Will the flood of books and related activities during the Bicentennial mean that we no longer have to characterize the War of 1812 as a “forgotten conflict”? This is unlikely. After all, the war hardly compares in grandeur and importance with the Revolution and Civil War, those two great contests that are bookends for the period in U.S. history from 1775 to 1865. And there are many other reasons why the War of 1812 has slipped so deep into the recesses of the public memory. Its causes—maritime rights on the high seas in the Age of Sail—don’t resonate with Americans today. In addition, the war was waged inconclusively in far-flung theaters that stretched from Mackinac Island in northern Michigan to New Orleans on the Gulf Coast. Furthermore, it is not really clear who won the war (although everyone can agree that the biggest losers were the Indians, who were defeated both in Tecumseh’s War in the Old Northwest and the Creek War in the Old Southwest). Finally, the battle casualties cannot begin to compare with the losses in either the Revolution or the Civil War.
Flotilla: The Patuxent Naval Campaign in the War of 1812, by Donald G. Shomette William Henry Harrison and the Conquest of the Ohio Country: Frontier Fighting in the War of 1812, by David Curtis Skaggs Native Memoirs from the War of 1812: Black Hawk and William Apess, by Carl Benn Privateering: Patriots and Profits in the War of 1812, by Faye M. Kert
What usually goes unappreciated in most treatments of the War of 1812 is its extraordinary legacy. If we measure wars by their consequences, then it’s hard to ignore the War of 1812. In the United States, the conflict boosted American self-confidence and nationalism, opened the door to territorial expansion, generated the birth of the American military establishment, and shaped the political landscape until the Civil War. Seven of the eleven presidents between James Madison and Abraham Lincoln either launched or boosted their public careers during the War of 1812, and anyone who had served in the field during the conflict had a significant advantage in any quest for elected public office. The war also forged a national identity. The sayings and symbols that either originated in, or gained wide currency during, the war helped Americans understand who they were as a people and where their nation might be headed. Most of these sayings and symbols still resonate with us today. Among them are “Don’t give up the ship” (Captain James Lawrence’s words as he lay dying after the defeat of the USS Chesapeake by HMS Shannon); “We have met the enemy and he is ours” (Commodore Oliver H. Perry’s laconic report after defeating the British squadron on Lake Erie); “Old Ironsides” (which enjoyed four successful cruises during the war and even today is probably the best known U.S. warship); the Fort McHenry flag (long on display as the Smithsonian in Washington); “The Star-Spangled Banner” (which Congress named the national anthem in 1931); Uncle Sam (which became a common nickname for the U.S. government); the Kentucky rifle (which won an inflated reputation as game-changer and war-winner); Andrew Jackson (whose success in the field made him a symbol for the entire postwar era); and the Battle of New Orleans (which forged the myth of American victory in the war). The war had no less an impact on Canada, for it was essentially that nation’s war of independence, and thus looms large in Canada’s public memory. Even Great Britain could not escape the war’s legacy. Although the British people quickly forgot about the conflict, the British government could not afford this luxury because it was responsible for defending Canada, and no one at the time thought this would be the last Anglo-American war. It did not take British leaders long to realize that the best way to protect Canada was to accommodate the United States, and this strategy ultimately paid off. Despite an often rocky road that included more than a couple war scares, by the end of the nineteenth century a genuine accord had blossomed between the two English-speaking nations. This turned into co-belligerency in World War I and a full-scale alliance in World War II that persists to this day. The War of 1812 may have been a small and inconclusive war, but it left an outsized legacy that continues to shape the transatlantic world today. This is certainly reason enough to accord the war a bigger place in our public memory and in our history books. By all rights, the forgotten conflict should be forgotten no more. Donald R. Hickey, whom the New Yorker described as “the dean of 1812 scholarship,” teaches history at Wayne State College in Nebraska. He has written seven books on the conflict, including Glorious Victory: Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans, The Rockets’ Red Glare: An Illustrated History of the War of 1812, and The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. He served as series editor for JHUP’s Johns Hopkins Books on the War of 1812.