The Magazine

War Without Victory

A bicentennial reflection on the War of 1812.

Nov 5, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 08 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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The War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States—“the American War” to Britons—was part of the closing phase of the Napoleonic Wars. Those wars composed the final of three world conflicts—60 years of them—reaching back at least to the Seven Years’ War (our French and Indian War) of the mid-18th century, and including the American War of Independence. Some historians even see the Napoleonic Wars as the last gasp of what they call the Second Hundred Years’ War—extending longer than a century, in fact—commencing as far back as the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) for dominance in Europe and overseas.  

Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans

Andrew Jackson conducts ‘The Battle of New Orleans,’ by Edward Percy Moran (1910).

Moreover, since, despite its dispiriting prosecution, the War of 1812 secured American sovereignty once and for all, it’s sometimes called “the Second War of Independence.” It was the nation’s first chosen war and the first to be declared by Congress under the Constitution. It was also a war of huge scale, fought not only in the northeastern states and Canada, but along the Gulf Coast, in the Caribbean, and on the Atlantic.  

Given all this, you’d think that the War of 1812 would bulk large in British and American histories of the era. But it doesn’t. Why not? Because nothing about the War of 1812 meets the normal, unrealistic criteria by which we like to measure American wars: It didn’t end conclusively; it had no striking immediate consequences; it offered up no undisputed victor. Cynics point out that the War of 1812 gave us little to celebrate, save perhaps some naval battles, the repulse of the British at Fort McHenry, and Andrew Jackson’s victory over British regulars at New Orleans. 

As these scoffers point out, it was a misbegotten conflict. The British didn’t want a war with the United States; they were already in the midst of a titanic fight on the Continent. They aimed only to control American freedom of commerce during the island nation’s struggle with France, as if the United States could be treated as a dependent power. Once an American declaration of war over British trade restrictions threatened, Britain repealed the offensive restrictions, the Orders in Council, to head the war off. But due to the day’s slow communications, President James Madison had already sought and received a congressional declaration of war, which stood even after one of the president’s principal pretexts no longer existed.

The remaining stated causes for war—the impressment of American seamen and Britain’s troublemaking among the Indians around the Great Lakes—remained. Impressment was a particularly insulting irritant to the United States. Even if, as Britain claimed, thousands of British seamen needed for war had deserted to the American commercial and naval fleets, the Americans could not tolerate the insult to their honor resulting from British ships’ stopping American vessels on the high seas for
the removal of supposed British tars. The war commenced.

As detractors also point out, the war was badly fought, especially by American forces. Most of the engagements that Americans found themselves fighting ended badly, some of them embarrassingly or tragicomically. Ragtag ground forces repeatedly proved themselves ill-led, and the nation’s celebrated naval victories yielded few strategic gains, save perhaps those at the war’s very end. Nor did the war cast up a great generation of indomitable warriors, although many of its figures (Winfield Scott, for instance) went on to later military fame, and two (Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison) became president. Most historians agree that had the war ground on longer, the United States would have decisively lost—and lost in such a way as to threaten its very integrity.

As if this weren’t enough to doom the war’s reputation, cynics point out that its most celebrated battle, Jackson’s victory over the British at New Orleans in early January 1815, was unnecessary to the war’s outcome. The battle took place after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed roughly 10 days earlier—a fact that, once again because of slow communications, Americans didn’t learn until February. In another era, Jackson would have been denied his glory, and the war would simply have fizzled out.