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Washingtonians fleeing the city during the burning of the White House and the Capitol by the British on August 24, 1814. (The Granger Collection, NYC)

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?

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In 1813, by the River Raisin in Michigan, the British and their Native American allies dealt the U.S. its most stinging defeat in the War of 1812, and the battle was followed by an Indian attack on wounded prisoners. This incident sparked an American battle cry, “Remember the Raisin!” 

William Henry Harrison, who later led the U.S. to victory in battle against the British and Indians, is remembered on his tomb as “Avenger of the Massacre of the River Raisin.”

George Armstrong Custer remembered the Raisin, too. He spent much of his youth in Monroe, the city that grew up along the Raisin, and in 1871, he was photographed with War of 1812 veterans beside a monument to Americans slaughtered during and after the battle. Five years later, Custer also died fighting Indians, in one of the most lopsided defeats for U.S. forces since the River Raisin battle 63 years before.

8. There Was Almost a United States of New England

The political tension persisted as the war progressed, culminating with the Hartford Convention, a meeting of New England dissidents who seriously flirted with the idea of seceding from the United States. They rarely used the terms “secession” or “disunion,” however, as they viewed it as merely a separation of two sovereign states.

For much of the preceding 15 years, Federalist plans for disunion ebbed and flowed with their party’s political fortunes. After their rival Thomas Jefferson won the presidency in 1800, they grumbled sporadically about seceding, but mostly when Jefferson took actions they didn’t appreciate (and, worse, when the electorate agreed with him). The Louisiana Purchase, they protested, was unconstitutional; the Embargo Act of 1807, they said, devastated the New England shipping industry. Electoral victories in 1808 silenced chatter of disunion, but the War of 1812 reignited those passions.

Led by Senator Thomas Pickering, disaffected politicians sent delegates to Hartford in 1814 as the first step in a series to sever ties with the United States. “I do not believe in the practicality of a long-continual union,” wrote Pickering to convention chairman George Cabot. The North and South’s “mutual wants would render a friendly and commercial intercourse inevitable.”

Cabot and other moderates in the party, however, quashed the secessionist sentiment. Their dissatisfaction with “Mr. Madison’s War,” they believed, was merely a consequence of belonging to a federation of states. Cabot wrote back to Pickering: “I greatly fear that a separation would be no remedy because the source of them is in the political theories of our country and in ourselves.... I hold democracy in its natural operation to be the government of the worst.”

9. Canadians Know More About the War Than You Do

Few Americans celebrate the War of 1812, or recall the fact that the U.S. invaded its northern neighbor three times in the course of the conflict. But the same isn’t true in Canada, where memory of the war and pride in its outcome runs deep.

In 1812, American “War Hawks” believed the conquest of what is today Ontario would be easy, and that settlers in the British-held territory would gladly become part of the U.S. But each of the American invasions was repelled. Canadians regard the war as a heroic defense against their much larger neighbor, and a formative moment in their country’s emergence as an independent nation.  While the War of 1812 bicentennial is a muted affair in the U.S., Canada is reveling in the anniversary and celebrating heroes such as Isaac Brock and Laura Secord, little known south of the border.

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