ChrisWeigant.com

Remembering Our Most Forgettable War

[ Posted Monday, May 28th, 2018 – 17:15 PDT ]

Since today is Memorial Day, I'd like to begin with a remembrance of our most forgettable war, the War of 1812. How forgettable was this war? Well, its bicentennial passed by a few years ago, but the country as a whole took little notice. That's pretty forgettable, as these things are measured. In fact, only one event during this war has become what one might call (if one were in the mood for a pun) a "Key" moment, but more on that in due course.

The War of 1812 was mostly pointless and mostly indecisive. When the war ended, neither side had really won or lost, and no great concessions were made. The American attempts to conquer Canada were mostly a tragic farce, but the British suffered some ignoble defeats as well (including several memorable naval losses). Americans themselves were fiercely divided over the war, and the separation between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists almost ripped the country apart. New England Federalists, in fact, openly considered secession, and if they had made their minds up a bit faster, the War of 1812 might have sparked off a civil war between north and south. Or New England might have joined up with Old England, or become a part of Canada. As it was, it led to the immediate death of the Federalist Party, leading to the only real period of single-party rule in American history (which continued until Andrew Jackson shook things up, which gave rise to the Whigs).

Looking back, it's not that hard to understand why we collectively decided to mostly just sweep the War of 1812 under the rug of history. It was a messy time, and there was no overall clear and moral victory to celebrate. There were, however, individual victories, which were politicized quite successfully in later years.

Due to the slow nature of communications at the time, the final battle of the war happened weeks after the peace treaty was signed. The Treaty of Ghent was signed and on a ship heading to America when the Battle of New Orleans was fought. The hero of this battle was Andrew Jackson, a fact he capitalized upon in his later political life. Another hero of the war came up with a political slogan so catchy every schoolchild still recognizes it, although few adults would be able to put a president's name with the slogan. "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too" is pretty tongue-trippingly memorable, but William Henry Harrison just wasn't (other than having the shortest presidential term, dying 30 days after being sworn in). Tippecanoe was a battle in the War of 1812, meaning two military heroes from the war went on to win the presidency by touting their military prowess to the voters.

Most of that (other than that catchy political slogan) is forgotten today, though. In fact, a single battle is all Americans celebrate from the war, which is somewhat odd because many of the people celebrating it wouldn't be able to name which battle it actually was (or locate it on a map, for that matter). Schoolchildren who grew up in Maryland are really the only ones who probably remember the basics years later, since Fort McHenry is located in Baltimore.

This, obviously, was that "Key" moment -- when Francis Scott Key jotted down a poem after witnessing the British attempt to take the fort, and the city. Key was on a British ship (he was being respectfully detained until after the battle, so he couldn't give away secret military plans, but he was an American who had been sent to parley with the British -- which is why he saw the battle from a British ship). This poem was quickly put to a tune stolen from a British drinking song, and eventually became our national anthem. I suppose we're all lucky we don't sing our national anthem to the tune of "99 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall," or perhaps "It's Late And I Want To Go Home," when you think about it.

Nowhere in the first verse of the song (all that anyone sings, these days) does Key identify the fort under attack or the city it is defending, which is why few people standing at a football game could probably name both. They'd be doing well to remember all the lyrics in the proper order, in fact. The lyrics are so flowery and poetic that it really is tough to remember which couplet comes next. How often do you use "gleaming" or "ramparts" in daily conversation, after all, to say nothing of "o'er" or "spangled"?

So a mostly-nameless battle where a mostly-nameless fort successfully defended a mostly-nameless city in a very forgettable war has become the most memorable battle in American history, in at least one respect (count the number of times the song is sung versus the number of times other U.S. battles get referenced by the citizenry, for instance). This battle was politicized from the very beginning. Americans desperately needed a victory to celebrate, especially considering that three weeks earlier, the same British forces had burnt Washington to the ground (after the worst military rout in American history, the Battle of Bladensburg, which also took place in Maryland). So it wasn't just Francis Scott Key who was relieved he could see the flag in the dawn's early light. Together with the victory in New Orleans, both military triumphs allowed Americans to feel a little better about what was, in essence, a largely pointless war that was fought to a draw.

Schoolchildren spend little time studying the War of 1812 (compared, say, to how the Revolution is studied), and most American adults would be hard-pressed to name even a single salient point about the war today. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be remembered -- failures and all. Our navy gained worldwide respect as a result of the war, although Canada still celebrates how inept our land forces were in their attempt to free all of North America from British rule. We got two presidents out of the war, and we saw the end of the first two-party system in American politics (the end of the second one would coincide with the Civil War, as the Republican Party was born).

But the most memorable thing we got out of the war was a national song. It's notoriously hard to sing (that high note at the end), and it's maddeningly hard to remember the words (which is why they appear on the big screen at sports events). But perhaps this is fitting, since the song itself celebrates a victory that most have largely forgotten from a war that was even more forgettable. So this Memorial Day I'm going to make a special effort to remember the soldiers and sailors who died in the War of 1812. It's harder than bringing to mind the glorious Revolution or the total victory of World War II, but the men who served deserve equal respect in our collective memory.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

19 Comments on “Remembering Our Most Forgettable War”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Canada took great notice of that bicentennial. :)

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Mostly because Canada won the War of 1812. If we hadn't, we'd all be speaking American now. Heh.

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Okay, if it makes you feel better, the War of 1812 was pretty much a draw. Ahem.

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Oh, by the way, I find the words to your national anthem quite easy to remember and I sing them out loud whenever I'm at a Blue Jays game. Seriously!

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    "So this Memorial Day I'm going to make a special effort to remember the soldiers and sailors who died in the War of 1812. It's harder than bringing to mind the glorious Revolution or the total victory of World War II, but the men who served deserve equal respect in our collective memory."

    Indeed!

  6. [6] 
    TheStig wrote:

    CW.com historical columns are always a welcome treat!

    Outside of North America the War of 1812 is regarded as a minor theater of the Napoleonic Wars. The outside of North America has a pretty good case: the War was a direct result of the British naval Blockage of the Napoleonic Empire and was ended shortly after Napoleon was defeated and the blockade lifted. This is one of the few things I remember clearly from my college European History class.

    If there is any fundamental military lesson from the War of 1812 it would be "God is usually on the side of the bigger frigates."

    The stem tune for The Star Spangled Banner (Anacreon in Heaven)can be heard on (where else?) YouTube:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydAIdVKv84g

    The word "fusty" in the original lyrics is less interesting than I would of hoped: think moist and smelly.

  7. [7] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Here is what made this past long weekend so special for me:

    Rudy get's massively booed on his 74th birthday!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_ViD1dxP3g

    Nobody humbles the proud better than a NYC crowd. I'm confident that at least two of my 1st cousins were in the chorus.

    Rudy is not one of those people who gets to hear "man you look REALLY GOOD for 74!"

  8. [8] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    Over the last few weeks I have pointed out the current opportunity to mobilize some of the voters in 2018 that vote in presidential elections but do not vote in off year elections to create an alternative to the Big Money candidates for 2020 by participating in One Demand in 2018.

    Because it is now too late for small contribution candidates to run in most primaries there will be few, if any, small contribution candidates running in the 2018 general election.

    So participants in One Demand for the general election in 2018 will not have to contribute a lot of money (most can contribution NOTHING) and only have to agree and vote on one issue (the demand for small contribution candidates in 2020) rather than find small contribution candidates that they agree with on other issues.

    And the current opportunity also eliminates the spoiler argument for 2018 as the targeted voters would be wasting their vote in 2018 by not voting.

    Why are you ignoring this and leaving the commenters to act as your surrogates while they speculate on why you are ignoring this? For example, comments on "Has Kim Jung Un Read Trump's Book?"

    Your "I'm going to try to answer comments" is, at least from my perspective, becoming reminiscent of Kurt Russell's "Trust me" in "Used Cars".

    Ny poet, credit where credit is due, has acknowledged that if 10% of the voters participated in One Demand it could have an impact.

    Could you at least acknowledge that?

    Could you even acknowledge that this would be a good thing?

    Or is it that if you acknowledge that it is possible
    that One Demand could have an impact if people participated and that with all the unlikely things that have actually happened in recent elections, including some facets of One Demand, that there is no excuse for a reality based blogger to ignore the reality of 20-30% of presidential election voters that will not vote in 2018 and something that could inspire them to vote in 2018?

  9. [9] 
    Kick wrote:

    CW: Very well done history, sir.

    TS: Nice addition of your memories. That word "fusty" was used to describe the 9 "maids" of Apollo, the Muses. Disgusting song really, to sing thusly "To Anacreon in Heaven" and Greek gods. Pity that "poor" group of men decided to disband when they were "requested" to tone down their bawdy singing to accommodate the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgina Cavendish, a Spencer and quite the political activist and celebrity of her time.

    What sticks in my memory most about that particular war?

    ** The killing of so many Native Americans allied with the British who promptly abandoned them thereafter.

    ** The British burning our "President’s House" and congressional buildings and thereafter the fortification of those structures and one Thomas Jefferson sending his collection of books to replace those lost in the fires, the foundation for our Library of Congress.

    ** A parade in New York City held in 1905 for the last veteran of the War of 1812 who died at the age of 105, may they all rest in peace.

  10. [10] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    The biggest loser of the War of 1812 was the great American fur merchant, John jacob Astor. Read about it in the Peter Stark book "Astoria"., or in the journal of the expedition's leader, Hunt (I've forgotten his first name) on the internet. Great story for lovers of history of western U.S.

  11. [11] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    @liz,

    that's only because you don't know the other verses.

    https://www.snopes.com/news/2016/08/29/star-spangled-banner-and-slavery/

  12. [12] 
    Kick wrote:

    JL
    11

    that's only because you don't know the other verses.

    Good point... but I would wager the majority of Americans have no idea regarding the pathetic other stanzas of the contrafactum by Mr. Key, rich American slave owner who believed the value of a man was determined by the color of his skin. They're likely equally unaware that the British hired the marginalized Native Americans and enslaved African Americans to fight in the name of the King. Sad part of our history.

    Hearing a lot of talk today about "freedom of speech" because Roseanne Barr's idea of "comedy" includes comparing a human to an ape. The Fox News minions are whining about the "right to free speech" because Disney exercised theirs and fired somebody for the act of "speaking freely." Remind me whether or not Fox was discussing free speech when Kathy Griffin was fired for the distasteful and disgusting photos wherein she displayed the severed head of Donald Trump, but I know for a fact they're not the least bit concerned about "freedom of speech" on the Fox News Entertainment propaganda channel when Colin Kaepernick and NFL players choose to exercise their "rights." #Hypocrisy

  13. [13] 
    Kick wrote:

    C. R. Stucki
    10

    The biggest loser of the War of 1812 was the great American fur merchant, John jacob Astor. Read about it in the Peter Stark book "Astoria"., or in the journal of the expedition's leader, Hunt (I've forgotten his first name) on the internet. Great story for lovers of history of western U.S.

    That "biggest loser" (your term and certainly not mine) may have had his fur trade interrupted by the British during the war but soon began smuggling opium to China and to the United Kingdom and making a fortune thusly.

    Even before the War of 1812, Astor had been steadily amassing a fortune in real estate buying up property along the waterfront in New York City, most notably that of Vice President Aaron Burr who needed some quick cash after his famous duel.

    Congress passed a protectionist law banning foreign fur traders which set up JJ Astor for life, and the rest is history. Astor was indeed the richest man in America for nigh on the last two decades of his life and was laid to rest at Trinity Church... wherein lies Alexander Hamilton.

  14. [14] 
    Kick wrote:

    Don Harris
    8

    Why are you ignoring this and leaving the commenters to act as your surrogates while they speculate on why you are ignoring this?

    Why are you ignoring your own blog and commenters and trolling CW's?

    Could you even acknowledge that this would be a good thing? Or is it that if you acknowledge that it is possible that your own blog could have an impact if you'd just create your own reality and stop trolling this one? :)

  15. [15] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Hearing a lot of talk today about "freedom of speech"

    Except that it wasn't free. ABC was getting $175,000 for 30 second ads for that show. If she hadn't been getting paid very well to represent the show and all of its actors and crew, and ABC, and the Walt fucking Disney Corporation, she could have said anything she wanted to say without any repercussion. And her name was on the whole thing, so you can't just replace her with Reba McEntire. So it's kaput. Gone with a tweet.

    But see, that's not the end of it, because when Roseanne first came on the air, the network and all of its advertisers thought that it was cute that her character would be a Trump supporter.

    Trouble is, she was a Trump supporter in real life as well, and in real life alot of the basis of Trump's appeal is his racism. I refer you to the comments section of any pro-Trump blog (or Reddit generally) for evidence. So when Roseanne evidently got drunk and tweeted this vile slur, should anyone have been surprised? That's the background music for the whole Trump phenomena, isn't it?

    But Roseanne is only the latest in a long line of folks who have learned that only Trump can actually get away with being Trump. No one else can be as crude, as boorish, as self-congratulatory, as bigoted, as crass, as corrupt, as dishonest, or as ignorant as Trump in public without consequence.

    Nor can Trump, ultimately. McCarthy went on for four years before his fortunes turned. Trump's shtick is already beginning to grow old and predictable - the opposite of his vaunted reputation. Even Alec Baldwin is reputed to be looking to hang up his Trump imitation, passing the torch before the bit grows stale. Trump might start considering doing the same, before he makes the same sort of tragic mistake that Roseanne just did.

  16. [16] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    Kudos to ABC for taking action and making a bold statement against bigotry! The show was projected to rake in over $60 million for ABC next season, and they put doing what was right before profits! Yes, I am sure there are plenty of reasons why they chose this path that benefit them, but I rarely get to applaud corporations for doing what is “right” and dang it, ABC deserves the applause!

  17. [17] 
    Kick wrote:

    Balthasar
    15

    Except that it wasn't free.

    "Freedom of speech" sometimes has consequences. Keep in mind that Trump and company are increasingly spewing this identical rhetoric as defense. They've gone from "nobody met with any Russians" and "fake news" all the way down the playing field to "so what if we did" and "freedom of speech," which is inarguably a very long way for the proverbial goalposts to move.

    If she hadn't been getting paid very well to represent the show and all of its actors and crew, and ABC, and the Walt fucking Disney Corporation, she could have said anything she wanted to say without any repercussion.

    I'm a big fan of The Walt "f" Disney Company too. I think they get way more right than they do wrong. Kudos to them for maneuvering through today's political environment/minefield.

    So when Roseanne evidently got drunk and tweeted this vile slur, should anyone have been surprised?

    No one who saw her sing the National Anthem and grab her crotch and spit should have been at all surprised, but imagine my surprise hearing the same people who criticized that bemoaning Roseanne's right to "freedom of speech." <-- I generally put that in quotes because it so frequently does have consequences.

    That's the background music for the whole Trump phenomena, isn't it?

    Yes, sir, and absolutely has been Trump's theme music for decades. He's a lying con artist and always has been. He does and says whatever he has to do to "win the day." He isn't the least bit concerned about anyone not named Trump. You may be aware that I refer to him as "Benedict Donald," but in my defense, there's a bona fide reason for that.

    Nor can Trump, ultimately. McCarthy went on for four years before his fortunes turned.

    "Where is my Roy Cohn?"

    Trump's shtick is already beginning to grow old and predictable - the opposite of his vaunted reputation.

    His shtick has always been predictable. See above.

    Trump might start considering doing the same, before he makes the same sort of tragic mistake that Roseanne just did.

    Too late for Benedict Donald. It's RICO with communists to undermine the United States democracy. I wonder what Roy Cohn and McCarthy would say?

  18. [18] 
    Kick wrote:

    Russ
    16

    I know, right!?!

    Yes, I am sure there are plenty of reasons why they chose this path that benefit them, but I rarely get to applaud corporations for doing what is “right” and dang it, ABC deserves the applause!

    Totally agree. :)

  19. [19] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    Kick-
    No, I don't think it would be a good thing.

    I am a political activist promoting one issue, not a journalist covering everything so it would be a blog that was always about the same thing.

    Since journalists are supposed to write about activists and their issues, I am trying to get CW to do that by commenting here- which I still would do even if I had my own blog.

    The difference between me continuing to ask CW the same question and you asking me the same question is that I have actually answered your questions and followed up to your responses to those answers.

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