Who really won the War of 1812?
For a piece of history that gave us the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air, the War of 1812 tends to evoke a collective “Huh?” on the U.S. side of the border with Canada.
“The War of 1812 has no compelling narrative that appeals to the average American,” said Jerald Podair, a history professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. “It’s just a hodgepodge of buildings burning, bombs bursting in air and paintings being saved from the invaders, all for a vaguely defined purpose. “
Yet the vacuum of interest in the War of 1812 is about to get a pyrotechnic blast of attention for its bicentennial year.
Canadians, who consider the war a pivotal conflict in their nation’s history, have made 200th anniversary celebrations a national priority and are opening government coffers to stage a splashy show. Also, a few American cities and states, mostly on the East Coast and Great Lakes where fighting took place, are planning commemorations that have some brushing off their war reenactment uniforms.
For Americans who may have napped during this history lesson, the War of 1812 is a bit of a dud, historians say.
“If you ask the average American what they think about the War of 1812, some will have a puzzled look and ask who fought in that war?” said Ralph Eshelman, a Maryland historian who has written about the war in the Chesapeake Bay region. Another historian joked that about the only thing most Americans know about the War of 1812 is that it began in, well, 1812.
While some U.S. boosters believe our side won, many historians say the war -- largely fought over British impressment of American seamen and interference with U.S. trade and westward expansion -- ended in a draw.
And then there’s that episode when the British burned Washington. “We don’t have a lot to celebrate,” said William Fowler, a Northeastern University history professor.
Still, the war produced the words for “The Star Spangled Banner” as Francis Scott Key watched the defense of Baltimore. Andrew Jackson was elevated to hero status for his victory at the Battle of New Orleans. And Dolley Madison earned her place in the history books for saving George Washington’s portrait from the British torching of the White House.
The war also “confirmed the independence of a young republic whose success and prosperity was not foreordained or guaranteed,” said Carl Robert Keyes, an assistant professor of history at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.
There are those in Canada, however, who view their country as a victor, largely for repelling American invaders.
“It was very much a war of independence and is seen as one of the defining chapters in Canadian history,” said Ron Dale, War of 1812 bicentennial project manager for Parks Canada. To celebrate the military achievement, the Canadian government plans to spend at least $28 million on activities, including televised war vignettes and battle reenactments.
“It’s a much bigger deal up here,” said Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Assn. for Canadian Studies.
Canada would not exist had the American invasions of 1812-1814 not been defeated,” said Lyle Williams, a spokesman for Niagara-on-the-Lake War of 1812 Bicentennial Committee.
“The war linked the disparate British provinces in shared danger against a common enemy and eased the way for confederation, the establishment of the Dominion of Canada five decades later in 1867,” said Dale of Parks Canada. “Canadians take pride in their victories against overwhelming odds during the conflict but also applaud the postwar results -- 200 years of peace and an incredibly strong friendship with our American neighbors.”
Toronto is planning more than 100 events, including an 1812-related film festival and a military parade. The city, then known as York, saw its parliamentary buildings burned down by the Americans during six days of occupation, but it boasts on its bicentennial website: “The U.S. government achieved none of its objectives -- especially the conquest of British North America.”
In the United States, no state is more engaged than Maryland, which sees the bicentennial as an opportunity to shine -- and rake in some tourist dollars.
The state boasts more than 500 sites with a connection to the war and is led by a governor, Martin O’Malley, who has worn a War of 1812 uniform to commemorate the defense of Baltimore.
Maryland hopes to draw more than a million visitors to Baltimore in June for its “Star-Spangled Sailabration,” the kickoff of a three-year, $25-million commemoration of the 1812-1815 conflict. Events include underwater archaeological digs to recover war artifacts and an online game called “Hold the Fort” that will “cast young people in the role of Ft. McHenry’s commander during the British attack ... making critical decisions regarding when to fire the guns.”
License plates depicting “The Star Spangled Banner” adorn Maryland cars. Commemorative coins inscribed with “O say can you see” will be offered for sale. The state’s events will culminate in 2014 with lots of fireworks, if not bombs, bursting in air over Ft. McHenry.
The Navy holds its achievements in high regard, citing victories “against great odds” over the mighty Royal Navy. U.S. Navy officials are helping organize visits by tall ships and modern vessels from navies around the world to ports on the East Coast, the Great Lakes and New Orleans, site of Jackson’s celebrated victory.
A broader U.S. commemoration has been hampered by tight government budgets: Legislation to create a national commission to plan bicentennial events died in Congress. Also diminishing its promotional opportunities, the bicentennial overlaps the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
Britain doesn’t seem to be planning much, probably because the War of 1812 was viewed as a distraction for a country focused on defeating Napoleon, historians said. Some Canadians worry that if they make too big a deal about repelling the American invaders, it could offend their southern neighbor.
Then again, Americans may not notice.