LLOYD GRAY: A little-known war, a quiet bicentennial

By Lloyd Gray | NEMS Daily Journal

Numerous studies and considerable anecdotal evidence suggest that Americans are largely ignorant of their history and that young people are particularly at a loss to identify major events and figures in the nation’s past.
Most of us at least know something about the Civil War and perhaps are vaguely aware that we’re in the midst of the war’s sesquicentennial observance. With so much Civil War history all around us, that’s hard not to know.
But even those whose knowledge of history is above the norm might have trouble remembering the war whose bicentennial will be observed this year. A hint: It’s the only U.S. war named after a year, as in “When was the War of 1812 fought?”
The War of 1812 may be the least known of all the American wars, but it produced some unique distinctions – an invasion of Canada, the burning of the White House, The Star Spangled Banner and a major battle fought two weeks after the war officially ended, but the combatants hadn’t heard.
Even if it didn’t count, the Battle of New Orleans did give rise to the fame of future President Andrew Jackson and an excellent 20th century country song. (“Fired our guns and the British kept a comin’; wasn’t quite as many as there was a while ago. Fired once more and they begin a runnin’; on down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.”)
A bit more on the serious side were those “bombs bursting in air,” which “gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,” Frances Scott Key’s poem written while watching the British assault on Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor. It of course became the text for our national anthem.
The War of 1812 was in part the sequel to our revolution against Great Britain that had concluded three decades earlier. We were a young, independent nation, but the British – embroiled in protracted conflict with the French – still were trying to push us around, interfering with international shipping and otherwise telling us what we could and couldn’t do.
The war, fought mostly by Naval forces, including privateers hired by the U.S. government, finally convinced the British to leave us alone, though they impolitely set a torch to President James Madison’s White House in the process. It also helped solidify the still emerging idea of the American nation, though there were sectional differences – the South and West were for the war, the Northeast largely against it – which presaged the unpleasantness of 1861-65, the more high-profile war anniversary of the moment.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the 200th anniversary of the war is not likely to get much attention or tourism promotion either in the U.S. or Canada because it’s such “a hard and confusing story to tell.” Still, it at least provides the opportunity to ask that trick question.
The War of 1812 was, in fact, fought in 1813, 1814 and 1815 as well. But that would have made for too long a name.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.