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War of 1812, An Almost Forgotten War

This link has to do with  Battlefield Archaeology. It deals with an unknown incident during the War of 1812. In fact, the War of 1812 is relatively unknown even in the US where it was fought. It’s a bigger deal in Canada since the US took the opportunity to invade Canada. The attempt was a disaster.

Sculpture Monument to the War of 1812 (2008) b...

Sculpture Monument to the War of 1812 (2008) by Douglas Coupland in Toronto/Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those in that unknown category the War of 1812 was fought between the US and Great Britain. Canada was a British possession. The war is sometimes called our second war of independence although I think that is a bit much.

At the time Great Britain was engaged in a life and death struggle with Napoleon’s France. The British Army was small by European standards and they could ill afford to send many troops to North America and do away with US independence. In fact, to make the point they could have ended our independence had they wanted to the British did land an army (remember Francis Scott Key and the Star Spangled Banner?) near Washington D.C. They brushed away feeble American resistance and burned down the White House. Then they left having made their point.

Sometimes the War of 1812 is called Mr. Madison’s War because he was President. The presenting catalyst for the war was the impressment of Americans into the British Navy. The British were always short of sailors especially during the Napoleonic Wars and it didn’t bother them a bit to pull over an American merchant ship on the pretext of looking for British deserters and impressing Americans to serve on British war ships. Like, what could we do about fighting the best and biggest navy in the world?

(It should be noted that the British impressed their own people. The practice consisted off raiding the poorer areas of England by “recruiting” potential seamen with liquor and other bribes to get them to “volunteer.” Reluctant enlistees were often liquored up and rapped on the head only to wake up in the Royal Navy!)

Well, not much except to try to fight which is what Mr. Madison tried to do.

Most American successes occurred at sea. Although our Navy was small it had some pretty powerful frigates. A frigate was a medium-sized ship used for merchant raiding, scouting for the main battle fleet (Ship-of-the Line early battleships) and for fighting other frigates or smaller craft like brigs or sloops.

American frigates were bigger and better gunned than British frigates and as a result scored some impressive victories against our British cousins. The most famous is the USS Constitution, a ship still on official US Navy rolls as a commissioned ship. I’ve had the experience of touring the Constitution twice.

USS Constitution

The first time was when I was six-years-old and we lived in Boston when my dad when to MIT for a year. My uncle was a lifer in the Navy and served as custodial crew on the Constitution. He took us on a personal tour! The other time was 2002 or so. My family and I were visiting Boston on vacation and I had a second chance to visit the famous frigate.

The other way we fought back at sea was to commission privateers. A privateer was usually smaller than a frigate. It was essentially an armed civilian merchant-ship commissioned by a country to raid another country’s merchant fleet. Most countries used privateers in time of war but the countries with the smaller navies probably used them the most to try to even the odds a bit.

Privateers at times were nothing more than legalized pirates and while most countries used them they all characterized the other side’s privateers as pirates. It was of course hypocritical, but such is war.

Well, the US used a lot of them against the British and they were a big thorn to a nation that relied on their trade fleet. The British had to use many of their frigates and smaller craft to protect their merchant fleet when they could have been using them to block French ports and raiding French merchant ships. In a weird kind of way the US was an ally of Napoleon’s France!

As pointed out earlier in this brief piece the Brits could pretty much do what they wanted since all we could do was harass them. When the British discovered where many of the privateers were berthed they went out their way to destroy them. That’s what the link above is all about.

The British locate a privateer base in Connecticut, land the Royal Marines, fight a skirmish with the local militia, kick their butts and burn the privateers. And now it’s all been rediscovered as an incident in an almost forgotten war

Below is a scene from The Buccaneer, a 1958 movie starring Charlton Heston as Andy Jackson and Yul Brynner as Lafitte, a pirate, probably a privateer at best. The climax of the movie is The Battle of New Orleans.

The movie is actually pretty lame on a number of levels. It was entertaining to me when I was kid and I like it for no other reason than it does deal with history and The War of 1812 although poorly.  The Battle of New Orleans  was fought after the US and Great Britain had made peace. Andy Jackson, future US President nor the British General on the other side obviously didn’t get the news in time.

The Battle of New Orleans was an American victory but it did not occur in the way shown here. All the movie accomplished was to perpetuate the myth that American Kentucky Long Rifles (a formidable weapon to be sure) won the battle against unimaginative British Red Coats.

As I said the movie has few redeeming qualities but was great for a ten-year-old when I first saw it in the early sixties. Nevertheless, the Scots and the bagpipes are impressive and I never tire of hearing the pipes and I’m not even Scottish.

2 comments on “War of 1812, An Almost Forgotten War

  1. My local library doesn’t tend to stock up on War of 1812 books, so my knowledge of the event is limited to the basics. But I do remember James Lawrence and the USS Chesapeake (Who hasn’t?! 🙂 ) and found the story interesting. And then of course the Battle of New Orlean. Really enjoyed the post!

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