When we got back home, I took a deeper look at this war and was blown away by what I discovered. In the early 1800’s, England was at war with Napoleon’s France. The fledgling United States wanted to remain neutral while maintaining trade with France, who at the time was our largest export partner. The English retaliated by intercepting American trade vessels and impressing captured seamen into the British Navy. President Madison, thinking that American troops would be welcomed as liberators (where have I heard that before?), convinced Congress to declare war on England. What Madison really wanted was to pull off a gigantic land grab in Canada in order to facilitate the American expansion west, but what he underestimated was the willingness of the Canadians and the indigenous peoples to fight to make sure that didn’t happen.
It was interesting to realize how little most Americans actually know about this war. For example, I had never heard that a virtually undefended Washington fell to the British. The English army burnt the Capitol building and then proceeded to the White House where they found the banquet room set for a reception that Dolly Madison had planned to hold that evening. The British officers held their own banquet in which they toasted to their victory and in the morning set the White House ablaze. The whole occupation only lasted about 24 hours. The Battle of New Orleans only lasted about 25 minutes, killing only about 70 U.S., but over 2000 British soldiers. Unfortunately, neither Andrew Jackson nor the British commanders knew that a peace treaty had been signed two weeks earlier.
Some expressions came from this war and became an integral part of the American psyche. “The Fog of War” was coined at this time to describe the musket smoke that filled the battlefields. The Naval ship Constitution was given its nickname “Old Ironsides” by English sailors who believed it must be reinforced with iron as they watched cannon balls either lodge themselves in the hull or drop into the water. The motto of the United States Navy, “Don’t Give Up the Ship”, were the last words uttered by Captain James Lawrence, who then proceeded to die and give up his ship. Maybe the reason that this part of history seems to be forgotten is that after nearly three years of war with our neighbors, the peace treaty just reaffirmed all the exact same boundaries that existed prior to the war and made sure that the Native Americans would never again have the possibility of determining their own fate.
Those dudes who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet, those dudes who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.