The 10 Things You Didn’t Know About the War of 1812

Why did the country really go to war against the British? Which American icon came out of the forgotten war?

A lithograph of the Battle of New Orleans, circa 1890 (© Corbis)

1. The War Needs Re-Branding

“The War of 1812” is an easy handle for students who struggle with dates. But the name is a misnomer that makes the conflict sound like a mere wisp of a war that began and ended the same year.

In reality, it lasted 32 months following the U.S. declaration of war on Britain in June 1812. That’s longer than the Mexican-American War, Spanish-American War, and U.S. involvement in World War I.

Also confusing is the Battle of New Orleans, the largest of the war and a resounding U.S. victory. The battle occurred in January, 1815—two weeks after U.S. and British envoys signed a peace treaty in Ghent, Belgium. News traveled slowly then. Even so, it’s technically incorrect to say that the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the war, which didn’t officially end until February 16, 1815, when the Senate and President James Madison ratified the peace treaty.

For roughly a century, the conflict didn’t merit so much as a capital W in its name and was often called “the war of 1812.” The British were even more dismissive. They termed it “the American War of 1812,” to distinguish the conflict from the much great Napoleonic War in progress at the same time.

The War of 1812 may never merit a Tchaikovsky overture, but perhaps a new name would help rescue it from obscurity.

2. Impressment May Have Been a Trumped-Up Charge

One of the strongest impetuses for declaring war against Great Britain was the impressment of American seamen into the Royal Navy, a not uncommon act among navies at the time but one that incensed Americans nonetheless. President James Madison’s State Department reported that 6,257 Americans were pressed into service from 1807 through 1812. But how big a threat was impressment, really?

 “The number of cases which are alleged to have occurred, is both extremely erroneous and exaggerated,” wrote Massachusetts Sen. James Lloyd, a Federalist and political rival of Madison’s. Lloyd argued that the president’s allies used impressment as “a theme of party clamour [sic], and party odium,” and that those citing as a casus belli were “those who have the least knowledge and the smallest interest in the subject.”

Other New England leaders, especially those with ties to the shipping industry, also doubted the severity of the problem. Timothy Pickering, the Bay State’s other senator, commissioned a study that counted the total number of impressed seamen from Massachusetts at slightly more than 100 and the total number of Americans at just a few hundred.

Yet the Britons’ support for Native Americans in conflicts with the United States, as well as their own designs on the North American frontier, pushed Southern and Western senators toward war, and they needed more support to declare it. An issue that could place the young nation as the aggrieved party could help; of the 19 senators who passed the declaration of war, only three were from New England and none of them were Federalists.


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