The War of 1812
Two hundred years ago, the United States was engulfed in a war that had seen Washington, D.C. attacked and burned, and the nation’s independence seriously threatened. Today, few people remember who we were even fighting in that conflict — the War of 1812 — much less what we were fighting for. But despite its forgotten status, the War of 1812 was hugely influential in shaping the nation we live in today.
And so in this episode, we go beyond the trivia, and explore some of the war’s deeper legacies. We look at why the war loomed so large in novels and poems of the post-war years, how it redefined government policies toward American Indians, and why the conflict nearly led to a civil war within the U.S. Through it all, we set out to answer the most fundamental questions about the War of 1812: What did we win, what did we lose, and why should we care?
View Full Episode Transcript
This is a transcript of an earlier broadcast of this episode. There may be slight changes in wording in the rebroadcast.
PETER: This is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts. I’m Peter Onuf. This week marks the bicentennial of America’s first declaration of war, the War of 1812. You know, the War of 1812.
No? Not ringing any bells? Well, today on our show we’re bringing back the War of 1812. We’ll let you know just how it began.
ADAM JORTNER: Yeah, well, let me tell you something about this war. We started this war. Americans started this war. I think all of this stuff that you hear about impressment and anger with the British, that’s what leaves Americans, and in particularly American school children, so confused. Everything clears up if you just think America is making a land grab.
PETER: And how it ended.
BRIAN MERRETT: The standard line is the Canadians figured they kicked butt. The Americans figured it was a tie. And the British didn’t give a darn.
PETER: The War of 1812, today on BackStory. But first, some history in the making.
TONY FIELD: Hello BackStory podcasters. I’m Tony Field, senior producer of the show. If you’re listening to the show today on the radio, this, of course, is the place where you’d be hearing the news.
We don’t have any news for you. But we do have a request. And that’s this. If you’re liking what you’re hearing so far on the new and improved weekly version of BackStory, please help us spread the word.
Tell your friends. Tell your family members. Tell the people you go to work with or school with. Tell them that they can find us on iTunes, on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr and, of course, on the web, backstoryradio.org. That’s where all of our new shows take shape every week with input from you, our listening audience.
In addition, we are always accepting financial contributions to help us cover our production costs. There’s a link to give in the top right hand corner of our website, backstoryradio.org. That’s it from me. Thanks for listening, and see you next week.
PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.
BRIAN: Hey, everybody. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century guy. And I’m here with Ed Ayers.
ED: Your 19th century guy.
BRIAN: And the one and only Peter Onuf.
PETER: The 18th century American history guy.
BRIAN: That sound you guys are hearing in the background, that sound is coming from Boston, Massachusetts. It’s the Charleston Navy Yard. This week marks the 200th anniversary of America’s first declared war, the War of 1812.
Charleston’s Navy Yard is home to one of the most famous relics of the war, the USS Constitution, known as Old Ironsides. It’s an 18th century battleship, the world’s oldest commissioned battleship that is still floating. Given the big anniversary of 1812, we paid Old Ironsides a visit. We asked people what they knew about the origins of the ship and what the men on that ship were fighting for back in 1812. To put it bluntly, we asked what was the War of 1812 all about?
FEMALE SPEAKER: I have no idea.
MALE SPEAKER: Am I allowed to google search the answers?
FEMALE SPEAKER: Nothing. Got nothing.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Next time I’ll look it up on my phone.
FEMALE SPEAKER: I didn’t even really know it was a thing.
MALE SPEAKER: What do you reckon? You reckon–
MALE SPEAKER: I reckon I google it.
MALE SPEAKER: Then let’s google it.
MALE SPEAKER: Find out.
MALE SPEAKER: Because I don’t know.
ED: Now, Brian, that’s a pretty big question and maybe even a little unfair, don’t you think?
BRIAN: All right, if you want me to dumb it down, how about an easier question? Who won the War of 1812?
MALE SPEAKER: I’m assuming we did.
FEMALE SPEAKER: I mean, I’m going to say us because we’re doing pretty great, right? So I think if we would have lost it we wouldn’t be doing so awesome.
FEMALE SPEAKER: We probably wouldn’t be celebrating it if we didn’t win.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Yeah, that’s a very good theory. We wouldn’t be celebrating it if we didn’t do at least somewhat well in it, right?
FEMALE SPEAKER: Are we celebrating it?
FEMALE SPEAKER: I don’t know.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Do we celebrate that?
BRIAN: Well, to be completely honest, when you bring up the War of 1812 most people have a pretty similar reaction.
MALE SPEAKER: Which one is that? Which one is that? Because I’ve heard of the War of 1812. But then you also hear of the Revolutionary War.
So 1812 is after Revolutionary War. And I’m thinking, well, we already defeated the British. Who else is there to fight?
So who is it? What is it? Do you know? Do you reckon 1812? Are you going to tell me the answer? Are you?
HERMAN SHELANSKI: It’s sort of our forgotten war.
BRIAN: This is Rear Admiral Herman Shelanski of the US Navy. The fact is the War of 1812 doesn’t mean very much to most Americans. But it’s actually a huge deal for the Navy.
HERMAN SHELANSKI: We look back on the War of 1812 and the outcome of that war as a real turning point for, not only our nation, but our Navy in particular. For the United States it was more of a matter of national pride and the final recognition that the Navy was an incredibly important function of national security, just as it is today.
BRIAN: But the Navy has a problem today. And it’s the same problem as the War of 1812 has. Shelanski says that most people support the armed forces as a whole.
HERMAN SHELANSKI: But then when you ask them how many of them understand what the Navy does, unfortunately, it’s a very low number.
BRIAN: Less than 12% of those polled understand why the United States even has a Navy, which makes it all the more curious that the Navy is now using the War of 1812 as the centerpiece of its public relations campaign.
MALE SPEAKER: The War of 1812 gave us much more than the national anthem. It unleashed an American Navy, a Navy that to this day has proved essential to our nation’s survival and prosperity.
BRIAN: The campaign also includes a bunch of fleet weeks where the Navy brings its ships up and down the east coast and even onto the Great Lakes so people can check them out.
PETER: Brian, I don’t work on Madison Avenue. But it seems to me that if you want to raise awareness about your Navy, using a war nobody knows about might not be the best course of action.
BRIAN: I actually asked Admiral Shelanski about that. Is it a bit risky to yoke a campaign to explain what the Navy does today to a war that you’ve called a forgotten war?
HERMAN SHELANSKI: Well, I think there’s a risk. But I think the opportunity for us is a good one. Like in 1812 we had great technology and we have great tactics. We’ve got skilled captains and leaders. So this is an opportunity for us to let our citizens know just as in 1812 why we need a strong Navy.
MALE SPEAKER: Freedom at sea in 1812. Freedom at sea today. The United States Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, keeping the sea free for more than 200 years.
ED: Today on BackStory, the War of 1812.
MALE SPEAKER: Which one is that? Which one is that?
BRIAN: Peter, you’re an early American history expert.
PETER: Well, that’s reassuring.
BRIAN: Yeah, well, before we go forward in this show, I want to know what the War of 1812 is all about. So this is what we’re going to do. You are going to pitch me the War of 1812, the movie. I need to know the good guys, the bad guys. I need to know who wins, who loses. I want to know what they’re fighting for. You got that?
PETER: Yeah. OK, Brian.
PETER: OK, Brian, I want you to sit back and take a wide angle view. We got a varied cast of characters. This is going to be a spectacle.
We have the British North Americans, otherwise known now as Canadians. We have the Native Americans, the Indians, trying to hold onto their land. We have got the nasty Brits, our historic enemy. This is the second war for American independence. And we’ve got the Americans and their fragile new republic.
BRIAN: Ed, pass the popcorn.
PETER: Hey, look, this new republic is at risk. Think of the United States as the damsel in distress.
PETER: And how are the men going to stand up and protect Lady Liberty against the old, despotic mother country? So what you’re going to do is– what’s that Japanese movie, Rashomon, in which we have multiple perspectives?
PETER: Brian, hold onto your seat. I want you to turn your perspective– this has got to be one of those swivel chairs. I want you to look east. I want you to look across the Atlantic. I want you to look at what’s happening out there.
The British are capturing our ships. This is the Great War between Britain and France, the Napoleonic Wars. It’s in the final phases. And Americans are suffering the consequences because they’re caught in the crossfire. OK? You got the picture?
BRIAN: I got it.
PETER: Big deal.
PETER: OK. Swivel that chair back. And I want you to look North. And you say, well, the people who live there, those Canadians, they wish they were in the United States. So all we got to do is show up and they’ll roll over.
We’re looking north. We’re really upset. We’re looking east. We’re really upset. We’re going to invade Canada. President James Madison, he may have been a short guy, but he was ready to stand tall.
ED: So, Peter, that’s very gripping what we see from the east and from the north. What if we swivel the chair to the west?
PETER: This has been an uplifting spectacle until now. But I’m afraid this is going to be tragic because we got losers out there. We got Native Americans, allies of the British, promised protection, promised a buffer state, promised their land. But they’re the big losers.
They’re not represented at the Treaty of Ghent. So they couldn’t protect their interests and the British let them down. So what we see is the end, the tragic end of Indian country.
ED: So, Peter, the Treaty of Ghent?
ED: What was that? What did it do?
PETER: December, 1814, it ended the war. And guess what we got? We got four Latin words, status quo, antebellum, the same old, same old. Nothing changed. Nothing happened.
ED: But, Peter, my understanding is the war doesn’t actually end with the Treaty of Ghent.
PETER: Well, Ed, we saved the best for last. As the credits are rolling, Andrew Jackson is rolling into New Orleans with his Kentucky riflemen. And two weeks after the treaty is signed at Ghent, because it takes so long for information to get across the ocean, the Americans win their first great victory on land at New Orleans. And they mow down those British soldiers.
[MUSIC – BEN KWELLER, “THIS IS WAR”]
ED: You know, in a war with so many actors, it’s not surprising that almost everyone involved has a different opinion about it.
BRIAN MERRETT: The standard line is the Canadians figured they kicked butt. The Americans figured it was a tie. And the British didn’t give a darn.
BRIAN: This is Brian Merrett, CEO of the 1812 Legacy Council. The Legacy Council is a bi-national organization that helps celebrate the War of 1812 in both Canada and the United States.
PETER: Brian was born in Canada. He now lives in the US but works across the border in Niagara, Ontario. We asked him about the different ways Americans and Canadians remember the War of 1812. Brian, which one of these story lines means the most to you? Do you feel like your butt’s been kicked or that you’re doing the kicking?
BRIAN MERRETT: Well, you know, I’m a Canadian and my wife is American.
PETER: Oh, marital strife.
ED: That settles that then, right?
BRIAN MERRETT: And she’s retired US Air Force. So she does have a military background. So there are some topics we sort of don’t discuss over breakfast, you know?
But I think when I look at this outcome of this conflict, it’s really when Canada became a country. I mean, the paperwork was done in 1867. But, really, Canada, you know, English and French Canada pulled together and defended its borders and pushed back an aggressor. From the American point of view it was really the first test of America as a country after the revolution.
BRIAN: Could you take us through your earliest memories of the War of 1812, how you learned about it? And has that changed at all?
BRIAN MERRETT: Yeah, I think because of the bicentennial there’s been a dramatic change. I grew up in the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario. Literally, the playground– we used to go and play catch and things– and it was right next to the Battle of Lundy’s Lane site.
It was not unusual for someone to be digging in the garden and find a musket ball. So we really grew up with it right beside us and, you know, studying it in history and in school projects on a fairly regular basis. On the US side, from when I talked to my wife about what they learned in school, it was, well, you know, the American Revolution or the Civil War.
BRIAN: Yep. Skipped right over it.
ED: Do you speak any differently about this when you’re speaking to audiences and different sides of the border? I mean, you have the charming Canadian accent. Do you turn that on or off if you’re speaking to–
BRIAN MERRETT: The emphasis is obviously different. Like, for example, I attended an event just outside of Buffalo yesterday in Cheektowaga, where it’s a commemoration of the War of 1812 cemetery. And it had the voice codes and the VFW and the fire trucks and lots of flags and lots of music.
Ours is a bit more, probably, formal. We still have the Royal Canadian Legion. But they’re not near as predominant perhaps as VFWs are. And there’s a different portrayal of patriotism in the United States compared to Canada, not to say that Canadians aren’t patriotic. But I think in America they’re more demonstrative about it.
BRIAN: Brian Merrett is CEO of the 1812 Legacy Council based in Niagara, Canada.
ED: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we’re going to talk about America’s first secession crisis. And I’ll bet you’ll be surprised by the states that were involved.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. See you in a minute.
BRIAN: Welcome to BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh, your 20th century guy, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.
ED: And I’m your 19th century guy.
BRIAN: And Peter Onuf.
PETER: Your 18th century guy. This week marks the bicentennial of America’s first declaration of war, that is the War of 1812.
BRIAN: We’ve already touched on how different the war looks today from opposite sides of the US, Canada border. That would also have been the case 200 years ago. But back then, the war would also have had vastly different meanings within the United States. Not to put too fine a point on it, guys, but the War of 1812 came very close to turning into a civil war.
ED: Yeah, that’s right. 40 some odd years before Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, America faced its first secession crisis. And this time the hot heads threatening to bolt from the United States were Northerners.
PETER: So the hot heads are far from the Federalist party. And their orientation is commercial. They’re into trade. And that means their primary connections are with the great trading partner, that’s with Britain, the enemy in the War of 1812.
And they’re looking south and they see national politics being hijacked by the Republicans. These Republicans are all about protecting farmers. Jefferson, Madison had both imposed trade embargoes that hammered New England’s shipping economy. And then when the Republicans start beating the war drum in 1812, well, that was the last straw.
BRIAN: Those New Englanders, the Federalists, they knew that their coastal towns would be on the front lines of any attack by the British Navy. So in June, when word reached New England that the US had declared war, people shuttered their shops. They rang church bells in protest. Some even flew the flag at half mast. And as the war got under way, those symbolic protests morphed into very real attempts to undermine the government in Washington. Here’s UC Davis historian, Alan Taylor.
ALAN TAYLOR: There are a lot of common people that do a lot of things to try to undermine the war effort. They will prosecute people who enlist in the army for their debts so that they won’t be in a position to enlist. They will smuggle with the British. And there are a fair number of Federalists who are willing to sell military information to the British during the war and they are spies.
BRIAN: Can you describe to us the most concrete steps that politicians in New England took to show their displeasure with this war?
ALAN TAYLOR: Right. Now, it’s important to bear in mind that there is a strong minority of Republicans in New England. And they were quite committed to supporting the war. So the Federalist majority, they kept hoping that they could continue to build their public support and marginalize the Republicans so that if they indeed decided to secede, they would be able to win a Civil War within New England.
So they’re pretty cautious. But they tend to throw caution more to the wind as the war goes so badly. In the end of 1814, you had the governor of Massachusetts, a Federalist, Caleb Strong, who sent a secret emissary to Nova Scotia to consult with the British colonial governor there to sound out whether the British would welcome the secession of New England and would provide a military protection for the New England Federalists should they take this move.
BRIAN: So he was pursuing his own foreign policy in many ways.
ALAN TAYLOR: It’s a contingency plan. So everybody’s hedging their bets. Nobody’s really willing to take the plunge yet.
And there’s also a convention of Federalist delegates from the New England states that meets in Hartford in December of 1814 to see whether they really have the courage to take this plunge. They decide they don’t. But they make a set of pretty non negotiable and completely unacceptable demands of the national government.
And then they scheduled a new convention that would meet in the spring if the war was still ongoing and if their demands had not been met. And it’s pretty clear that if they had indeed met again in the spring that they would have summoned up the courage and would have seceded from the Union. But fortunately for the union, peace arrived in February of 1815 and prevented this further convention.
BRIAN: And did those resolutions, even from 1814, although they fell short of secession, leave the Federalists with egg on their face?
ALAN TAYLOR: Well, it did because their delegation from this Hartford Convention shows up in Washington DC in February of 1815 just at the time the two other pieces of news arrive. The first is of this glorious victory at New Orleans won by Andrew Jackson crushing a British invasion force. And the second piece of news arrives almost at the same time that the United States has negotiated a very favorable peace treaty with the British at Ghent in December of 1814. And both these pieces of news utterly discredit the Federalists. They are cast as defeatists at best and as traitors at worst.
BRIAN: And does that help explain how out of what you call a civil war we get a period in a American history that’s generally considered to be unifying? You know, one wouldn’t expect this kind of conclusion from what you have been describing in terms of all these divisions.
ALAN TAYLOR: Yeah, that’s absolutely correct. You would think that this war, which had been mostly a set of embarrassing defeats for the United States, would lead people to question their form of government and their union. But what happens is this very favorable peace treaty sets off an orgy of celebration in which Americans insist that they won a very glorious victory in the war. And it will lead to a very boisterous form of nationalism, which hadn’t really existed before the war.
BRIAN: Alan Taylor is an historian At UC Davis. His book is The Civil War of 1812.
BRIAN: I’m sure a lot of you listeners are wondering why should I care about the War of 1812? And I got to admit I’ve been wondering that myself and thinking about it. But I always think better when I hear from Peter and Ed first. Peter.
PETER: Well, I’m the old guy from the 18th century looking forward into Ed’s 19th century. And I’ll say this to you. It’s the economy, stupid.
Until the War of 1812, we had a bunch of provincial economies that were oriented toward European markets. They sent exports, tobacco, rice, increasingly cotton, to overseas markets. And in effect they had nothing in common with each other because the great lanes of commerce were on the ocean.
Well, the War of 1812 changed all that because all of a sudden we didn’t have any choice about it. We weren’t going to be able to get things to market because the ocean was a nasty, dangerous place. You were going to have to deal with each other.
Northerners began to manufacture. They manufactured shoes that they could send south to the slaves and rough clothing and textiles. And here we had the emergence and the vision of Henry Clay of an American system that would tie the country together with common interests. People would make things for each other.
This would be the real bonds of union. And you might even say for the first time Americans begin to think of themselves as a people, not just a confederation or even a stronger federal union of people’s, but a people. And it was this integrative period that gives us the foundations of modern America, not the Constitution of 1787, not the Declaration of 1776, it was the Treaty of Ghent in 1814.
BRIAN: Wow. I knew I should have studied that treaty.
ED: That is good stuff, Peter. And it’s fortunate that my answer is not in direct contradiction to it. Now, what becomes the major export? What becomes the foundation of the American economy? You kind of referred to it.
ED: Yep. And it’s cotton. And so in many ways the old South emerges from the War of 1812. Now, how could that be? Well, because most of what we think now as the old South was in fact occupied by American Indians as it had been for 10,000 years before this time.
But in the crucible of the war, Andrew Jackson rises up from Tennessee and leads soldiers down to fight against the Creeks who are occupying half of present day Alabama and large parts of Georgia. And he defeats them. And then he proceeds down to New Orleans where he fights the British and forever opens the mouth of the Mississippi to what’s going to become the heart of the slave and cotton empire.
Within a few decades, cotton produced by enslaved people will account for 80% of all American exports, which, of course, plants the seeds for another episode not only of BackStory but of American history when the country explodes as a result of the tensions unleashed by the War of 1812. So, Brian, Peter sees the beginnings of American nationalism. I see the beginnings of America’s great economy. What in the world could you possibly have for the 20th Century?
BRIAN: Ed, I see the United States Air Force.
ED: Did not see that coming, my friend.
PETER: Who would be looking up the way he’s looking up?
BRIAN: Now, I want to be clear for those listeners out there who are not quite sure when the airplane was invented, it was not in 1812. But let me explain how we get to the Air Force. The War of 1812 on the ground is either disastrous or comical depending on how many centuries you are removed from it.
And the reason it’s disastrous is our army is really just a patchwork of militias. They’re very locally oriented. And Jefferson and Madison might have thought that the army was just going to march into Canada. But you know what? Getting those militias to march past their state border was no easy thing.
Militarily, what we learn, what we take away from the War of 1812 is, hey, that Navy thing. You know, there were only 16 ships in the Navy. There were 600 in the British Navy. But we kicked their butts.
And one of the reasons we were so effective was we didn’t have a Massachusetts Navy or a Virginia Navy. The Navy was one of the few actual national entities. And those sailors, once they got out on sea, no matter where they came from, they came from all over, they kind of gelled. They kind of bonded.
And there was one more advantage that people saw after the war. You know, you didn’t have to quarter the Navy in New York City or Philadelphia. They weren’t prying into people’s businesses. They weren’t a very visible presence. This gets translated into some of the very reasons that the Air Force and air power became so effective after World War II. The Air Force became a key part of America’s approach to remaining strong, projecting power but not showing that kind of concentrated, threatening power that standing armies had always represented to the United States.
PETER: OK, guys, open the windows. Things are going to heat up fast. It’s time to talk about love in the time of 1812. I want to start with what was supposedly a British catch phrase during the war, a watch word, if you will. You ready for this?
ED: Lay it on me.
PETER: Beauty and Booty.
BRIAN: Hey, Peter, you’re sounding more Barry White like every minute.
PETER: Yes. Beauty and Booty. Ed, can you read this letter for me? This is a letter from George Poindexter. He was a volunteer at the famous Battle of New Orleans with Andrew Jackson.
ED: The watchword and counter sign of the enemy was Beauty and Booty. Had victory declared on their side, the scene of Havre de Grace, of Hampton, of Alexandria–
PETER: Ed, those are the cities the British had pillaged earlier in the year.
ED: Would without doubt had been reenacted at New Orleans with all the unfeeling and brutal inhumanity of the savage foe with whom we are contending.
NICOLE EUSTACE: Well, the idea that the British were fighting for Beauty and Booty–
PETER: This is Nicole Eustace, a professor of history at NYU.
NICOLE EUSTACE: –helped to cement in the public mind the idea that the romantic love that Americans fought from was a virtuous kind of romantic love, whereas the English were motivated by evil, sinful, lustful varieties of passion, which was quite distinct from American virtuous love. So Beauty and Booty just kind of sent that message very clearly. And Poindexter spread this rumor that it was the watchword of the British on the day of the attack.
And why did Poindexter claim this? Well, one of the things that I uncovered in the course of looking into the origins of the Beauty and Booty story was that Poindexter did not acquit himself very well on the day of the Battle of New Orleans. He got a little bruise on his arm. And it sounds to me like he kind of had a panic attack.
He wrapped his arm up in a sling and he spent the day inside quarters claiming to be too injured to fight. And he took a lot of flack for this afterwards because he was just bruised. And I think he probably made up the story, this very sensational story, to distract from this.
The English ignored it for a long time. The reason that the English finally had to disavow it was because Poindexter’s story was so politically useful that it was taken up by Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson, the conquering hero of New Orleans, the general who led the troops to victory, went back to Washington after the peace treaty had been signed. And he, literally, became the toast of Washington.
He went around from gala to gala. And he toasted the idea that his troops had saved American Booty and Beauty from the British. Finally, the surviving officers, British officers from New Orleans, got together and they all swore an affidavit that this was absolutely not the call sign. So there’s no reason to think that this story was true. But yet it served this really useful political purpose.
PETER: And here’s what Eustace means when she says useful political purpose. America’s still a new country. It’s never raised a formal military. And so how are you going to convince young men to fight in future wars without TV ads, without tuition benefits, no be all that you can be? Well, how do you get them to fight? Eustace says you need to make them love their country the way they love their women.
NICOLE EUSTACE: Let me give you a great poem that is from a contemporary song book and it was published in poster forms. So this must have been tacked up in taverns. It could’ve been passed around at a sing along in a parlor.
This is called The Love of Country. And it goes like this. “A soldier is a gentleman. His honor is his life. And he that won’t stand to his post will never stand by his wife since love and honor are the same or are so near allied that neither can exist alone but flourish side by side. Farewell sweethearts for a while, you pretty girls ado. And when we’ve drove the British dogs, we’ll kiss it out with you.” So there is this belief in popular culture that romantic love makes good fighting men.
PETER: During the War of 1812 and just after the war, poems and novels and songs just like this were ubiquitous. And the War of 1812 becomes a sort of romance in itself. In the end, it looms larger in people’s imaginations than it does in their everyday lives.
NICOLE EUSTACE: More people died in the Battle of Bull Run, one of the very first battles of the Civil War. 5,000 people died in one day. That’s more than died in the entire war of 1812. And this helps to explain why print culture is so important to the understanding of the war.
This was a minor conflict. People didn’t really experience much suffering first hand or even much fighting first hand. And if we think of how the US winds up backing into the Civil War, I think we can think about the fact that the print culture of the War of 1812 in no way prepared anyone for the disconnect between glorious stories of love and romance and the actual experience of warfare.
PETER: Nicole Eustace is a professor of history at New York University. She’s the author of a new book, 1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism.
[MUSIC PLAYING – BARRY WHITE, “CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF YOUR LOVE BABY”]
ED: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we’ll hear how the War of 1812 climbed the pop charts 150 years later and made it all the way to number one.
BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
[MUSIC PLAYING – BARRY WHITE, “CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF YOUR LOVE BABY’]
PETER: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf, the 18th century guy.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers. I’m the 19th century guy.
BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. I stand in for the 20th century. Today on the show, we’re marking the bicentennial of the war of 1812. It’s our challenge to try to understand what the war was all about and, really, why it matters for us today.
PETER: The standard textbook story line in America is that we went to war to get back at the British for kidnapping or what they called impressing our sailors at sea. Since Britain was still in charge north of the border, we sent some troops up there and everything ended in a draw because the borders went back to the way they had been before the war.
ED: Yeah, that’s the standard storyline, Peter. But it’s not the only one.
ADAM JORTNER: Let me tell you something about this war. We started this war. Americans started this war.
ED: This is Adam Jortner. He’s an historian at Auburn University.
ADAM JORTNER: I think all of this stuff that you hear about impressment and anger with the British, that’s what leaves Americans, and in particularly American school children, so confused. Everything clears up if you just think America is making a land grab.
ED: That’s right, says Jortner. America was trying to expand its borders to the north. But at the same time, there were rumblings that we might be better off if we turned our attention to the west instead.
Of course, there were already people living in the West. In fact, they’d been living there for 10,000 years. But Jortner told me that the War of 1812 marked a turning point in the federal government’s relationship with Native Americans. The story goes back to 1794 when the Americans scored an important victory over the Ohio Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, a battle that ends with the Treaty of Greenville.
ADAM JORTNER: What happens at the negotiating table in 1795 is that these sort of united tribes of the Northwest and the American government come to an understanding that we will negotiate treaties from here on out and we’ll avoid military conflict. And in every single tribe chiefs come to power after Greenville in 1795. Chiefs come to power who want to deal with the Americans and the Americans want to deal with the Indians.
And there’s some idea, and Thomas Jefferson’s a big proponent of this idea, that what will happen is Americans will take some Native American land and they will give out agricultural subsidies. They’ll give out animals. They’ll give out seed. They’ll give out farming implements.
And Jefferson thinks this is going to be a great idea because Indians will start to farm in Western ways because Indians farm but they don’t farm in sort of neat rows of corn. They farm corn and squash and beans altogether. But Jefferson wants them to farm in rows. And he says this is great and they’ll become like us. They’ll become like white Americans.
ADAM JORTNER: Yes. Civilized, exactly his term. He says we’ll civilize them. But what becomes apparent from 1800 to about 1810 is that these land treaties are coming faster and faster and every time the amount of land that Native Americans have gets cut. It was a pretty peaceful situation. But it becomes increasingly untenable.
ED: So that sounds as if there’s a lot of disappointment and resentment sort of stirring among the American Indian peoples for good reason. If I’m not mistaken, this is where the prophets in prophets town come from.
ADAM JORTNER: Yes, that’s exactly right. There are two brothers and one almost everybody’s heard of, Tecumseh, the great military leader of the Shawnee. He’s really famous.
But at the time, people called him the prophet’s brother because his brother was more famous. His brother’s name is Tenskwatawa. But most whites call him the Shawnee prophet.
All the other chiefs, their position is let’s accommodate the Americans. And Tenskwatawa is more or less the only leader in the Northwest who says, no, we shouldn’t have to farm. We shouldn’t have to change our ways. We should embrace our ways.
And he begins to sort of garner political power. His brother is the one who’s doing the diplomacy. He would talk to the British. He would talk to other tribes. He very famously went and talked to all of the southern tribes.
ED: So this is happening before there’s a conflict of a fighting nature between the British and the Americans. And so what sets that all off into what we now know as the War of 1812?
ADAM JORTNER: Believe it or not, William Henry Harrison, he’s a politician. He wants to make Indiana a state. It’s a territory. And he says, if I’m going to make Indiana a state, I’ve got to have white– the only people who count when you count the census is white Americans. I’ve got to have white Americans living here. I’ve got to get more territory.
ED: I see.
ADAM JORTNER: And the prophet simply declares, in 1809 he says, you will not survey these lands. And over the next 24 months, Harrison keeps planning. Maybe we can set up surveys now, maybe now, maybe now. And he keeps trying to get surveys.
And he finally has to ask President Madison, please let me send out military forces. And he gets rebuffed a couple times. He finally gets his right. He goes and fights this Battle of Tippecanoe. And, basically, then Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh are able to turn to their native allies and say all we did was say you have to sign a treaty with us and they launched a war against us.
And this begins to sort of consolidate Native American power in the Northwest under Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa. So this is sort of where actual shooting begins and the idea begins to percolate East that, ah ha, this is how this should go down. We should fight a war against Britain and against the Indians. And we should take back the Northwest by force. And we should get Canada at the same time.
ED: Wow. Pretty cocky for a 20-year-old country, huh?
ADAM JORTNER: Very cocky.
ED: How formidable a force were the Indians?
ADAM JORTNER: Well, they conquered Michigan is the short answer. So they’re pretty good. For about a year, from August 1812 for about a year, the Indians are in control of Michigan with British support, with Canadian support. What actually happens is Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous battle on Lake Erie where he is down to sort of his last ship. He loses something like 80% of his forces.
But he hangs in there. And against the odds he defeats the British Navy on Lake Erie. That’s an important battle because that cuts the supply lines to Detroit. And suddenly Detroit can’t continue to be supplied from Canada.
That’s the point at which the British decide to retreat. Tecumseh does not want to retreat. He begs the British commander. He calls the British commander a fat animal.
He says we haven’t been defeated. We have got to stay here. We have got to actually fight it out with the Americans. But the British retreat. Tecumseh doesn’t have any choice but to follow.
So in 1813 William Henry Harrison, he’s back. He takes back Detroit. He follows the British and Tecumseh into Canada and they fight the Battle of the Thames there. And that’s the battle where Tecumseh is killed.
ED: So I think we’re used to thinking about the War of 1812 being a close call when the British are burning Washington DC. Was it a close call in the west too with the united power of the American Indians?
ADAM JORTNER: I think so. I mean, I think had Perry’s battle on Lake Erie gone a different way then the supply lines remain open. Detroit remains in Native American hands. And you come to the end of the war and Washington’s on fire.
And the British say we would like an Indian buffer state in Michigan, which is something they really wanted, a buffer state between them and Americans. Yeah, I think it was a close call. I think the Indians with the British and Canadian allies could have won themselves a sort of permanent territory.
ED: So you could argue other than losing Canada the Americans did win, not against the British, but against the American Indians.
ADAM JORTNER: Right. The Americans did win against the Indians. And, actually, it’s right after the war when American policy towards the Indians stops being about signing treaties for part of their land and it becomes about signing treaties of removal and actually taking Indians who lived in the Northwest and forcibly taking them off their country and putting them across the Mississippi.
ADAM JORTNER: And I think it’s important to note this idea that Native Americans just got pushed west and pushed west and pushed west somehow naturally, somehow inevitably. That’s wrong. And the War of 1812 shows that that’s wrong, that this was a policy choice for war and that the results with what we see is not sort of the natural way countries develop. But it’s a result of military strategic planning and sort of political decisions that are made.
ED: That’s Adam Jortner. He’s the author of God’s of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecano and the Holy War for the American Frontier. He’s also a professor of history at Auburn University.
PETER: If you’re just tuning in, this is BackStory and we’re talking about the War of 1812 on the 200th anniversary of its beginning.
ED: You know, reading over the comments on our Facebook page and website, it’s really striking how many people identify the Star Spangled Banner as the most important thing that emerges from the War of 1812. And so I went back and looked at it. I was curious. It’s the sort of thing that we sing a lot but don’t really think very much about the words of.
It turns out there are important parts of the song that we don’t sing. Here’s a part of one verse that I was struck by. “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave. And the Star Spangled Banner, oh, long may it wave.” The hireling and the slave? What’s that about?
PETER: Yeah. Well, here’s the story about the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake that’s not well known. And that is that just as in the revolution, lots of slaves escape Chesapeake plantations and joined the British forces. And so what Key is saying– and he’s a slave holder– he’s saying, these slaves who go to the British, they’re not going to be free. They’re going to die. This is going to be an awful outcome for them.
Of course, they’re happiest– and this anticipates a whole argument for slavery. They’re happiest and best off being our slaves. You know who’s terrified? It’s slave owners who are terrified.
They’re always terrified. And that’s what war means in the early period in slave holding areas. It means the possibility of two great powers are going at it, the British and the Americans. Well, there might be a third party that emerges and that would be slaves.
And a large number of them did escape. And this was something that, even worse than the desolation of Washington and the burning of the White House, the Bladensburg Races when Americans who were supposed to be defending the city ran away in terror. Well, the worst thing of all was the possibility that black slaves would rise up under the aegis of British protection and there would be payback time in a big way.
ED: And it’s interesting that, ironically, enslaved Americans were losers in the War of 1812. Once the boundary to the west is secured, once the American Indians are defeated and removed, the way is open for the vast expansion of American slavery. So it’s ironic that the national anthem would sort of gloat about the defeat of the aspirations of the runaway slaves and, in fact, they find themselves far less free in a more secure United States than they had been before.
[MUSIC PLAYING – WHITNEY HOUSTON, “THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER”]
ED: Now there’s one other famous song that commemorates the War of 1812. And if you were around in the late ’50s, early ’60s, there’s a good chance you’ve heard it.
JOHNNY HORTON: In 1814 we took a little trip with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip. We took a little bacon and we took a little beans. And we caught the bloody British in a town in New Orleans.
ED: That’s country music star, Johnny Horton, singing The Battle of New Orleans. And as you may remember from earlier in the show, that was the battle that sealed the deal on the war, the one where Andrew Jackson routed the British and secured a future for himself in American politics. But the fact that this story survives today is at least in part thanks to that song, which was a number one hit on the Billboard charts in 1959.
JOHNNY HORTON: We fired our guns and the British kept coming. There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago.
ED: To understand how a country song about a battle in an obscure war sold more than half a million copies, you have to go back 20 years earlier to Mountain View, Arkansas and to the song’s author, a man named Jimmy Driftwood.
BILL MALONE: I don’t suppose that he ever had any idea in 1936 that he would one day become, if not the major hit of all time, at least one of them.
ED: That’s Bill Malone, author of Country Music USA. And he told me that Driftwood wasn’t a professional songwriter when he composed that song, Battle of New Orleans. Instead, Driftwood was a high school teacher of history.
BILL MALONE: You know, Jimmy Driftwood had originally written the song, he says, in 1936 when he found that his students just couldn’t get the difference between the American Revolution and the War of 1812.
ED: So the song was written to be a study aid. But it also fit into a much larger folk music tradition that gave it a lot of resonance.
BILL MALONE: The music was part of a genre of songs that were described as saga songs, best described, I guess, as story songs, songs about real events like the sinking of the Bismark or the Battle of New Orleans or just mythical events like the long black veil and the Tennessee stud.
ED: Fast forward 20 years. It’s 1958. The saga song is suddenly all the rage thanks to the Kingston Trio’s hugely popular revival of an old folk song called Tom Dooley.
KINGSTON TRIO: Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Hang down your head and cry.
ED: Now, right around this time, Jimmy Driftwood, the high school teacher, is a arriving in Nashville to have a go at a second career as a songwriter. He records an album of songs that he’d written, an album with the admittedly somewhat dubious title, Jimmy Driftwood Sings Newly Discovered American Folk Songs. One of those songs is his old classroom ditty about Andrew Jackson’s big win.
JIMMY DRIFTWOOD: Well, in 1814, we took a little trip along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississippi. We took a little bacon and we took a little beans. And we met up with the British near the town of New Orleans.
ED: Enter country singer, Johnny Horton. He is hip to the folk revival trend. As soon as he hears The Battle of New Orleans, he knows he’s found the saga song that he’s been looking to cover.
JIMMY DRIFTWOOD: Well, we look down the river and we see the British the come–
JOHNNY HORTON: –and we see the British come. And there must have been 100 of them beating on the drum. They stepped so high and they made the bugles ring. We stood beside our cotton fields and didn’t say a thing. Oh, we fired our guns–
ED: And when we think about folk music, we often think about protest music. You think about Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Joan Baez. So here’s a different kind of folk music, a music that was written to celebrate the American past, a music that was coming out of the country music tradition, out of Nashville from people like Johnny Horton and Jimmy Driftwood. I asked Bill Malone how this song, The Battle of New Orleans, fit into this musical scene of the late ’50s and early ’60s.
BILL MALONE: I think it was part of that recurring interest in traditional song that show up in our music. But also, coming as it did during the Eisenhower era when we were engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, I think a lot of people were looking for songs that would reassure them.
ED: So you’re telling me that when they were singing about chasing the Red Coats, they’re really chasing the red stars, that they’re imagining that we’re really kind of overcoming the Russians.
BILL MALONE: I think that could be part of it.
JIMMY DRIFTWOOD: Old Hickory said we could take them by surprise if we didn’t fire our muskets ’till we looked them in the eye.
ED: Yeah, here in the Cold War it seems very distant and cold and all fought through, threaten missiles.
BRIAN: Push button war, Ed.
ED: Yeah, that’s right, Brian. It’s kind of satisfying to imagine the enemy running through the brambles and we can see the whites of their eyes. You know, that’s the kind of war that you can actually understand.
BRIAN: Yeah, and a war in which real men stepped up and defended America.
JIMMY DRIFTWOOD: Yeah, they ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles. And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn’t go. They ran so fast that the hounds couldn’t catch them on down to Mississippi through the gulf of Mexico.
ED: So looking back, it’s not too hard to see that the Battle of New Orleans, so popular, was in many ways a parable, a metaphor, and a fantasy about the world of 1959 as much as it was about the world of 1812.
BRIAN: And that’s where we’re going to have to leave things today. As always, we’d love to keep the conversation going online. Drop in at backstoryradio.org or find us on Facebook. Tell us why they named this the War of 1812.
If you were naming the war, what would you call it? Can you do better? We’ll forward our favorite suggestions on to the proper authorities.
PETER: That’s at backstoryradio.org. Don’t be a stranger.
BRIAN: BackStory is produced by Jess Engebretson, Eric Mennel, Anna Pinkert, and Nell Boeschenstein. Tony Field is our senior producer.
ED: Jamal Millner is our technical director. Frank Cirillo is our intern. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel. History made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.