Well, we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of something very important to America this year: our first war! That’s right, technically the War of 1812 was the country’s first war since we were not officially a country until we won the Revolution. It is an overlooked war, but one filled with lots of fun little facts. So let me serve as your tour guide through this overlooked time in American history.
Why It Happened
Long before Hollywood, the War of 1812 was America’s first sequel pitting the young country against its old foe England. By this time, Napoleon was ravishing Europe and the young USA really did not care so long as Europeans kept buying American goods. Well, the Brits were none too pleased that we were supplying the French so they just started boarding American ships forcing our sailors to serve in the Royal Navy and stealing the cargo. We all know how much 19th century America abhorred the idea of people being forced to work against their will for no pay, so the country elected a hawkish congress in 1810 which subsequently declared war in 1812. Now, here are some fun facts about our first war.
You read that right: we lost. Lost. The war was basically a stalemate, but upon concluding the war with the Treaty of Ghent the Brits went right back to impressing American sailors and seizing our goods. Kind of tough to claim victory in that scenario. Somehow, EVERYBODY in America forgets this with occassionally disastrous consequences. Richard M. Nixon sustained the Vietnam war and even escalated it in order to avoid being the first president to lose a war. In fairness, there were also larger geopolitical concerns in formulating his policies, but the idea of being the first president to lose a war haunted Nixon.
Some States Just Sat it Out
Back then, the Tenth Amendment actually meant something. There was no national army to speak of and in times of need the individual states simply sent their state militias to fight in the conflicts. Well, two states – Connecticut and Massachusetts – simply refused to send theirs. Now one might attribute this to a noble stand against war. One would be wrong. Even back then it all came down to the greenbacks. See, these two states were raking in massive profits by trading with England and did not want the federal government messing up their deals. So they simply refused to send their men and sat the war out. This marked the first time in our history that southerners referred to New Englanders as “a bunch of pansies.”
Without two of their sissy states behind them, the rest of the country thought it’d be swell to invade Canada and take it over. I know you are shaking your head in disbelief right now, but it is true: we invaded Canada. Boy oh boy did that decision backfire. See, the Cannucks – along with their Indian allies — really had no desire to become Americans.
They quickly repelled the American invaders, took control of the Great Lakes for a period of time and bascially captured all of Michigan after the battle of Detroit – leading to decades of jokes about how we should have let them keep it.
Speaking of Indians
One of the most badass military leaders in history basically kicked the ever-loving crap out America during this war: Tecumseh. First off, just look at the guy:
"I drink your milkshake!"
This surly looking fella had been warring with America long before the War of 1812, so he naturally allied himself with England. He kicked so much butt, Americans couldn’t help but admire the hell out of the guy. He was a key leader in the aforementioned battle of Detroit and completely flummoxed our military leaders. Hell, he was such a badass that a family in Ohio gave his name to their son who later became a pretty kickass general for the union in the Civil War: William Tecumseh Sherman. How’s that?
We don’t need no water let the (dum-did-de-dum-dum) burn
When Tecumseh wasn’t kicking ass all over the midwest, the Brits were completely ravaging the east coast. We lost almost every battle against them and when they arrived in Washington, they burned it to the ground. This was 1812, mind you, so the Republican party was still forty years away from its invention and therefore there were no Americans around to applaud the English army.
"Those Brits might be onto something..."
The entire government fled the city and scattered around the country. Kind of hard to run a war with your government curled into the fetal position in the woods around the Potomac. Here’s another little tid-bit: the iconic painting of George Washington we are all so familiar with? Well, First Lady Dolly Madison couldn’t bear the thought of it falling into British hands, so it was the lone item the first family took with them as they ran away like scared mice.
Our National Anthem
Did you know our National Anthem came from this war? Now, a lot of folks think its unseemly to have a national anthem describing war and that is a worthy debate. But the fact is the anthem doesn’t describe America kicking ass – quite the opposite. See a lawyer (yay!) was on board an English ship to negotiate the release of one of his clients. The Royal Navy had its sights set on Fort McHenry which protected Baltimore harbor. If they could take it, they could cut the country in two. The batteries on Fort McHenry were so pathetic they had no way of hitting the British fleet, so they just laid there and took it. Yup, the British bombarded the fort for a day and a half and the Americans didn’t even return fire. This is like Rocky standing in the ring having his face turned into hamburger in the hopes that he can last the entire twelve rounds. The navy pounded Fort McHenry, but in the end the Americans held and raised an enormous U.S. flag as a big “Eff you” to the British. Like Apollo Creed, the British just shook their head and moved on to other theaters abandoning the hope of capturing the fort. Francis Scott Key watched the bombardment from the deck of the British ship and wrote his poem that we now recite before baseball games.
- Francis Scott Key later optioned his poem into a movie with typical Hollywood revisions.
The Most Insane American Ever
Andrew Jackson. The dude on all those twenty dollar bills you slap down on the bar for a cold one is the most insane American of all time and he became a national hero in this war.
First, a little background. Jackson joined the army during the American Revolution…at the age of thirteen. He became a prisoner of war and when a British general ordered him to shine his boots he told the officer to take his order and stick it in his bunghole. The enraged general slashed his face with a sword and ordered him on a death march of forty miles to another prisoner camp. Did I mention Jackson contracted smallpox during this time? Yeah, he fought that off during his captivity.
Once a free man, Jackson’s choleric temperment inflamed at the smallest slight and the guy engaged in thirteen known duels during his lifetime. Those are the known ones. He once said his greatest political regret was that he didn’t shoot his own vice-president. (President George H.W. Bush echoed the sentiment many times between 1988-1992). Upon hearing of an adverse ruling from the Supreme Court, President Jackson said, “The Chief Justice has made his decision…now let’s see him enforce it.” Wow. This guy was a 19th Century Dirty Harry and the American public ate it up.
So, where does he fit in the war of 1812? Well, Jackson fought mainly in the South (‘natch) and built a fairly broad coalition with some Indian tribes sympathetic to America. But he came to prominence after the Battle of New Orleans where he put a licking on the British that made him a national hero. But here is the best part: the war was already over. In those days before Twitter and text messaging, we backwater Americans had to wait for the news to travel across the Atlantic. The parties signed the Treaty of Ghent two months before Jackson laid waste to the British army in a needless battle.
His official presidential campaign song was Ice Cube's "It was a Good Day"
Jackson became a national hero after the battle, proving Americans would celebrate people who needlessly kick some ass. So there you have it, some fun facts about the War of 1812. Feel free to pass these along when you drink your face off at a Fourth of July bbq.