Thursday, September 12, 2013

Thursday in History: Vague

Happy Defenders Day!
What, you don’t remember the successful defense of the city of Baltimore from British forces in September 1814 during the War of 1812?

Britain was right in the middle of fighting Napoleon in 1812. They needed sailors to fight the maritime side of the war, and any British sailors hoping to desert tended to head to the same place: a neutral country with a large navy which held plenty of work for them. The United States was perfect.
At the time, the United States was happily trading with both Britain and France, and got kind of annoyed when the British boarded their ships and pressed American sailors into service (allegedly, sometimes it was hard to tell which sailors had official papers to prove they were American citizens and which of them were forged), and they were even more offended when Britain tried to mandate America’s trading. “Hey, you’re supposed to be neutral, quit trading with our enemies,” said Britain, and the United States was like, “Um, what?”
There was also the matter of American expansionism into the “west,” (which we now call Ohio and nearby states), which the native peoples objected to. The British, who didn’t mind there being a buffer of native tribes between American settlements and their own settlements in Canada, helped by providing arms. Those in the United States saw this as a really good reason that the British shouldn’t have holdings in Canada anymore.
It wasn’t like President Madison could email the British Prime Minister or give him a call. (Which was too bad, since the Prime Minister was assassinated shortly before and the man who took his place was determined to be friendlier to the United States.) It took around two months for news to reach the other side of the Atlantic in those days. So when the United States declared war in June of 1812, the British ambassador and consul escorted the declaration to the nearest British territory in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I’m sure the reaction of those in power in Britain on receiving the news was something like, “What, seriously? Ugh, come on, we’ve got a lot going on, here.”
But they wanted a war, so a war they got. It wasn’t glorious and victorious for the United States. I think that’s why we like to forget it. After burning Washington DC in 1814 (in which the White House was famously torched), British forces turned to the nearby city of Baltimore. A force of American soldiers marched out to meet them, and the battle they fought bought the city enough time to prepare for the naval onslaught during which Fort McHenry refused to surrender and the words of our national anthem were penned.
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air gave proof, through the night that our flag was still there.
By April of 1814, Napoleon was finished, and the British no longer needed as many sailors to man ships of war. Britain and France decided to be best friends after the government changed hands in France, so there wasn’t need for any trade to be restricted. And as a result of naval action in the Great Lakes, many of the raids conducted against American settlers by natives who had been encroached upon had stopped. There wasn’t any reason for a war anymore.
Nobody told the men fighting in the United States. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on Christmas Eve in 1814, but the Battle of New Orleans, the final major battle of the War of 1812, was fought on January 8, and skirmishes continued after that until the news was able to reach Louisiana in the middle of February.
The War of 1812 was messy. It was fought on land and at sea, in the north, south, and in the west, and it didn’t really have a winner. Each side fought valiantly, and victories were won, but the real losers were the native groups and First Nations tribes who, despite their struggles, lost their land in the end anyway.
Since there was so much going on in Europe, it’s easy for lots of people to forget what was happening in the New World during this time. Those who have heard only a little about it are sometimes confused about what happened and find that it’s easier to ignore it. Although there are some who remember every battle and get annoyed when other people don’t remember their history.
This comic, and other awesome things, are property of the amazing Canadian artist Kate Beaton, and can be found at
Happy Defender’s Day, Maryland! Let’s never forget (or at least try to remember) the War of 1812.

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