“This is the feel-good side of the War of 1812,” says Vince Vaise, Fort McHenry’s chief interpreter. “We won the battle here, we don’t hate the British anymore, and the flag and national anthem have positive connotations for most people.”
Many Americans, however, have a shaky grasp of the history behind this patriotic tale. Tourists often confuse McHenry’s flag with Betsy Ross’, or think Francis Scott Key witnessed the bombardment of a fort called Sumter. “It’s all history in a blender,” Vaise says.
The fort’s museum sets this history straight—and strips away some of its mythic gloss. Key, who poetically extolled “the land of the free,” was himself a prominent slaveholder. The British, by contrast, offered liberty to fleeing slaves and enlisted 200 of them in the fight to take Fort McHenry. Key’s original verse was so venomous—celebrating British blood spilled over their “foul footsteps pollution”—that much of it was deleted from the national anthem.
The museum also upends the blurry, rather blithe notions that visitors have about the War of 1812 as a whole. While Americans may dimly recall Key, the naval heroics of “Old Ironsides,” or Jackson’s triumph at the Battle of New Orleans, they’re generally unaware that most of the war occurred along the Canadian border and went badly for the home team. Jackson’s victory (two weeks after the signing of a peace treaty) also created an enduring myth that the U.S. won the war. In reality, it ended in stalemate, and the peace treaty simply re-established the pre-war status quo—without mentioning the maritime issues that led Congress to declare war in the first place.
“It’s not exactly ‘Mission Accomplished’ for the U.S.,” Vaise observes. “It’s more like a kid who gets a bloody nose from a bully who then goes home.” In fact, the U.S. was lucky to avoid losing territory to the British, who were eager to conclude what they regarded as an irksome sideshow to the Napoleonic conflict.
Though the War of 1812 ended without a military victor, the clear losers were Native Americans. Ravaged by war, and abandoned after it by the British, tribes east of the Mississippi could no longer resist American expansion. This sad history is also told at Fort McHenry, which offers visitors a chance to vote on a computer monitor, stating whether they would have declared war in 1812 or not.
“Some days the vote is 50-50,” Vaise says. “Other days, almost everyone’s a hawk. Maybe they’re in a bad mood.”
More seriously, he suspects that visitors view 1812 through the prism of current events. Then, as now, many Americans opposed military ventures. The political climate during the War of 1812 grew so ugly that New Englanders flirted with secession. And almost everyone became disenchanted with government.
“It’s easy to be down on the present because we romanticize the past,” Vaise says. “But I’d say what we’re living through now is the norm rather than the exception.”
For all its sobering lessons, the War of 1812 also offers cause for celebration apart from “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Americans, having fought a mighty foe to a draw—and even bested the fearsome British Navy in several engagements—emerged newly secure about their country’s status as a free nation. Never again would the U.S. make war on Britain, which in time became a close ally.