Posted by Museum Volunteer Diana Stanley
The War of 1812 is often a forgotten note in American history. If mentioned at all, usually it is only to point out that the British burnt down the White House and the U.S. tried (and failed) to conquer Canada. In reality, the American people of 1812 understood and supported war. In fact, they found it far from "pointless."
First, America declared war because of the Northwest Territory, an area which makes up modern day states of Ohio and Michigan. The British gave up legal claim to the land in the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution. Yet, their forts in the New World never seemed to get the message. In fact, by the time the war started on June 18, 1812, the British were still there. The Americans also thought the British were aiding American Indian tribes in fighting settlers. While the British occupied the Northwest Territory, settlers fought a bloody war against Tecumseh and his tribe, the Shawnee. The Shawnee, like the British, did not want the settlers to move into the area.
The other major spark of war was the treatment of American merchant ships and sailors. At that time, the British boarded American vessels, selected random sailors, and demanded they prove they were not British citizens. If they failed (most did because not a lot of people took their birth certificate to sea, if they had one at all), the British “pressganged” them to serve as sailors in the British Royal Navy. Starting in 1807, the British began to seize the ships’ goods as well. Tensions rose when three Americans died refusing to allow the British to board the American ship Chesapeake.
By 1812, America had had enough. President Madison went to Congress to ask permission to declare war. The U.S. was young and not prepared, but some good things did happen as a result of the conflict. The British left the Northwest Territory and stopped kidnapping U.S. sailors, the main reasons for war. The American military established West Point and saw vast improvement. Because of British embargoes, the American manufacturing industry grew, boosting the economy. America also proved that the Revolution was not a fluke. The U.S. went against the greatest naval and military power of its age and survived…twice. This sentiment was echoed by words of Francis Scott Key in the Star Spangled Banner as he watched the firing on Ft. McHenry in 1814. “And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” America was still there. The war also gave the country a national hero, Andrew Jackson, who won the Battle of New Orleans and later became a president. Finally and most significantly, the war redefined how people viewed themselves. Instead of identifying themselves by state, citizens started to call themselves Americans. Not bad for a “pointless” war.
Visit the Museum to learn more about U.S. history and the founding of America. For more information please visit our website or call the Museum at 316.263.1311.