Tag Archives: War of 1812

Lessons from From Enemies to Allies: Changing Scale in American Naval History

In the plenary session at From Enemies to Allies: An International Conference about the War of 1812 and Its Aftermath, several senior scholars addressed (among other things) the direction scholarship on the War of 1812 should go. One major theme that emerged was the need to study the War of 1812 in a global context. American historians of the war often treat it as if it were the only thing going on in the United States and in Britain between 1812 and 1815, when in fact it wasn’t the only thing going on in either place.

This interest in globalizing the study of the War of 1812 correlates with a session I attended at THATCamp about how changing the scale of your research can open up new lines of inquiry. The initial example in the session was a literal change in scale: blowing up a literary text to being a poster size instead of a normal book size. But we also talked about how changing the scale on a more intellectual level can also be a good thing.

Two of the keynote speakers at FETA addressed scale as they talked about the context in which the War of 1812 occurred. Andrew Lambert explored how the War of 1812 fit into the much larger story of the Napoleonic Wars, and Alan Taylor explained how the war fit into a larger context of changing borders within the United States, not just with Canada or Britain but with the Indians as well. Looking at the War of 1812 on the scale of the Napoleonic Wars, or on the scale of U.S.-Indian relations, can drastically change how one understands why the Royal Navy did certain things or why certain U.S. policies seemed counter-intuitive for fighting a war with the British alone.

Taylor advocated a change in the temporal scale as well as the geographical one, suggesting that we should think of the war as spanning 1810 to 1819, rather than 1812 to 1815. This change in temporal scale highlights the border disputes that Taylor discussed in his talk, and it certainly makes one think differently about the chronology of the war (including the oft-quoted myth that the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the war was over, a fact that isn’t true whether you subscribe to the 1819 end date or the 1815 one).

These changes of scale bring new life to what some people, even historians, view as “stagnant” history. (Bill Pencek, the organizer of the conference, told us of a person who believed that naval history was “already settled.”) They allow us to ask new questions about the history of the United States, Britain, and Canada, and they allow us to approach the standard questions (such as the causes of the war) with fresh perspectives that may provide better answers.

Though the War of 1812 is not going to be my own main research focus, I think these ideas of scale can be easily applied to any conflict. I’m particularly excited about applying them to my own topic, the Barbary Wars. If any part of American naval history could benefit from a change in scale, I think it’s the story of the Barbary Wars, which is often written as though the United States was the only nation dealing with the Barbary States, ever. But if we change the scale, look at the more global picture of the Barbary Wars, and perhaps even change the temporal scale as well, this minor conflict in the Mediterranean may help us understand a lot more about the navy, diplomacy, foreign relations, and politics in the early republic of the United States.

 

Harsh Words for a War (in 1812)

The War of 1812 had been going on for about six months when this list was published by the Federal Republican (reprinted in the Salem Gazette, December 29, 1812, which is where I found it). If this piece is no less vitriolic than some political rhetoric of the twenty-first century, at least it is much more succinct.

Reasons, not long, for believing the War will be Short.

1st. Because the army lacks men.
2d. Because the treasury lacks money.
3d. Men and money are the sinews of war.
4th. The navy lacks encouragement.
5th. Because the President lacks nerves.[1. James Madison]
6th. Because the secretary of state lacks head.[2. James Monroe]
7th. The secretary of the treasury lacks heart.[3. Albert Gallatin]
8th. The secretary of the navy lacks every thing.[4. Paul Hamilton. History has not been kind to Paul Hamilton, who is generally viewed as an incompetent and inefficient secretary.]
9th. Because the secretary of the war—is not.[5. This list was published in the two months during which James Monroe was acting as secretary of war, due to the resignation of William Eustis, who resigned in December 1812 after his lack of preparedness was blamed for the debacles with the army. The new secretary, appointed in February 1813, was no better than Eustis.]
10th. Because General Hull’s proclamation has failed.[6. In July 1812, General WIlliam Hull issued a proclamation to the residents of Upper Canada, assuming that they would side with the United States in this war and telling them that he did not need their assistance to defeat the British. Needless to say, this proclamation did not go over well, and Hull surrendered to the British at Detroit on August 16.]
11th. Because General Smyth’s two proclamations have failed.[7. General Alexander Smyth’s proclamations were to his own army, assuring them of their superiority and the ease with which the British army would be defeated. Unfortunately, Smyth did not adequately prepare his men or his materiel. These proclamations also gave the British advance knowledge of his planned attack.]
12th. Because both Hull and Smyth the fast friends of administration, the one is pronounced a traitor by his friends, and the other is known to be a recreant, and is denounced by his own army, who have offered a reward for his head.[8. Hull was the traitor, Smyth the recreant.]
13th. Because the people are too wise to pay taxes.
14th. Because administration is too weak and too cunning to lay them.
Lastly, and to conclude, because war requires men and money and brains and nerves and honesty—whence we conclude that either such an administration will rid us of the war, or the war soon rid us of such an administration.
Thus ends our war creed, and let all the people say
Amen.

Poetry and War: Constitution v. Guerriere

USS Constitution v. HMS Guerriere. Public domain image from Naval Historical Center.

In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of War of 1812, here’s an excerpt from Columbia’s Naval Victories, a poem about the naval victories of the Americans, written in 1813 by Benjamin Allen.

In war a lion, though a lamb in peace,

Hull [1. A brief biography of Isaac Hull can be found here.] bears the flag of freedom o’er the seas;[2. A motto often flown on ship’s flags was “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights.”]

Ready to vindicate his country’s fame,

And add new honours to her injur’d name.

Soon Albion’s banner rises on his view [3. A few weeks previous to this battle, the Constitution had successfully evaded the Guerriere, which had then been sailing in a squadron with several other warships. This time, on August 19, 1812, Hull decided to take the chance that the Guerriere was alone.]—

His dauntless soul impels him to pursue.

Of equal force, the ready foemen meet,

And with the cheer of gladness loudly greet.

Here England’s Dacres,[4. Captain James Richard Dacres, captain of the Guerriere] with a gallant band–

There the firm sons of blest Columbia’s strand.

Now roaring rolls the deathful cannon’s sound,

A novel thunder frights the floods around:

The pious soul attendant angels guard,

Or wait to waft him to his last reward.

Short is the contest, carnage soon is o’er,

For Albion’s banner falls, to rise no more.

Low in the briny deep the Guerriere lies ;

The finny tribes of ocean o’er her rise :

Like some forgotten wave she sinks to rest,[5. The author is taking some poetic license here: Though the Guerriere was indeed too badly damaged to be claimed as a prize, Hull ordered it burned, which did of course result in its sinking.]

In all her futile, fleeting, boastings drest.

Modest, but firm, the victor Hull is seen,

With sympathising kindness in his mien,

Aiding the vanquished: he receives them well,

And bide them with himself, like brethren, dwell.