It’s 19 degrees with a brisk wind blowing off Lake Erie as the men of Lacroix Company march across a snow-crusted field in Michigan.
“Prepare to load!” shouts Ralph Naveaux, the unit’s commander. Fumbling with frozen hands, the men shove ramrods down the muzzles of their flintlocks.
“Aim!” Naveaux yells, and the soldiers point their muskets at an industrial park on the far side of the field.
Six triggers click in unison. “Bang,” one of the men says.
After a second mock volley, the re-enactors retire to the parking lot of one of the bloodiest battlefields of the War of 1812. On this ground, hundreds of U.S. soldiers died in a defeat so stinging that it spawned a vengeful American battle cry: “Remember the Raisin!”
Today, almost no one does. Nor do many Americans hallow the war of which it was part. The “Raisin”—short for the River Raisin that runs by the site—recently became the first national battlefield park devoted to the War of 1812. And it’s no Gettysburg, but rather a small patch of “brownfield” (ground contaminated by industry) south of Detroit. The belching stacks of a coal-fired plant poke above the park’s tree line. Nearby stands a shuttered Ford factory where some of the re-enactors used to work.
This neglect saddens Naveaux, who has labored hard to preserve the battlefield. But ignorance of the War of 1812 lightens his role as Lacroix Company leader. “I made up some of the orders today, and they weren’t carried out well,” he concedes at the end of the wintry drill. “But if we do things wrong out here, how many people are going to know or care?”
If they ever will, it should be now, on the War of 1812’s bicentennial. Two centuries ago this June, the United States made its first declaration of war, inaugurating a 32-month conflict with Britain that claimed almost as many lives as the Revolutionary War. The war also cemented the young nation’s independence, opened vast tracts of Indian land to settlement and gave Americans “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Yet the War of 1812 still struggles for notice, even on its 200th birthday—which has the misfortune of coinciding with the 150th anniversary of what 1812 enthusiasts call “that other war.” The one featuring slavery, Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln.
“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.
“Muskrat’s an acquired taste,” acknowledges Ralph Naveaux, scraping dark meat from the rodent’s bony hindquarters, or what another diner calls “the ass-end.” Naveaux likens the taste to wild duck, or “a very aggressive turkey.” Many others at his table stick to the spaghetti.
Re-enacting at River Raisin also requires a hardy constitution, since the original battle occurred in January. Some of the Lacroix men hide hand warmers in their boots and wear long johns beneath period knee pants and linen shirts. Most are over 50, and there aren’t enough of them to stage a full-scale battle. Ken Roberts, a former autoworker who has re-enacted almost every conflict in American history, says the War of 1812 attracts fewer participants than any other. “It’s not a Hollywood kind of war,” he says.
This is especially true of the River Raisin fight. At first, Americans succeeded in dislodging a British encampment by the river. But a few days later, the British and their Indian allies launched a devastating counterattack. Of the thousand or so Americans involved, mostly Kentuckians, only a few dozen escaped killing or capture. This made River Raisin the war’s most lopsided U.S. defeat, accounting for 15 percent of all American combat deaths in the entire conflict.
But the most notorious incident at River Raisin occurred after the battle, when Indians attacked 65 wounded American prisoners, in apparent reprisal for atrocities the Kentuckians had committed against natives. Reports of the slaughter were quickly exaggerated in wartime propaganda, with political cartoons and recruitment broadsides depicting a drunken massacre and scalping by Indian “Savages,” abetted by their British allies.
In October 1813, shouting “Remember the Raisin!,” U.S. troops exacted revenge in a victory over the British and Indians that resulted in the killing and skinning of the great Shawnee warrior Tecumseh.
The vengeful Raisin battle cry was the precursor of “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember the Maine!” Bitterness over River Raisin also contributed to the postwar expulsion of tribes living east of the Mississippi, a campaign championed by William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson, two leading Indian fighters from the War of 1812.
“This isn’t just local history, it’s critical to our nation’s long war against Native Americans,” says Daniel Downing.
Even so, the Raisin and its legacy are largely forgotten, and the War of 1812’s bicentennial has brought little federal or state support to the battlefield, which lies within the industrial city of Monroe. Until recently, a paper mill covered the heart of the battlefield. It’s been demolished, but a light industrial park, an ice rink and other buildings occupy other parts of the historic ground. Toxic chemicals linger beneath the field and in the River Raisin, originally named by French settlers for the abundant grapes along its banks.
Downing, a disabled Iraq War veteran, attributes some of this neglect to Americans’ penchant for redacting dark passages from their history. “This battle, and all that flows from it, isn’t flattering to our self-image,” he says.
The opposite applies at Fort McHenry, on the shore of Baltimore Harbor. It was here, during a British bombardment in 1814, that Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The flag that Key saw waving above the rampart now hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History; Key’s words appear on the inside flap of U.S. passports; and Fort McHenry is a well-preserved national monument and historic shrine, attracting 650,000 visitors a year.
“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.
The war also laid the foundation for an enduring peace with Canada, along one of the world’s longest borders. “We take that for granted today, but it’s an enormous boon to both countries that we’re not at odds,” says historian Alan Taylor, author of a new history of the War of 1812.
The conflict set the U.S. on a new economic course as well. The Jeffersonian ideal of a yeoman society, exporting agricultural goods and importing manufactured ones, no longer held. The war forced the nation to become self-reliant and demonstrated the need for factories, internal transport, a national bank and domestic trade.
“We became a world unto ourselves, rather than one turned toward Europe,” says historian Gordon Wood. The economy took off in the years after the war, as canals, roads, cities and industries rapidly expanded.
But the nation’s growth, and its inward turn, deepened the divide between agricultural slave states and the urbanizing, industrializing North. The ultimate result was “that other war,” which has so long shadowed 1812. It looms even at Fort McHenry, where Maryland legislators were sequestered in 1861 so they couldn’t vote for secession.
“We can never win,” sighs Vaise, who volunteered at the fort as a teenager and has been an employee since 1994. “The Civil War is the American Iliad. The War of 1812 is a 19th-century version of Korea.”
But he hopes the war’s 200th anniversary will finally bring a long overdue measure of respect. “The Civil War hit the big time with its centennial,” he says. “Maybe, just maybe, our bicentennial will do the same, and we won’t be that dead, forgotten war anymore.”