The American War that Time Forgot

by James A. Bacon

Two hundred years ago, a young America was engaged in one of the most obscure wars in its history, the War of 1812. Most Americans, if they know anything at all about the war, may recall that Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner during the siege of Fort McHenry and that Andrew Jackson won a resounding victory at the Battle of New Orleans — after the war was over. For most of us, that’s about it.

Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron, ” a new book by Ronald D. Utt, a Fredericksburg resident and occasional contributor to Bacon’s Rebellion on transportation issues, remedies the gaping holes in knowledge for readers. This is the perfect book for those who, like me, want to skip the boring stuff about the causes of the war, the politics and the diplomacy, and jump right to the good stuff, the tales of daring do.

While the United States’ land invasion of Canada was plagued by incompetent generalship — dudes, Toronto easily could have ended up as an American city! — our young Navy acquitted itself with valor against the world’s most powerful sea force, His Royal Majesty’s Navy. In a series of incredibly bloody one-on-one duels, the U.S.S. Constitution and other new-breed super-frigates bested veteran English warships of comparable size, and American privateers devastated British shipping all around the world. Because the outcome of most of these battles are unfamiliar, Utt’s tales of gallantry and heroism are exciting down to the last cannon shot.

Sad to say, Virginia played only a minor role in the war. Maryland had the good battles: the battle of Bladensburg, which led to the British occupation of Washington, D.C., and the siege of Fort McHenry, which turned back the Brits before they could occupy Baltimore, the privateer capital of the United States.

Utt does describe a couple of skirmishes in Hampton Roads, which were so desultory that no one ever bothered to name them. In the more significant of the two, the Americans turned back a British force intent upon capturing the Gosport Naval Yard in Norfolk and destroying the frigate, the U.S.S. Constellation, which it harbored. The Brits got bogged down in muddy muck and, after taking light casualties, abandoned the effort. Soon thereafter, the same force of Brits landed in Hampton and after a sharp skirmish chased out a smaller force of Virginia militia. In an incident highly unusual for a war otherwise noted for its civilized behavior, some French auxiliaries committed a number of rapes. As far as military action in Virginia, there wasn’t much material for roadside historical markers.

Utt devotes little ink to looking for larger lessons, but a few conclusions do jump out to me. First, that fine Virginian James Madison may have been a brilliant constitutional theorist but he wasn’t much of a war-time president. Some of our greatest setbacks occurred when he put politically connected but militarily incompetent generals in charge of American forces.

Second, while the War of 1812 essentially was fought to a draw, the United States did hold its own against England, the most powerful nation in Europe and vanquisher of  Napoleon. The Brits left us alone after that. And third, the war also marked the last time that indigenous Indians were a consequential factor in a conventional war. Indians had been key players in the French and Indian War, when they were allied with the French, and the Revolutionary War and again in the War of 1812, when they were allied with the English. After that, the Indians were on their own and the western frontier was wide open to American expansion.

In sum, this work of popular military history is an easy and entertaining read.

18 Responses to The American War that Time Forgot

  1. One wonders how Andrew Jackson, hero of the War of 1812, felt about the American Indians’ alliance with Britain. His presidency was certainly characterized by an anti-Indian philosophy. Even today, there are Cherokee people who will not touch a $20 bill since it has Jackson’s picture on it.

  2. As I recall, Mr. Jackson led a campaign against the Creek Indians in Alabama. He was none too fond of the Indians… or the Brits.

    • He passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 during his presidency if I remember correctly. That act led to the remove of five tribes from their native lands and resulted in the Trail of Tears.

      Anyway, that’s my recollection.

      I wonder if his hatred of Native Americans during his presidency can be tied to the fact that many Native Americans allied with the British in the War of 1812.

  3. Another possible explanation of Jackson’s hatred of Indians… Indians did not conform to “civilized” norms of combat. Civilians weren’t off limits. Contemporary American culture of the “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” variety emphasizes the atrocities committed by whites against the Indians. But the Indians in the 18th/early 19th centuries routinely committed atrocities as a standard mode of warfare, just as they had before Europeans ever arrived in the New World. Let us not forget, the early Virginia settlements were nearly obliterated when the Indians of the Powhatan Confederation aimed, and nearly succeeded, to wipe them all out.

    • As usual, George Washington was miles ahead in his thinking:

      http://www.dreric.org/library/northwest.shtml

      His philosophy toward Native Americans was:

      1. impartial justice toward Native Americans
      2. regulated buying of Native American lands
      3. promotion of commerce
      4. promotion of experiments to civilize or improve Native American society
      5. presidential authority to give presents
      6. punishing those who violated Native American rights.

      I am always amazed at how the so-called progressives and members of the chattering class have decided (over the last 50 years) that George Washington was a general and not much of a free thinker.

      In fact, Washington was many decades ahead of people like Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson in his thinking about the future of America, especially in social matters.

  4. By the way Jimbo, on an unrelated note – is that loon Joe Morrisey your delegate?

    Great idea – bringing a semi automatic rifle into the General Assembly and then waving it around with his thumb inside the trigger protector.

    He also has a long and colorful relationship with the Virginia bar.

    Henrico’s finest?

    Why don’t you run? You aren’t prone to idiotic stunts and most of the time you make sense.

  5. Joe is quite the showman, isn’t he? He’s not my delegate but I’ve known him personally for a long time. I actually like the guy. And I do believe he’s very bright, although he clearly doesn’t always show good judgment.

    I’ve pondered the idea of running for the G.A., but the incumbent delegate, Pat O’Bannon, is very diligent, does a reasonably good job and, politically, is probably unbeatable.

  6. “Sad to say: Virginia only played a minor role in the war. Maryland had all the good battles…”

    What kind of nutball comment is that? You mean you want battles with people’s property destroyed as they become blinded, maimed, gutted or killed?

    • Not to worry, Peter. Virginia in general (and Richmond in particular) would not let the next war slip by without getting a full measure of the “fun”. After declaring Richmond as the capital of a runaway rebel country the Commonwealth threw itself fully into a war that the south couldn’t possibly expect to win.

      There would be plenty of “cool” battles in that war including a siege of Richmond that set Virginia’s capital back 100 years.

      More seriously, I know Jim was speaking historically. However, I do wonder why the people of Virginia in general and Richmond in particular find the participation of our state in the US Civil War so romantic. It was an immense amount of human carnage and economic displacement in an immoral, losing cause.

  7. “Sad to say: Virginia only played a minor role in the war. Maryland had all the good battles…”

    What kind of nutball comment is that? You mean you want battles with people’s property destroyed as they become blinded, maimed, gutted or killed?

  8. Jeez, I’m speaking from a historical heritage point of view!

  9. ” I do wonder why the people of Virginia in general and Richmond in particular find the participation of our state in the US Civil War so romantic.”

    There’s been some interesting “goings ons’ up Fredericksburg way of late on the Civil War issue.

    The National Park Service which is a primary participant in Civil War History in Va since they own many of the original battle sites has been hosting and attending meetings with people of color whose ancestors were slaves – and many have the direct linage to family and county farms.

    The discussion has been lively and pointed. Black folks are asking where the “interpretation” in the parks is for the black experience in the Civil War.

    To NPS credit – they have continued the meetings and the dialogue and starting to realize how many of our Battlefield Parks mostly only tell the story of the Plantation and Slave owners.

    For instance, around most Va Civil War battlefields – the land at that time was plantations and slaves – not a few.. but how much of the story of slaves do you get when you visit a Civil War Battlefield in Va – where those battles were often fought right in front plantation homes with slave cabins in the back?

    At any rate, this is not very comfortable for the die-hard Civil War affectionatoes when you add back in the slaves experience.

    If you get a chance and are so inclined – study the faces of black folks at the inauguration – there’s much to see.

  10. Another excellent recent book on the naval War of 1812 is “Six Frigates”, by Ian Toll. Certainly worth reading if one is the least bit interested. Combines technology, politics and color to bring a war to which most history courses give short shrift to life.

    And, of course, the attempt by the Powhatan Confederation to wipe out the English settlers is what ultimately lead to Bacon’s Rebellion, wasn’t it?

  11. I have a family connection to the War of 1812, but to the other side. My 5th great grandmother, Mary Secord Beebe, was the aunt, by marriage, to Laura Ingersoll Secord, who walked 20 miles behind U.S. lines to warn the British of an American attack.

    Mary Secord was born in New Rochelle, NY, but later moved to Canada. She had three husbands, a number of Beebe children who resided in the Gaspe area of Quebec and lived to be 101. One of her great great grandsons returned to the United States in the 1880s. He was my great grandfather.

  12. If you like history from that time period, you might enjoy “The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805,” by Richard Zacks. The story of when the US invaded “Libya” (how the Marines song goes ‘to the shores of Tripoli’). Rather interesting read, with various letters from the time period to fill in some details. And the complexity (realpolitik) of President Jefferson has an impact on the story, too.

    It does have its slow/boring parts, but it was definitely interesting to me to fill in the holes of early US history in the region.

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