“Strange indeed did it appear to me to find so many names, familiar household words, as enemies—the very names of officers in our own army. … How uncomfortably like a civil war.” —British Lt. John Le Couteur upon visiting an American Army camp (1813)
Americans, sadly, know little of their own history. Who among us recalls anything about the War of 1812? Few, if any. What those few do tend to remember are patriotic anecdotes from a long-ago war: Andrew Jackson mowing down foolish redcoats at the Battle of New Orleans; Dolly Madison saving the portrait of George Washington just before the British burned down the capital; Francis Scott Key penning “The Star Spangled Banner” as he observed the bombardment of Fort McHenry.
These are carefully selected snapshots in an otherwise hazy war. None of this comes together—except in the minds of academic historians—into anything resembling a coherent tale. Why did we fight? Was it necessary? Did we win? The cherry-picked anecdotes of jingoism answer none of these vital questions, but ask them we must. The decision to take a nation to war, to send young men into combat, is a solemn one indeed. And the War of 1812 is one of only five wars the United States has officially declared.
The conflict deserves our attention for the last reason alone, but also because the war and its complexities are instructive to today’s engaged citizen. Though it is rarely remembered this way, in some ways this was a civil war, fought between men who spoke the same language, practiced the same religion and had remarkably similar customs. It was also a war of conquest, suffered worst by the native peoples of the Ohio Country and Upper Canada. It was, too, a sideshow theater of the broader Napoleonic…