Just short of two hundred years ago, on June 18, 1812, the United States of America, aged only 36, declared war on Great Britain. Not only was America irked about a lot of trade restrictions placed on it by GB, but here was an opportunity to make a statement about its sovereignty. It had all started with the Chesapeake affair five years earlier.
The War of 1812 was actually an extremely interesting little conflict and maybe every bit as important as the Revolutionary War, of which it was kind of an extension. It had a lot to do with territory and borders, which is why the big battles were in Lake Erie and New Orleans without much going on in between. In any event, things began to get very tense in 1807.
In a nutshell: The Napoleonic Wars were going on at the same time and Britain had two French ships blockaded in Chesapeake Bay. For some reason, a handful of sailors on the Brit ships deserted and fled to the Chesapeake. Impressing everybody into their navy, but still demanding their own sailors back, was one of the British practices the US most objected to, so the Commodore of the Chesapeake, James Barron, refused to allow the Brits to search his ship. A British warship attacked, boarded the Chesapeake and snatched four Royal Navy swabs, three of them actually American citizens. In the process they killed three of the ship’s crew and wounded 18 more, including Captain Barron.
The Chesapeake, as it turned out, had only one gun.
The reaction was huge. Americans were outraged by the high-handedness of the Brits and just as outraged by the ineptitude of their navy. Thomas Jefferson reportedly said, “Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation!”
A lot of people wanted war right then, but it took another five years. By then we had some ships, although at its peak, the Navy had only a total of 20 boats. The British had 85 – and since most of the battles of the war were fought at sea or on the Great Lakes, it’s quite a miracle we didn’t wind up a colony again.
Poor Captain Barron got court-martialed and suspended for five years and the Chesapeake got defeated in another battle – the one when Captain James Lawrence said, “Don’t give up the ship!” – and was finally retired.
The British landed troops in Maryland and marched to Washington. They burned everything on the way and burned the White House too, although Dolley Madison saved the portrait of George Washington. We actually have an old daguerrotype of Dolley because she lived into the era of photography:
Because so many records in Maryland got burned, I’ll probably never know for sure if my (many times) great-uncle Abraham Barron was related to James, but I’ll bet he was, because ours is a long tradition of poor preparation combined with relentless optimism.
The War of 1812 kind of petered out, apparently because nobody could remember why they were fighting. It ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814.
And, in the interests of Anglo-American amity, happy birthday to Paul McCartney.
(Photo credits: The incomparable Library of Congress .)