“In the fight for memory, we’re like a few guys with flintlocks going up against Robert E. Lee’s army,” says Daniel Downing, chief of interpretation at the River Raisin Battlefield.
The Civil War’s superior firepower in national lore isn’t the only source of 1812’s obscurity. Here’s another: The 200-year-old war was mostly a debacle, with unsettling parallels to our own era. Eighteen-twelve was a war of choice rather than necessity; it was undertaken with naïve expectations of American success; and it concluded with the nation failing to achieve any of its stated aims.
“The war was so ill conceived and ineptly run that the government wanted to forget the whole embarrassment almost from the moment it ended,” says Gordon Wood, a leading historian of the early United States. He believes this willful amnesia, and the illusions that fueled the War of 1812, reflect a strain in the nation’s character that has surfaced many times, right down to Afghanistan and Iraq. “History should teach humility and prudence, but America doesn’t seem to learn. I’ve never seen a virgin who loses her innocence so often.”
In 1812, at least, the U.S. had the excuse of being very young and insecure. The Constitution wasn’t yet 25 years old, the nation remained a shaky experiment and Britain still behaved in a neo-colonial fashion. Desperate to defeat Napoleon, Britain restricted U.S. trade with Europe and “impressed,” or seized, sailors on American ships for service in the Royal Navy. To President James Madison and “War Hawks” in Congress, these acts violated U.S. sovereignty and represented an affront to the nation’s newly won independence. “There’s a sense that America’s identity is at stake,” says Wood, who calls 1812 “an ideological war.”
It was also extremely unpopular. The vote to declare war was the closest in U.S. history, and Congress failed to adequately fund the nation’s tiny, ill-prepared military. Some states withheld their militia. And critics decried “Mr. Madison’s War” as a reckless adventure, motivated less by maritime grievances than by lust for land.
Indeed, the U.S. war plan began with a land invasion—of Canada. By occupying land north of the border, Hawks sought to secure the nation’s flank, sever British aid to Indians in the upper Midwest and acquire new territory. Americans also believed that settlers in British-held Canada would welcome the invaders with open arms. Conquering present-day Ontario, Thomas Jefferson predicted, would “be a mere matter of marching.”
Instead, the first U.S. Army to march into Canada was so badly led that it promptly retreated and then surrendered, ceding Michigan to the British. Two later invasions of Canada likewise failed. The U.S. did have success at sea, stunning the British Navy by winning frigate duels early in the war. But in 1814, following Napoleon’s exile to Elba, the British brought much greater might to bear on the American theater.
After seizing eastern Maine and ravaging the New England coast, British troops invaded the Chesapeake, causing a frantic U.S. retreat in Maryland that was dubbed “the Bladensburg races.” The British then marched into Washington, which American officials had hastily abandoned, leaving behind a formal dinner set at the White House. British troops devoured the victuals and wine before burning the White House, Congress and other buildings. When Congress reconvened, in temporary quarters, it narrowly voted down a proposal to relocate the capital rather than rebuild. The beleaguered U.S. government also defaulted on the national debt.
These inglorious episodes are little heralded today, apart from Dolley Madison’s rescue of George Washington’s portrait from the White House (which still bears scorch marks from its 1814 burning). One exception is an annual event in the Connecticut town of Essex; the cheekily titled “Loser’s Day Parade” marks the British raid and burning of its harbor.
The River Raisin Battlefield has also tried to lighten its image by adopting a furry and cartoonish mascot called “Major Muskrat.” The rodent, common to southeastern Michigan, helped early European settlers ward off starvation during the lean years of the War of 1812. And muskrat remains a local delicacy. Typically, it’s parboiled with vegetables, cut in half and then fried with onions, as it was at an all-you-can-eat muskrat and spaghetti dinner preceding the Lacroix Company’s winter drill.