From The Archives -- Remembering Our Most Forgettable War

[ Posted Monday, May 31st, 2021 – 17:11 UTC ]

I don't know why, but this particular year it just seemed appropriate to revisit this particular war.

Here's hoping everyone is having (or already had) a great Memorial Day!


Originally published May 28, 2018

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


5 Comments on “From The Archives -- Remembering Our Most Forgettable War”

  1. [1] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    Not bad overall, though I would argue that historians like to point out that the War of 1812 was, in effect, America's *second* war of Independence from Great Britain. We didn't lose, so it never came up. But what was at stake was whether the U.S. would be returned to the British Empire, if not as a possession then as a protectorate and trade colony. That such an outcome seems inconceivable speaks more to the way American history is taught than to the realities of the Napoleonic era and the British Empire of the 19th century. And of course, 'alternative history' is hard to do well, not that that has stopped innumerable books from telling us what happened after the South won the Civil War, or Hitler won World War II. The War of 1812 just can't get no respect, even in the pop alt-history novel genre!

    Finally, OK with the 'Key' gag - but check out Johnny Horton's fun song, 'The Battle of New Orleans' for a check on the assertion that the defense of Fort McHenry is all that Americans celebrate from the war. Not that it is the national anthem, of course, and its brief time in the sun as a pop hit is long gone ... but it's a h**l of a lot easier to sing than "Jose, can you see?" and maybe Congress should just up and do the right thing.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Well, isn't this a little bit of serendipity.

    Today, while cleaning out some book shelves, I came across a first draft of Our Divided Beginnings.

    I hope it is still a work in progress because there isn't an American history book yet written or to be written that would be more of page turner or harder to put down until it was finished than your compelling treatise detailing all of the rabble rousing along political lines from the birth of America.

    You can go ahead and consider this a pre-order request!

  3. [3] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


  4. [4] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    But instead of posting the same article over and over, try a guest column. On pie for example.

    Get edible.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


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