1812: THE FORGOTTEN WAR THAT NOBODY WON
By Lorin Swinehart
On January 6, 2021, a pestilential horde of raving, slavering ignoramuses, whipped to a frenzy by the moronic outgoing president and generalissimo wannabe Donald Trump, stormed the US Capitol in Washington, DC, threatening life and limb, causing the deaths of five persons, including one police officer, and serious injury to many others. Vandals one and all, the more hygienically challenged among the mob smeared excrement on the hallowed walls. Others pranced around noisily and impishly, some either destroying or stealing government property, while threatening the lives of members of Congress and even Vice President Michael Pence. Several pundits have noted that this was the first time the capital city of the United States had been desecrated since the War of 1812.
On April 14, 1813, seventeen US warships commanded by Admiral Isaac Chauncey launched an invasion of York, Ontario, then the capital of Upper Canada. This was to be one of the few US successes during the three-year War of 1812, a war without any clear-cut victor. During the subsequent six-day occupation, US forces looted and burned private homes, businesses, and government buildings, even destroying the local printing press. In July, US forces again invaded the town and continued their plundering. Retaliation was inevitable.
In 1812, Great Britain was the world’s foremost superpower, with a navy consisting of 650 warships and an army of 100 regiments of 1,000 men each, not counting those who may have been lost from disease and enemy fire. Other forces, including cavalry, artillery, naval, and territorials who functioned as the UK’s national guard, composed a fighting force of an estimated quarter of a million men, many of them crack veterans who had been battling Napoleon for years. At the same time, the US Navy consisted of perhaps seventeen seaworthy warships. The US military was made up of approximately 7,000 men, supplemented by poorly trained state militia who often decided to get going whenever the going got rough. Frequently, militia members were little more than heavily armed drunks who sometimes never even appeared for muster.
The United States, a fledgling nation of farmers and villagers, had just cause for declaring war on Great Britain in June 1812. The Royal Navy suffered a severe desertion rate fueled by the routinely harsh treatment of its sailors, including flogging for minor offenses. Many British sailors had been shanghaied into service in the first place. Some US sailors were British tars who had deserted and sought refuge in the infant country, lured by a common language and the opportunity to work at the only career they knew.
To make up for the manpower shortage, British warships began to routinely stop and board US ships on the high seas, in itself an act of war, and force American sailors to crew His Majesty’s vessels. US authorities charged that up to 2,500 sailors and been impressed into the Royal Navy, arguably an exaggeration.
However, US authorities had ulterior motives. Their eyes wandered to the north. Canada beckoned. The prevailing myth was that a small US force sent northward would encounter a Canadian citizenry eagerly awaiting liberation from the tyranny of His Majesty’s government. Canadians, it was preached, would flock to our banner, eager to join the American republic. Besides, what better time to add Canada to the US than at a time when Britain was fighting for its very life against Napoleon.
The Canadian attitude regarding US invaders differed radically from the US delusion, partly a consequence of huge numbers of Tories who fled north to escape persecution in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War and who wanted no part of reunion with the United States. Consequently, the US emerged victorious from very few confrontations with British-Canadian forces.
The US desecration of York would not be allowed to stand. In 1814, a powerful British force of 4,500 battle-tested troops sailed down the east coast of the US, raising the Union Jack over some New England communities and forcing the residents to swear allegiance to His Majesty. After yet another US defeat at the Battle of Bladensburg, the US capital lay nearly defenseless in the path of the invaders.
In August of 1814, the British raided, looted, and burned Washington. The Presidential Mansion, the Capitol building, the Departments of Treasury and War, and other sites were desecrated and burned. Other buildings were plundered and destroyed. More than 300 treasured volumes in the Library of Congress perished. The fires were so hot that decorations, columns, and sculptures were ruined, and the glass in skylights melted. The offices of Washington’s newspaper, the National Intelligencer, were torn down brick by brick because its editors had the effrontery to refer to Major General Robert Ross as “The Ruffian.”
To add insult to injury, General Ross and his officers sat down at President and Mrs. Madison’s dinner table, consumed his meal and drank his wine, then set fire to the place. Fortunately, a number of silver items and the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington were smuggled out of town before the arrival of the British. As for the President and his famous wife Dolly Madison, they escaped a fate as POWs by fleeing the city ahead of the advancing enemy and found refuge with a Quaker family in the village of Brookeville, Maryland.
The occupation of the city lasted for 26 hours, until a powerful hurricane struck, dousing the fires and forcing the British to retreat to their damaged vessels and sail off, some to Bermuda, others on to New Orleans.
The War of 1812 ended on Christmas Eve, 1814, with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent. However, one of its most lethal battles remained to be fought at New Orleans in January 1815. That battle has been immortalized in movies and songs, but it was, in reality, more like a massacre of the British forces who had been unwisely ordered to advance upon the heavily fortified US lines.
With the defeat of Napoleon subsequent to his infamous 100 days, the full might of the British military could have been turned loose upon the United States. However, when command in North America was offered to the Duke of Wellington, who had led the forces that defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, he essentially responded that we Americans were more trouble than we were worth, that the British would waste vast amounts of blood and treasure in an attempt to subdue such an unruly population.
In the aftermath, the Presidential Mansion was painted with white paint to cover up the scars of its burning. It was renamed the White House. An uneasy peace lasted, with a few long forgotten exceptions, along the 3,500-mile-long US-Canadian border for the next 100 years. The ratification of the Rush-Bagot Treaty on April 16, 1818, mostly disarmed the Great Lakes and eventually established the world’s longest unfortified boundary between any two nations.
With the outbreak of World War I, the United States and our British cousins realized that we had much in common, that we should stand united in the face of much worse enemies, and the “special relationship” between the two nations has endured to the present day. As for the village of York, Ontario, it evolved into the modern city of Toronto.
In reality, there is no longer a realistic expectation that our public buildings in Washington, DC, need fear another attack by foreign invaders. However, as the events of January 6, 2021, have proven, the barbaric hordes, the flotsam and jetsam at the lowest levels of US society, are no longer panting at our gates. They now walk among us.
We find ourselves attempting to navigate a new age in which the threat of domestic terrorism at least equals that of threats from overseas. Lines from Matthew Arnold’s most famous poem come to mind:
“We are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
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