Call it a Victory

Consensus history records that America barely survived… the War of 1812; persistent peace negotiations combined with a distracted British military allowed the unprepared republic a fortuitous exit.  A closer examination reveals a less than concerted British war effort with poor strategic planning.  The same criteria applied conversely proves that America won the war every bit as much as Britain lost it.  History shows us;

We have met the enemy, and they are ours…

  • Timely victories– As in the Revolutionary War, the United States military sustained losses, but its victories had a greater impact.  The early naval triumphs of the USS Constitution, President, and United States over the vaunted Royal Navy helped limit the setbacks suffered along the Canadian border.  Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory on Lake Erie permanently isolated British forces in the west.  William Henry Harrison’s decisive blow at the Thames broke the British-Indian alliance (and he finally killed Tecumseh.)  The battle of Plattsburgh ended the poorly coordinated invasion of New York, sealing off the Niagara frontier.
  • Bend, don’t break– British general Robert Ross made the same mistake Sir William Howe made in the Revolution, he believed that occupying the American capital would influence the war.  The British occupation and burning of Washington on August 24, 1814 was a minor psychological blow, but had no strategic impact on the war.  The US government simply moved, leaving no real prize for the British troops.  The failure to capture Baltimore Harbour two weeks later brought the ill conceived campaign to end (and also produced Francis Scott Key’s poem about Fort McHenry.)  The rigid strategic thinking of the British high command could not appropriately account for the flexibility of US forces defending their own soil.
  • And for good measure– US troops proved their mettle against the mighty Redcoats at Lundy’s Lane, Chippewa, and North Point.  The British army had no decisive advantage in land forces.  The crushing defeat of General Edward Pakenham’s forces by Andrew Jackson’s defenders at New Orleans was an exclamation point on a war that had officially ended two weeks earlier.  British forces suffered 2, 042 casualties (including the deaths of Pakenham and his chief Lt. Gibbs)  while Jackson lost only 71 troops.  Critics of the war were silenced when news of the triumph reached eastern seaboard.

Repel the invaders !

These proceedings and declared purposes, which exhibit a deliberate disregard of the principles of humanity and the rules of civilized warfare, and which must give to the existing war a character of extended devastation and barbarism at the very moment of negotiations for peace, invited by the enemy himself, leave no prospect of safety to anything within the reach of his predatory and incendiary operations but in manful and universal determination to chastise and expel the invader: James Madison, September 1, 1814

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Tough Loss

Why did the British lose the War of 1812… consensus history teaches that the Napoleonic wars kept mighty England from crushing the upstart Americans.  As expected, consensus historical lessons are wrapped too tightly, strangling the complexities from our past.  America won the war, but Britain lost it just as much.  We cannot pin this all on the French.

Right on the nose !

  • Poor strategy and execution– As in the Revolutionary War, Britain attempted a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy.  Simultaneous invasions would divide American forces and allow the British to defeat the disorganized American armies.  Unfortunately, the invasions were far from timely; poorly organized and executed, British forces were unable achieve any strategic success during the invasions of upstate New York and Maryland.  The third invasion at New Orleans ended in disaster.  The first graduates from the American military academy (like Winfield Scott)  were able to rally American forces, including the unreliable militiamen, to resist the uncoordinated assaults.
  • Political disunity– The government of Spencer Perceval had taken a stand against American attempts to trade with France their during the war.  Perceval’s ministers enacted the Orders in Council and did little as the tensions with America continued to rise.  Diplomats serving in Washington did a poor job communicating Britain’s positions on key issues.  Perceval’s assassination on May 11, 1812 brought to power Lord Liverpool, who sought to ease tensions with America.  The repeal of the Orders in Council just two days before America’s declaration of war was not accepted by all British ministers.  The disunity in  Liverpool’s government continued as the hostilities escalated.
  • Swatting flies– The British military machine was not built to fight an enemy like the United States.  The British army was recruited and trained to fight on the sweeping fields of Europe, not the wilds of North America; geography proved to be a keen enemy in both wars Britain fought in America.  The small, but powerful American fleet did not give the Royal Navy its Trafalgar of the west.  The power frigates of the US fleet held their own in ship to ship combat.  These small victories boosted American morale during the dark days of the conflict.  The British dependence on its Indian allies on the frontier proved as detrimental as in the Seven Years War.  The United States used its home field advantage to keep the British war machine from operating efficiently.

No contest, one on one.

But it is said that we are not prepared for war, and ought therefore not to declare it. This is an idle objection, which can have weight with the timid and pusillanimous only. The fact is otherwise. Our preparations are adequate to every essential object. Do we apprehend danger to ourselves? From what quarter will it assail us? From England, and by invasion? The idea is too absurd to merit a moment’s consideration. -Henry Clay, 1811


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They are Ours!

Light winds on September 10, 1813… turned the battle of Lake Erie into a slug fest.  Neither commander could gain any true advantage in weather gauge- the two squadrons lay opposite one another, blasting away.  American Oliver Hazard Perry’s flagship, Lawrence  was taking the brunt of British fire as the rest of his command struggled to follow his aggressive example.  Two British brigs pounded Perry’s ship until every gun was disabled and four-fifths of the crew was dead- Perry fled on a dingy, rowing a half-mile to the brig Niagara.  Novelist and historian CS Forester wryly noted, “…it was as fortunate for the Americans that the Lawrence still possessed a boat that would float, as it was that Perry was not hit.”

Never give up the ship

Never give up the ship

Perry brought the rest of the American squadron… into line and drove the Niagara directly through the British formation.  Perry’s aggressiveness overwhelmed the slower British ships- nearly every man aboard the two largest was killed.  The surrender took place at approximately 3:00pm, just three hours after the first shot was fired.  Perry accepted the surrender aboard the recaptured Lawrence, so the British officers could see the carnage his command endured.  Perry cabled his counterpart on land, General William Henry Harrison;

Dear General:

We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.

Yours with great respect and esteem,
O.H. Perry

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Don’t Shove Me !

National pride had plenty to do with… starting the War of 1812.  Britain refused to honor its commitments set down in the original treaty of 1783.   Despite reaffirming those pledges in Jay’s Treaty of 1794, Britain continued to deny America the equal station it desired.  The Royal Navy provided the greatest obstacle to American sovereignty, impeding America’s lifeblood, commerce.  The 1807 attack on the USS Chesapeake in American waters was the most egregious violation in a consistent campaign to cripple our shipping.  The trade restrictions laid down in the Orders in Council (blockade of Europe) were the final straw for many Americans.

22 shots fired at our ship, but it cannot be a war, right?

  1. Neutrality- America wanted to be left alone,  and the British were having none of it.  The early disputes between Federalists and Jeffersonians over foreign policy matters were rendered moot by ascension of Bonaparte.  The Adams administration had deeply strained US/French relations and Jay’s Treaty had failed badly.  The Anglo/American alliance never truly formed after 1783.  The British were not going to allow the upstart republic to trade with its enemy during a time of war.  The heavy-handed provisions of the Orders in Council, the Royal Navy’s blockade of Europe, was the final straw.
  2. The Frontier- The British army was a powerful force on the American frontier, proving difficult to withdraw its presence as stipulated in the treaty of 1783.  British troops remained assisting in the Indian resistance to American settlement west of Ohio.  American military intervention proved time and again that Indian alliances were receiving British military support.  The Tecumseh War was the final straw in a long string of British interference.  The British troops were compounding an already volatile situation; in addition to violating the most basic elements of territorial sovereignty.
  3. Piracy- The tradition of the ‘press’ as a recruitment tool for the Royal Navy divided the two nations even further.  The British denied America’s right to naturalize foreigners serving in its merchant fleet.  American ships were subject to searches and all sailors could be taken against their will.  Historians estimate that over 10,000 American sailors were impressed between 1794-1814.  60% of the ‘British’ subjects taken off American ships were in fact Irish.  Despite two treaties guaranteeing safety to American seamen, the Royal Navy searched American ships at will.

You’re British today, laddy !

“Such is the spectacle of injuries and indignities which have been heaped on our country, and such the crisis which its unexampled forbearance and conciliatory efforts have not been able to avert.” – James Madison, June 1, 1812

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Picking the Wrong Fight?

Pop history proclaims that eager “War Hawks” … in the United States forced the War of 1812 upon the American people.  Jeffersonians long antagonistic to the British empire wanted to strengthen our bonds with the French through a war.  Claims are also made stating that expansionists wanted to use the war as a vehicle to finally take possession of Canada.  Could all this be possible?  Did American statesman foolishly risk our republic for such dubious motives?……the historical record can answer those questions….

Here are my suggestions…

Does James Madison sound like a saber-rattling tyrant … in his war message delivered June 1, 1812 ?

We behold, in fine, on the side of Great Britain, a state of war against the United States, and on the side of the United States a state of peace toward Great Britain…Whether the United States shall continue passive under these progressive usurpations and these accumulating wrongs, or, opposing force to force in defense of their national rights,  is a solemn question which the Constitution wisely confides to the legislative department of the Government.  In recommending it to their early deliberations I am happy in the assurance that the decision will be worthy the enlightened and patriotic councils of a virtuous, a free, and a powerful nation.

Seems rational

It’s about honor, you fools

War Hawk and Speaker of the House Henry Clay… stated the case for war clearly in 1811

What are we to gain by war, has been emphatically asked? In reply, he would ask, what are we not to lose by peace?—commerce, character, a nation’s best treasure, honor!  Let those who contend for this humiliating doctrine, read its refutation in the history of the very man against whose insatiable thirst of dominion we are warned.  Let us come home to our own history. It was not by submission that our fathers achieved our independence.

Looking to our history


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Frontier Feud

Searching for the causes of the War of 1812… will invariably lead to the Indiana frontier.  William Henry Harrison was granted power by President Thomas Jefferson to negotiate with the Indian nations (13 treaties and over 1 million acres.)   Harrison orchestrated the Treaty of Ft. Wayne in 1809, granting US settlers unlimited access to the Wabash river valley.  Three of the major Indian nations signed the treaty, but the Shawnee and their leader, Tecumseh, did not.  Harrison suspected trouble from the Indian upstart and moved quickly for a conference in August of 1810.  Tecumseh arrived at Harrison’s frontier home, Grouseland, with over 400 warriors in full battle garb.  Tensions were high as the Shawnee war chief declared the treaty of Ft. Wayne illegitimate.  Tecumseh argued that all Indians spoke with one voice, therefore, all tribes had to agree with the treaty.  Harrison refuted this notion, pointing out that the Great Spirit gave all Indians different languages, or ‘tongues.’  As Tecumseh continued to shout threats at Harrison, warriors and soldiers alike made ready for combat- Harrison drew his sword (legend has it, he promised to kill Tecumseh) …cooler heads prevailed, but Tecumseh was determined to reach out to the British.

Fighting words, in any language

Two subsequent meetings did nothing to ease…tensions between the two men.  American settlement continued, the Indian alliance grew, and British intervention only further alienated the two sides.  News of the Anglo/Indian alliance prompted Harrison to march an army North to disperse an alliance settlement along the Tippecanoe creek.  Tecumseh was not with his followers that November in 1811.  He was on a recruiting mission to the south, leaving his inexperienced brother in command.  Shawnee approached Harrison’s camp on November 5 to propose a meeting;  Harrison accepted, but shortly after, the warriors launched an attack.  Militiamen and US regulars defended the camp for over two hours, before dragoons charged into the retreating warriors turning the battle into a rout.  Harrison’s forces pursued and later burned the Indian settlement.  The Tippecanoe legend was born.

Tyler who?

William Henry Harrison became a national hero… as news of the battle spread to the East.  The British intervention outraged American politicians, a clear sign of yet another violation of American sovereignty.  The frontier feud was far from over.  Tecumseh took his confederation North to strengthen the bond with Britain.  Harrison would get another chance to kill his nemesis.

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The Marble Model

Robert Edward Lee   January 19,1807-October 12, 1870

  • Renounces citizenship  April 20, 1861
  • Granted amnesty by President Andrew Johnson- October 2, 1865
  • Granted full pardon by Johnson- December 25, 1868
  • Citizenship restored by Act of Congress- August 5, 1975  

 “The greatest mistake of my life was taking a military education.”

“A figure lost to flesh and blood and bones, Frozen into a legend out of life, A blank-verse statue —… For here was someone who lived all his life In the most fierce and open light of the sun And kept his heart a secret to the end From all the picklocks of biographers.”  Stephen Vincent Benét

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