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Our Second War For Independence

And what a disastrous Second War for Independence the War of 1812 tended to be for the infant US with the major exception of the Battle of New Orleans fought after the treaty of peace was signed.  Theodore Roosevelt in his magisterial The Naval War of 1812, written when he was all of 23, understood this:

 

 

In spite of the last trifling success, the campaign had been to the British both bloody and disastrous. It did not affect the results of the war; and the decisive battle itself was a perfectly useless shedding of blood, for peace had been declared before it was fought. Nevertheless, it was not only glorious but profitable to the United States. Louisiana was saved from being severely ravaged, and New Orleans from possible destruction; and after our humiliating defeats in trying to repel the invasions of Virginia and Maryland, the signal victory of New Orleans was really almost a necessity for the preservation of the national honor. This campaign was the great event of the war, and in it was fought the most important battle as regards numbers that took place during the entire struggle; and the fact that we were victorious, not only saved our self-respect at home, but also gave us prestige abroad which we should otherwise have totally lacked. It could not be said to entirely balance the numerous defeats that we had elsewhere suffered on land—defeats which had so far only been offset by Harrison’s victory in 1813 and the campaign in Lower Canada in 1814—but it at any rate went a long way toward making the score even.

Jackson is certainly by all odds the most prominent figure that appeared during this war, and stands head and shoulders above any other commander, American or British, that it produced. It will be difficult, in all history, to show a parallel to the feat that he performed. In three weeks’ fighting, with a force largely composed of militia, he utterly defeated and drove away an army twice the size of his own, composed of veteran troops, and led by one of the ablest of European generals. During the whole campaign he only erred once, and that was in putting General Morgan, a very incompetent officer, in command of the forces on the west bank. He suited his movements admirably to the various exigencies that arose. The promptness and skill with which he attacked, as soon as he knew of the near approach of the British, undoubtedly saved the city; for their vanguard was so roughly handled that, instead of being able to advance at once, they were forced to delay three days, during which time Jackson entrenched himself in a position from which he was never driven. But after this attack the offensive would have been not only hazardous, but useless, and accordingly Jackson, adopting the mode of warfare which best suited the ground he was on and the troops he had under him, forced the enemy always to fight him where he was strongest, and confined himself strictly to the pure defensive—a system condemned by most European authorities, [Footnote: Thus Napier says (vol. v, p. 25): “Soult fared as most generals will who seek by extensive lines to supply the want of numbers or of hardiness in the troops. Against rude commanders and undisciplined soldiers, lines may avail; seldom against accomplished commanders, never when the assailants are the better soldiers.” And again (p. 150), “Offensive operations must be the basis of a good defensive system.”] but which has at times succeeded to admiration in America, as witness Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Kenesaw Mountain, and Franklin.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

12 Comments

  1. The War of 1812 was an embarrassingly stupid conflict, and neither Britain nor America needed it nor gained anything from it. To call it a “second Revolution” seems absurd, since Britain had no intention of more than punitive actions. The burning of York alienated Canada for generations and resulted in the invasion of Maryland and the burning of our own capital. Jackson got lucky that the news of the peace treaty reached the British commander before a second assault was made. I doubt Wellington’s veterans would have made a second mistake. On the other hand, Britain had no interest in hurting us, only in hurting Napoleon, and one must doubt whether the traffic stopped on the high seas was worth the inflaming of old anti-British passions over here.

  2. Not absurd at all Tom. Britain had been attempting to treat us like a colony by stopping our ships and impressing out sailors, stirring up trouble for us among the Indians and encroaching upon out territory. All that largely ceased after the War of 1812 when Britain discovered that they could push the Americans only so far, and that then there would be a fight. As for York, cry me a river. The Brits had far more than Washington to their tally. Canada was run by former Tories or their descendants and Brits who tended to view Americans as a lower form of Man. The burning of York did not create Canadian enmity, but merely was part of an already well=established pattern of mutual loathing. Major General Lambert only wanted to lead the shattered survivors out; he had no intention of attempting to cross swords with Jackson after Admiral Cochrane’s attempt to take Fort Philip by a sea siege of ten days failed and the British fleet would thus be unable to attack the Crescent City from the sea.

  3. I believe that the War of 1812, including the burning of York (Toronto) affects how some Canadians still view Americans and is responsible for some of the knee jerk anti-American sentiment we see carried on by some Canadians today (and with which I very much disagree). My alma mater Brock University is named after British General Sir Isaac Brock the hero of the seminal Battle of Queenston Heights (near Niagara Falls.) He was he architect of the defence of British North America (now Canada) from US invaders. Of course, the Canadian militia regiments were largely made up of United Empire Loyalists (American loyalist refugees from 1776 whose homes and property had been seized by revolutionaries and who fled north to escape oppression). We make better friends and neighbours and allies than we do enemies.

  4. Dear John:
    Too many of us Americans see every war through the eyes of World War II: as an existential fight against moral monsters with death camps and extermination as the price of defeat. We’ve seen too many movies and some us us (like my dad) recall too much propaganda from the era. Reading history shows that you cannot project those realities back in time, and we are not taught to read history through others’ eyes. We don’t get monarchy, which is fine, but we need to understand why other cultures do and that it’s not because they’re stupid. (Perhaps if we understood kings, we’d stop trying to turn our presidents into emperors.) The Loyalists were as decent ( and no more indecent) than the Patriots and as honest in their beliefs as we in ours, as you can see in the sort of democratic nations they eventually put together. The Revolution was necessary and just, but it tragically divided good people with different ideas (such as Ben Franklin and his son). The War of 1812 was another tragedy, with little lasting benefit to either side that I can see.

  5. “I believe that the War of 1812, including the burning of York (Toronto) affects how some Canadians still view Americans and is responsible for some of the knee jerk anti-American sentiment we see carried on by some Canadians today (and with which I very much disagree). My alma mater Brock University is named after British General Sir Isaac Brock the hero of the seminal Battle of Queenston Heights (near Niagara Falls.) He was he architect of the defence of British North America (now Canada) from US invaders. Of course, the Canadian militia regiments were largely made up of United Empire Loyalists (American loyalist refugees from 1776 whose homes and property had been seized by revolutionaries and who fled north to escape oppression). We make better friends and neighbours and allies than we do enemies.”

    It was fortunate for the Americans indeed that the capable General Brock was killed in one of the early battles of the War. In Canada, and I lived in Newfoundland land from 1957-1961, anti-Americanism crops up now and then as a cheap way to get votes, but the US and Canada began enjoying positive relations after Canada became a self-governing dominion in 1867, when it became obvious to most Americans that the chances of another War with Great Britain were probably unlikely, and that Canada posed no threat to the US. A positive relationship was cemented by our alliance during WWI and WWII. Canada almost always top the polls of the foreign nation most liked by Americans.

  6. Canada was run by former Tories or their descendants

    New Brunswick was founded by Loyalists. Don’t think that was true of Upper Canada.

    I believe that the War of 1812, including the burning of York (Toronto) affects how some Canadians still view Americans and is responsible for some of the knee jerk anti-American sentiment we see carried on by some Canadians today

    Not buying. There are reasons and there are excuses. Some Canadians carry certain conceits around with them. You can find people shlepping around Boston and Seattle with the same conceits, happy to give you positive feedback.

  7. Too many of us Americans see every war through the eyes of World War II: as an existential fight against moral monsters with death camps and extermination as the price of defeat.

    I’ve never met such a person.

  8. Art Deco:
    Go look at the movies and propaganda of that era: an effort unlike any the government ever made -and for that war, accurate. Look at Hollywood’s love affair (?) with the Third Reich. Look at how every political “villain” gets labeled a “Hitler” (never a Stalin, George III or Kaiser Wilhelm) by people as far apart politically as Bush II and critics of Trump, at the references to “concentration camps”, “Gestapo tactics”, etc. Even Confederates get compared to Nazis! World War II is like a song stuck in our heads and it’s our culture’s default way of looking at war, and it gets in the way of our understanding other wars. That was my only point.

  9. Try an experiment. Replace the generic ‘too many of us Americans” with the name of a real person, like “Mrs. Fahey who works for Re/Max” and see if it makes a bloody bit of sense.

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