The Forgotten War? The War of 1812

By Tanja Bueltmann

HMS Shannon leading the captured American frigate USS Chesapeake into Halifax, Nova Scotia (1813)

2012 is not only the year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, it is also the bicentenary of the War of 1812. In the US and the UK, this war is often referred to as a forgotten War. The reason for this lack of remembrance can be found in the other political and military battles of the time, specifically the Napoleonic Wars. A series of conflicts that had already been going on since 1803, they simply overshadowed the War of 1812.

In Canada, however, the situation is notably different, with the War of 1812 being officially commemorated over the next few years (as the war went on until 1815). The Canadian federal government has made available substantial funds for the purpose. For Canada, the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper explains, ‘the War of 1812 was a seminal event in the making of our great country. … – a war that saw Aboriginal peoples, local and volunteer militias, and English and French-speaking regiments fight together to save Canada from American invasion. The War helped establish our path toward becoming an independent and free country, united under the Crown with a respect for linguistic and ethnic diversity. … Events surrounding the 1812-15 armed conflict laid the foundation for Confederation and established the cornerstones of many of our political institutions. In short, the Canada we know today would not exist had the invasions of 1812-14 not been repelled.’ For further details on the official programme of commemorations, please visit the Canadian government’s War of 1812 site.

In essence the war of 1812 was a military conflict between the British Empire and the US, and one fuelled further by the goings on in Europe. While not all Americans were in favour of war, many merchants from New England and New York strongly opposed it for instance, war was eventually declared by US President Madison on 18 June 1812. Canada was pulled into the conflict as it was a British colony – and given the proximity of Upper Canada to the US. Hence there were several attempts by the US to invade Canada right from the start of the War. Later on, in 1814, British troops made it as far south as Washington, occupied the city and burned many buildings, including the White House. Click here for further details on the War.

Prior to the War there had already been many a heated debated about naturalization and continued loyalty to Britain. During the War suspicions ran high that English merchants trading internationally might be acting as spies, and many were interned, for instance at Fishkill, New York. A similar internment also took place in Charleston, South Carolina. English activity in ethnic associations, of which there were many by this point in time, was much more subdued. In New York, for instance, newspaper accounts of events are far and few between. Concerned about being accused of ‘divided loyalties’, or worse, loyalties to the old homeland, being overtly English in the US during the War of 1812 was not desirable.

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