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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 28

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

Francis F. Beirne

published by
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
New York, 1949

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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 p387  Conclusion

The War of 1812 was full of absurdities. It was absurd that the orders in council, one of the two main issues in dispute, should have been withdrawn before war was declared. It was absurd that the principle of impressment, the other main issue, should have found no mention in the peace. Great Britain did not formally abandon it until some 50 years later.

It was absurd that the President of the United States should have been driven from his capital by a handful of British soldiers and absurd that a handful of American privateers should have terrorized commerce in the narrow seas about the British Isles.

The American boast that the conquest of Canada was "a mere matter of marching" was absurd in the light of the futile efforts at invasion. Equally absurd was Sir George Prevost's repulse at Plattsburg in his attempted invasion of the United States. It was absurd that the greatest battle of the war should have been fought and won by the Americans, thereby saving the country, when the country had been saved two weeks before by the signing of the treaty at Ghent.

So insignificant was the war in comparison with the mighty effort required to defeat Napoleon that it is virtually unknown to the average Englishman today. Save for a few glorious episodes that have been woven into our national tradition the War of 1812 is scarcely better known to the average American.

The average American depends chiefly upon school histories for his knowledge of the past, and school histories quite naturally hesitate to stress discreditable and humiliating incidents. Besides, the War of 1812 was quickly overshadowed by the great events of the American Civil War and the heroic figures of Lincoln and the military leaders of both the North and the South. In contrast those of 1812 seem small indeed. Because the American Civil War produced  p388 such leaders, was more bitterly fought, caused much more bloodshed and lasted longer, it is understandable that it should long have taken precedence over the War of 1812 in the popular imagination.

The events of the past quarter of a century have, however, placed the War of 1812 in a new light which calls for a new evaluation. The Civil War and the issues involved, important as they were at the time, are not likely ever to reappear. So far as we can see they represent a closed chapter.

On the other hand the War of 1812 now stands revealed as the initial stage in a logical sequence of historical events in which World War I and World War II have been the succeeding stages. Each is astonishingly like the others in the international situations leading up to them and in the popular reactions.

Three times in the course of the nation's history the whole of Europe has been plunged into war. Each time we have fervently believed that Europe's misfortunes were none of our business and that we should have no part in them. Each time we have displayed a blind faith in neutrality and neglected to take the necessary precautions to put the nation in a proper state of defense. Three times we have seen our hopes crushed and ourselves drawn into the conflict.

But there was one striking difference between the first stage and the two which followed. In the cases of World War I and World War II our allies held off the enemy until we had time to prepare. We fought those wars thousands of miles from our homeland. In the case of the War of 1812 we had time to prepare but we made no use of it. As a result the war was waged at our firesides and we knew the terror and distress of invasion.

"Detroit Falls." "Chicago Garrison Massacred." "New York Blockaded." "Enemy Fleet in Chesapeake Bay." "New England Invaded." "Maine Subjugated." "Boston Threatened." "U. S. Army Driven From Field and Demoralized." "Washington Captured." "Capitol and White House in Flames. President and Congress in Flight." "Baltimore Attacked by Land and Sea." "British Army Before New Orleans."

These are not figments of a fevered imagination. They are the unexaggerated statements of actual events. Detroit and Chicago, of course, were not then the great cities they are today. But Boston,  p389 New York, Washington, Baltimore and New Orleans were important places. The flight of the President and the Congress of the United States would be a national calamity at any time. These things did happen here. And, since they happened, it is possible they could happen again. From the disasters of 1812 there are valuable lessons to be learned.

In the first place, there is a popular assumption that we want nothing. Yet we have always wanted something. In 1812 we wanted foreign trade. In consequence Jefferson's embargo to keep us out of the theater of combat was as ineffective as Franklin D. Roosevelt's Neutrality Act prior to our entry into World War II. At long last we seem to be learning that the affairs of the world are our affairs, whether we want it that way or not. Wendell Willkie is credited with bringing the conception of "One World" into being in our own time. Few of us realize that, as regards Europe, we were "One World" a century and a half ago.

We hope that we can avoid war because neither we nor our potential enemy wants war. The War of 1812 reveals the tenuousness of that hope. Neither Great Britain nor the United States wanted war then. Neither had anything to gain by it and both everything to lose. Yet we went to war. The circumstances can hardly be put down to exceptional incompetence on the part of our civil leaders. Canning has gone down in history as one of Britain's most able foreign ministers. Jefferson and Madison are numbered among our nation's Founding Fathers and, as such, popularly endowed with superhuman qualities. The inevitable conclusion is that in spite of a mutual desire not to go to war and statesmen presumably well equipped to carry out the popular mandate, nevertheless we cannot be sure of not going to war.

This brings us logically to the question of preparedness. How far that should go is a matter to be left to the experts on national defense and measured according to our resources and the estimated needs to meet a given situation. But the War of 1812 teaches us that we should not neglect national defense to the point where a potential enemy will assume that we are so ill‑prepared we will not go to war under any circumstances. The enemy made that mistake in 1812 just as it did in 1917 and in 1941. The War of 1812 teaches us that pious pronouncements are impressive overseas only so far  p390 as there is visible physical strength to support them. Had Jefferson displayed less repugnance to building a navy and maintaining the nucleus of an army Great Britain might well have listened more sympathetically to our protests.

The War of 1812 reminds us, too, of a national characteristic which is that every man, regardless of his training, looks upon himself as a military strategist. When the enemy is in view, like Madison at Bladensburg, we leave the field to the military commander. But, until the enemy appears, we scorn the military commander's advice and belittle his requests for men and the tools of war. Then, in an emergency, we expect him to perform miracles. Jefferson's assumption that gunboats were superior to frigates and ships of the line is reflected in the present belief of many amateur military strategists that the next war can be settled by pressing a button.

Closely associated with this attitude is the bitter criticism of the "brass hats" that follows every war and the popular demand to make our armed forces more democratic. Nowhere is there a better illustration of the ineffectiveness of a democratic army than in the War of 1812. The Ohio militiamen who rode their officer on a rail were, no doubt, merely asserting their democratic rights. The same men, however, did not distinguish themselves a short time later under the severe test of combat. On the other hand the brigades of Winfield Scott and Eleazer Ripley were whipped into shape in anything but a democratic fashion. Then at Chippawa and Lundy's Lane they proved as good as the best that the British could throw against them.

The War of 1812, however, teaches us also that the "brass hats" themselves are by no means always above criticism. Our defeats on land were, in most instances, directly traceable to incompetence in the high command. After the Revolution we allowed our officer corps to deteriorate along with the rank and file. Against a background of blunderers Andrew Jackson stands out alone as a natural military genius. Such fortunate accidents of discovery, however, should not be left until the enemy is at our gates. On the other hand our victories at sea are primarily attributable to the excellence of our naval commanders who maintained the highest standards between wars. We have learned the necessity, in time of peace, of training professional military leaders to serve as a nucleus for the  p391 expansion of the armed forces in time of war. Since 1812 the practice has aspired off well. It is a lesson that should not be forgotten.

On the whole the War of 1812 teaches us that there are no short cuts to national security. Where we indulged in wishful thinking and dodged individual sacrifice, we lost. We won only where we put our whole soul into the effort. That, it may be reasonably assumed, is as true today as it was then.

It would be remiss to close this story without saying a few laudatory words for the war which, in spite of its many absurdities, it justly deserves. It was a comparatively inexpensive war for the United States. Basing the cost upon the increase in the national debt the bill came to $80,500,000. To this should be added the $46,217,150.57 paid out as pensions to veterans of the war and their dependents up to December 31, 1940. Who today would not relish a war on land and sea that cost no more than $127,000,000! The killed and wounded did not number much more than 5,000, a third as many as the Union army lost at the battle of Fredericksburg alone.

On the whole it was a war conducted on humane principles. The burning of York, the Canadian capital, and the burning, in retaliation, of the Capitol at Washington were the exceptions rather than the rule. The destruction of Newark by the Americans was uncalled for and caused unnecessary suffering on the part of the civilian population of Canada. But it was heartily condemned by the American Government. The excesses at Hampton, Virginia, were inexcusable, though General Beckwith did the best he could by placing the blame on Frenchmen and dismissing them from the service. Cockburn's raids in the Chesapeake and farther south did considerable damage, but even he made an effort to respect private property, and the British Government paid indemnities to the owners of slaves who were carried away.

The peace stipulated a return to the status quo which made it apparent to everybody that nobody had won the war. Consequently there was no desire on the part of either contestant to renew the war to gain something of which it had been deprived. The fact that the disputed questions were left to be settled by commissions led to the discovery that commissions could do the job quite as well as a resort to arms.

If many of the acts of our military were inglorious, on the other  p392 hand there were acts which testified to the fact that Americans, properly trained and equipped and competently led, could give a good account of themselves. The British gained a new respect for them and thereafter the United States was treated as an independent nation and not as a colony.

More important than all else is the fact that for over a century the frontier between Canada and the United States has remained unfortified and the Lakes have been used jointly with no fear of aggression on either side. And though Great Britain and the United States have had their disagreements, and more than once have come close to a renewal of the conflict, the peace concluded at Ghent has prevailed to this day.

True to Adams' pious wish, so far as the United States and Great Britain are concerned, the gates of the temple of Janus remained closed for a century. As matters stand Adams appears to have been guilty of the New Englander's habit of understatement when he did not wish for two.

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