By Michel Raffety
What do we really know about the War of 1812? Gen. Andrew Jackson beat the British at the Battle of New Orleans and the British burned the White House.
The “Battle of New Orleans” became a song written by high school history teacher Jimmy Driftwood and performed by country western singer Johnny Horton. Both the songwriter and the singer won Grammys in 1959.
Actually Jackson was the only successful general of the War of 1812. Much like the Civil War when President Lincoln went through a lot of generals before finding one that would actually pursue and beat the enemy as Ulysses S. Grant did, President James Madison also was plagued with a lot of incompetent generals.
Madison’s biggest problem was picking generals from the Revolutionary War. By 1812 they were pretty old and the ones available weren’t that competent. In fact, they lost Detroit they burned and looted a few towns and homes and farms in Canada, which caused the Canadians to unite behind the British.
The biggest naval battles were on Lake Erie and a repeat of the Revolutionary War on Lake Champlain. Lake Erie was pretty much a stalemate, but the British were again defeated on Lake Champlain.
Jackson and his army of 5,300 didn’t just win the Battle of New Orleans, but they defeated a British invasion of 7,500 veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. They were known as the “Invincibles.” Jackson’s Tennessee sharpshooters killed three British generals and more than 2,000 British troops were killed, wounded or captured. No longer invincible, the remaining British general ordered his men back on their ships and they sailed away.
The breastworks Jackson’s army built are still visible today. I saw them on a PBS TV show recently.
Communications were slow in 1814. The main Battle of New Orleans and the defeat of the British took place Jan. 8, 1815. An American delegation led by John Quincy Adams negotiated a peace treaty with the British. It was signed Christmas Eve, 1814, in the city of Ghent in the Netherlands. It took 45 days for the ship to cross the Atlantic in the winter to bring the treaty for Congress to ratify.
The real meaning of the War of 1812 is contained in the title of a book I just finished: “Unshackling America, How the War of 1812 Truly Ended the American Revolution” by Willard Sterne Randall. It was copyrighted in 2017.
The title seemed so interesting when I read a review in the Wall Street Journal that I immediately ordered the book.
A journalist and retired professor of history, Randall has written six biographies, including Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. What sent him off to research the War of 1812 was an interlude between the publication of his hardbound and paperback versions of “Thomas Jefferson, A Life.” While looking for errors and omissions in his book he reviewed some manuscripts on microfilm at the New York Public Library. That’s when he discovered a diary of Jefferson’s travels to New England in the summer of 1791 with his friend James Madison.
During a dinner in Bennington, Vermont, Jefferson learned the British had built a stockade on North Hero Island in Lake Champlain.
This fort was far across the border in American territory. It was used to stop and search American boats carrying trade goods into Canada. Jefferson, the first secretary of state, hustled back to Philadelphia to inform President Washington about this violation of the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
Randall wrote, “The building of a new fort on American soil in peacetime was my first hint that the struggle for American Independence had not ended.”
By the end of the war the American government was bankrupt as a result of the successful British blockade of American ports along with burning of ship building facilities. As a result the country developed its internal trade more. It beat off a major British invasion of Baltimore with humongous defensive breastworks built up by all able-bodied men. They withstood rocket attacks and a 40-foot flag atop Ft. McHenry kept flying through the attacks, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write what became the national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” that replaced “Hail Columbia.”
With the U.S. Navy bottled up in port for the duration of the war the country wound up with an intact navy, command of the seas, a complicated national anthem and the Oregon Trail, pioneered by fur trader John Jacob Aster after the British destroyed his station at Astoria near the mouth of the Columbia River.