Small Wars Journal

Sunday History Fix: Should We Still Care About the War of 1812?

Should We Still Care About the War of 1812? By Troy Bickhan - Oxford University Press

This summer marks 205 years since the United States declared war on the British Empire, a brief, but critical, conflict that became known as the War of 1812. This is a good opportunity to pause and take stock of its historical significance and relevance today.

The explosion in historical studies prompted by the bicentennial rehabilitated the War of 1812 from a widely disregarded conflict studied by a handful of specialists into the mainstream. The War of 1812 has received a modern makeover: scholars probed the conflict from every angle, considering the roles of race, gender, religion, technology, sectionalism, public opinion, nationalism, Atlantic and global contexts, and more. Included in these studies is some of the best historical scholarship of our young century, and historians and their students unquestionably have a better understanding of the complexities and significance of the war and the era as a whole than ever.

But will the War of 1812 slip back into historical irrelevance in the decades to come?

It might, but it should not. For starters, the War of 1812 provides useful lessons about the relationships between military power, public opinion, and wars’ outcomes. Britain was unquestionably the superior power in 1812, yet it failed to achieve a decisive victory primarily due to the constraints of domestic politics and public opinion. Even tied down by ongoing wars with Napoleonic France, the British had enough capable officers, well-trained men, and equipment to easily defeat a series of American invasions of Canada. In fact, in the opening salvos of the war, the American forces invading Upper Canada were pushed so far back that they ended up surrendering Michigan Territory. The difference between the two navies was even greater. While the Americans famously (shockingly for contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic) bested British ships in some one-on-one actions at the war’s start, the Royal Navy held supremacy throughout the war, blockading the U.S. coastline and ravaging coastal towns, including Washington, D.C. Yet in late 1814, the British offered surprisingly generous peace terms despite having amassed a large invasion force of veteran troops in Canada, naval supremacy in the Atlantic, an opponent that was effectively bankrupt, and an open secessionist movement in New England.

Why did Britain quit while it was ahead? …

Read on.