively carved in stone by George Bancroft and Henry Adams."

I don't believe that Bancroft wrote much about the War of 1812. He did write an essay on the Battle of Lake Erie. However, his major work, The History of the United States, did not cover the War of 1812. It stopped at the end of the US Revolution. He did follow it with a history of the period of confederation, but that only extended the period to 1789. George Bancroft did not carve anything in stone about the War of 1812 as suggested by Jon Latimer.

As for Henry Adams, it should be understood that his work came out long after after the war and the view that the US had won was already firmly established. Adams did believe that Britain had lost, but his superb work is an in-depth account that provides the reader with sufficient information to just as easily conclude that is was the US that lost.

I do not know what he is referring to when he states: "In some respects all subsequent histories of the conflict remain in the shadow of this interpretation." There is nothing obvious as to what he is referring to, and lumping together "all subsequent histories" is misleading, to say the least.

Jeff Cote - 2/19/2008

"The aims a nation proclaims and the things it is truly fighting for can be two different things; also reasons can evolve and mutate over the course of a war." Fabulous observations both! I would add that, although the Pandora's Box of war has many unintended and often negative consequences, it appear that war can also have some unintended consequences that are rather positive for a nation state. This seems especially true of the United States after the War of 1812.

Lo Faber - 2/18/2008

First off, I have read an enjoyed Jon Latimer's wonderful book; second, I couldn't agree more with his interpretation of its present-day lessons.

I'm not sure if I'd go as far as "rife with profound errors," but I think James Loewen is absolutely right to point out that native Americans were a third party in the war, and unquestionably they were losers. It wasn't just Tecumseh and the Shawnee Confederacy. The Creek War was concluded by the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which seized an enormous amount of land from the US-allied Creeks and Red Stick Creeks alike. It also set the stage for the Seminole Wars and the removal of The Cherokees, which in turn opened up massive areas of the Deep South for cotton cultivation.

Another losing party was Spain, or at least the Spanish American Empire. From 1803-1815 Spain contested US ownership of Louisiana and did everything they could to undermine American sovereignty there; after 1815 American control was no longer contested. Meanwhile the Floridas came under American control; some before the war, like the West Florida parishes of Louisiana; some during the war, like Pensacola and Mobile; and some in 1819. The Spanish empire in the Americas disintegrated over the next 20 years.

In fairness to Jon Latimer, his book illustrates these points quite clearly (though he does seem to enjoy the Brit/Canadian victories just a wee bit more than the American ones). As far as this post goes, he is arguing that the US achieved none of the aims proclaimed by Madison and the War Hawks--free trade and sailors rights and all that. This is true on its face. But the aims a nation proclaims and the things it is truly fighting for can be two different things; also reasons can evolve and mutate over the course of a war.

I don't know about Bancroft, but Henry Adams doesn't so much dwell on the US performance as a brilliant victory--and he hates Andrew Jackson--as he focuses on the rapid prosperity that came over America in the subsequent years. This circle can be squared by remembering that the part of the war that America "won" was not the part against the British.

Another, more pro-British position to take, which I think Latimer would also endorse, is that the real important victory was that of the British over Napoleon. It was thus the British who fought for the rapid expansion of the American nation, and economy (both free and enslaved), that followed in the peaceful years of free security. I don't know if I'd put it in these charged nationalist terms but I do think there is something to this idea. Certainly all War of 1812 studies should clearly position this conflict as a peripheral episode in the world war of 1803 to 1815 (or 1793 to 1815).

Michael Green - 2/18/2008

I would add that this entire essay proceeds from fallacious reasoning. What is clear NOW is not always clear THEN.

James W Loewen - 2/18/2008

We in the U.S. have lots to learn from histories of our past written in other countries, including Canada. This post, however, is rife with profound errors.
To start with, the War of 1812, correctly understood, began in 1811. There were three main participants: the U.S., Britain, and American Indians, who were mostly allied with Britain. The first two fought to a stand-off. (Remember the last battle of the war? The Battle of New Orleans? Hardly a British triumph, that, although it did occur after the peace treaty had been agreed to.)
The losers were the third party. Before 1811, the British had continued to make alliances with American Indian nations in the Midwest, supplying them with arms and other assistance. After 1815, our wars with Native Americans (and there were many) were all internal, not international; no foreign powers supplied them.
True, the U.S. did not take Canada. Our efforts there were half-hearted from the start. But we surely did take the Midwest, the Plains, etc., and without British interference.