Two hundred years ago, a small British force attacked the east coast of the United States, first burning Washington on 24 August, and then moving on to Baltimore, commencing a bombardment of Fort McHenry guarding the entrance to Baltimore Harbour on 13 September. The vision of the American flag lit by British rockets exploding all around it, and still flying at dawn, inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the poem ‘Defence of Fort M’Henry’. Shortly after it was fitted to a popular tune and renamed ‘The Star Spangled Banner’.
The British attacks on Washington and Baltimore, failure at the latter of which forced the British to retire, was part of a wider conflict dubbed the War of 1812, after the year it commenced. Many historians view it as an unnecessary, pointless war. It was fought between two nations that had more in common with each other than the Americans did with Napoleonic France, the latter of which, though not formally allied, benefitted from the drain on resources the American war now placed on British sea and military power.
The origins of the war are variously blamed on British arrogance and insensitivity with regard to the impressment of American (and therefore former British colonial citizens) into service in the Royal Navy in the long war with France; on British irritation at continued American trade with France; and at a continued American desire to bring Canada into the Union, freeing it from the tyranny of British rule.
There is some truth in all these reasons, but the fissure that erupted into war in 1812 has long been portrayed as a sudden reverse in Anglo-American relations, which until then had been amicable and effective. In truth, this is a polite reworking of history, to paper over the serious cracks in Anglo-American relations that had existed since America secured independence in 1783.
Something of a cold war existed between Britain and America in the post-Independence years as the British colonial authorities in Montreal and Quebec sought to undermine the fledgling republic, whilst the Americans eyed Canada as the next prospective state in the union.
The prospects for success on both sides seemed within reach. The British observed a frail new government, based on a weak federalism that was barely united, whilst loyalists remained present in both the north and south, sewing seeds of discontent. Ongoing alliances between the British and the Native American cross-border tribes of the northern American states enabled the British to maintain a constant threat to the security of the American back country.
For their part, the Americans observed a restless Canadian population, surely on the point of rebellion against their English authoritarian masters. Moreover, as the years progressed the Founding Fathers retired from public life, and a new Congress emerged. This next generation of American republicans lived in the shadow of their forefathers and sought to emulate their success. A new war was needed to prove their credentials, and expand the union. Expansion into Canada seemed the most likely prospect to achieve this.
Both sides drastically miscalculated. The British underestimated the strength of the American Union and failed to understand the underpinnings of republicanism. The Americans overestimated the support for independence amongst the Canadian population, and underestimated the support for a war among their own states. Connecticut, in particular, suffered from the ban on trade with Britain, and continued to supply grain to the British war effort against France for the duration of the conflict. Indeed, so severe did the situation become that the Hartford Convention genuinely suggested seceding from the Union. Meanwhile, both sides misunderstood the motives and interests of the Native American population.
Alan Taylor, in his excellent book on the subject, The Civil War of 1812, has highlighted that the war that broke out initially on the frontier between America and Canada was a bloody civil conflict pitting loyalists against republicans, Irish settlers against British settlers, Colonial Canadians against Americans, and Native Americans against each other.
In the defence of Canada in 1813, the British utilised its alliance with the Native Americans. The warrior Tecumseh became one of Britain’s most stalwart supporters, and the warfare that emerged on this northern frontier was, briefly, both a reimagining of the bloody conflict that had engulfed the Thirteen Colonies between 1775 and 1783, and a brief sign of the hybridised conflict that the British would face in conflicts across the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Yet this frontier is often overlooked. Instead, the naval war has achieved prominence, in particular strategically insignificant single-ship actions. Similarly, the totally unnecessary burning of Washington, and the actually unnecessary Battle of New Orleans (fought after the Peace of Ghent had been signed on 24 December 1814, but before the news had crossed the Atlantic) has attracted the attention of historians.
The decision by Britain to burn the new capital of the United States is an indication of the disdain in which the British held their former colonial subjects. Would British forces have exacted similar retributions on Paris? The answer is not abstract. In 1815, the British acted to prevent the destruction of Paris by Prussian troops following the Battle of Waterloo (you can read my analysis of this incident in the forthcoming Waterloo: The Decisive Victory). The reality was that Washington was held in the same esteem as other colonial towns: to be burnt and pillaged as a punitive action for stepping out of line.
Yet the reality of this conflict is now overlooked. History recalls the War of 1812 as a minor tiff that represented a brief deterioration in Anglo-American relations. By contrast, it was the culmination of three decades of tension between two former foes that remained to be reconciled, one that believed itself betrayed, the other that had been brutalised. Such wounds do not easily heal.
Although Britain successfully defended Canada, the war as a whole illustrated to the British that their policy of undermining the new republic was destined inevitably to fail. Despite the constant support of the Native Americans, the British abandoned their alliance at the end of the war, leaving the Native Americans vulnerable to the expansionist minded Americans.