Two hundred years ago today, a 36-year old America declared war, for the second time, against Great Britain. The plan was to conquer Canada and wrest North America for the United States once and for all. But, by pretty much all measures, the war was a total mess…
It began in confusion, with the United States declaring hostilities unaware that one of its major war aims was already addressed. And it ended that way, too, with a last, pointless battle fought weeks after a peace treaty was signed. Civilians on both sides suffered, there were horrible massacres, and even more bungling by generals than is customary in warfare.
The British and American armies, supplemented by militia and First Nations warriors, pushed back and forth for nearly three years, temporarily trading territory along the Niagara river, and hitting each other at their cores.
York, now Toronto, was captured and looted. And Newark, now Niagara-on-the-Lake, was burned. British forces attacked Washington and torched the White House.
Such a violent history is surprising to many, given that Canada and the US now act more like siblings than neighbors. Turns out this cheerful outlook may be due more to forgetfulness than reconciliation.
Many Canadian children grow up learning their forebears triumphed after American aggressors tried and failed to invade what was then a British colony. For Americans, a fledging nation forced Britain to respect U.S. sovereignty, allowing it to focus on its expansion westward.
For the Americans who do know something about it, the War of 1812 is a string of myths, isolated, picture-framed snapshots of heroism. It’s that smoke-shrouded naval bombardment that gave birth to the Star Spangled Banner. It’s when the British sacked Washington and burned down the President’s House—a humiliation somehow redeemed by First Lady Dolley Madison rescuing a canvas painting of George Washington. And, for those who were particularly attentive in school, it’s the war when future President Andrew Jackson thrashed the British at New Orleans (a battle fought, unbeknownst to both sides, after American and British envoys had already settled peace terms across the Atlantic.)
Whatever snippets have been committed to memory, though, they don’t quite add up. “Americans have found a way of both forgetting and remembering various bits and pieces of the war,” says John Stagg, professor of history at the University of Virginia and author of The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent. “But what they’re left with, in and of itself, makes no sense.
If history is written by the victor, and both sides consider themselves victorious, then even a torched presidential mansion can become a touchstone for patriots.
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