The War of 1812: In Our Time, BBC Radio 4

A recent broadcast in the BBC Radio 4 series In Our Time dealt with the War of 1812. The programme is introduced by Melvyn Bragg, who discusses the topic with three experts. Subjects are drawn from Culture, History, Philosophy, Religion and Science. It has been broadcast since 1998, and every episode can be downloaded for free from the BBC website. As far as I know, there are no geographic restrictions.

Click here for the programme on the War of 1812, here for the series homepage and here for the archive of history programmes from 1998-2011. More recent programmes, not sorted by category, can be found from this link.

The BBC website describes the 1812 programme as follows:

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the War of 1812, the conflict between America and the British Empire sometimes referred to as the second American War of Independence. In June 1812, President James Madison declared war on Britain, angered by the restrictions Britain had imposed on American trade, the Royal Navy’s capture of American sailors and British support for Native Americans. After three years of largely inconclusive fighting, the conflict finally came to an end with the Treaty of Ghent which, among other things, helped to hasten the abolition of the global slave trade.
Although the War of 1812 is often overlooked, historians say it had a profound effect on the USA and Canada’s sense of national identity, confirming the USA as an independent country. America’s national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner began life as a poem written after its author, Francis Scott Key, witnessed the British bombardment of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. The war also led to Native Americans losing hundreds of thousands of acres of land in a programme of forced removal.
With:
Kathleen Burk Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at University College London
Lawrence Goldman Fellow in Modern History at St Peter’s College, University of Oxford
Frank Cogliano Professor of American History at the University of Edinburgh
Producer: Victoria Brignell

In 1812, the USA was caught in the middle of a major war between Britain and France. It was trying ineffectually to defend itself against stronger powers who wanted to dictate who it could trade with. Both Britain and France introduced measures aimed at preventing the USA from trading with the other.

The Royal Navy had 130-140,000 men, and used impressment of British merchant seamen to maintain its strength. It was losing men to the USA;  some deserted the RN, whilst others were British merchant seaman who had decided to work on US ships and had become naturalised US citizens. The British did not recognise naturalisation, arguing that once a British subject, always a British subject. Up to 8,000 US sailors were impressed into RN.

Other causes of the war were Canada and also the Native Americans. Some Americans, including Thomas Jefferson, thought that the USA could just march into Canada and Canadians would willingly become Americans. Some wanted to annex territory, others wanted to take territory as a bargaining chip in negotiations.

There was increasing tension between Native Americans and settlers from 1808-9 in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. A Native American revival was led by two Shawnee brothers; Tecumseh, who provided strategic and military leadership, and Tenskwatawa, the spiritual leader. The British provided arms and support as they wanted a Native American buffer between USA and Canada.

In 1807 HMS Leopard forced the USS Chesapeake to strike her colours. Four US sailors were killed and four sailors removed; one was British born and the others were US born, but had been impressed into the RN and then deserted. Two were African-American, one of them a former slave, so had no British heritage.

Previous British impressment of US sailors had been from merchant ships, but the Chesapeake was a warship. The USA was not prepared for war, lacking the naval power for a conflict with Britain, so President Jefferson tried to exert economic pressure on Britain. His measures stopped US exports to Britain, but not US imports from Britain, so damaged the USA more than Britain

Some Americans feared that the British wanted to re-annex their former colonies, but this was not a British war aim, although some British newspapers still called the USA the colonies.

By 1812, there was a belief in USA that national honour was at stake and that this required war.

The British were initially under-resourced; they had 5,000 troops in Canada and limited naval forces in North America and the Caribbean. They were able to send reinforcements as the Napoleonic Empire collapsed, and had 100 ships in the war zone by the summer of 1814 and 50,000 troops there by the end of the war.

The USA was  unprepared; it had 7,000 regulars at start of war and had a particular problem with lack of trained officers. It did have state militias, totalling 4oo-500,000 men in theory, but some states were unwilling to pay the taxes needed to raise large forces. Some, especially in New England, wanted to fight only in defence of their territory and were unwilling to allow their militias to take part of an invasion of Canada.

The Americans were shocked that the Canadian militia fought well in defence of their territory. Invasions by both sides were unsuccessful because their militias fought better when defending than when attacking.

Links between the British and Native Americans severed in 1813; the naval battle on Lake Erie cut the supply route and Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames. The USA was waging two wars, one with the British and one with the Native Americans.

The British were never going to be able to conquer the USA, but in 1814 they landed at Washington as a diversion to take pressure off Canada. They intended to march in with a small party under a white flag and use the threat of burning the city to levy a fine, but were fired on from a private house.

Consequently, they executed the inhabitants of the house and burnt government buildings, including the Presidential Palace (now the White House) and the Library of Congress. They did not attack private property except for the house from which they were fired on. This was revenge for the US burning of public buildings in York (now part of Toronto).

There were few major battles, but the British launched a number of punitive expeditions to punish the Americans. At Baltimore in 1814, the RN had to stand-off Fort McHenry,  so could not support the army, which had to withdraw. Fort McHenry withstood bombardment by the RN, resulting in Francis Scott Key writing a poem called the Defence of Fort McHenry. It was later set to the music of a British song and became The Star Spangled Banner, the US National Anthem.

The war was a disaster for the Native Americans, who lost their historic links to Britain. After a decisive defeat by militia led by Andrew Jackson, they were forced to cede land and pushed westwards. Jackson became a national hero and was elected President in 1828. He then pursued a policy of removing the Native Americans from US territory.

There was opposition to war in both countries. In the US, this came from the north east, which traded with Canada. In addition, many in centre of country were uninvolved, in contrast to the War of Independence, which had effected everybody. In Britain opposition came from liberals and also on the grounds of the cost of a war that was diverting military and financial power from the more important conflict with France.

Peace attempts began in 1813 with an attempt at mediation by Tsar Alexander of Russia. It was rejected because both sides still thought they might gain an advantage and get more.

Napoleon’s abdication in 1814 lessened friction between the countries. The British no longer needed to interfere with US commerce or to impress US sailors. Negotiations at Ghent begin in August 1814 and a treaty signed on 24 December 1814. However, the final and biggest battle took place at New Orleans on 8 January 1815 as news of the treaty had not arrived.

New Orleans was a decisive victory for the USA, which inflicted 25% casualties on the 10,000 strong force British force. This led to the US people thinking that they had won the war, as they heard first about this victory and then learnt of the peace treaty soon afterwards. However, the British might have repudiated the treaty and tried to hold New Orleans if they had won the battle there.

The treaty settled nothing about the causes of the war, but the war boosted US self-confidence and gave the Canadians a sense of national identity. There was no further Anglo-American war. It was not very important to the British, for whom it was quickly over-shadowed by Waterloo. By 1823, Britain and the USA were co-operating over the Monroe Doctrine. The big losers of the War of 1812 were the Native Americans.

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5 Comments

Filed under Reviews, War History

5 responses to “The War of 1812: In Our Time, BBC Radio 4

  1. The War of 1812 was far more important than people give it credit for, even the school systems tend to skim over it. It’s good that you are getting the story out there.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I agree that it should be given more attention, but it is overshadowed by the War of Independence in the USA and the Napoleonic War in the UK.

  3. Thanks for that post. I am very curious to see the British coverage of the war. I read/watch/listen to just about everything I can about the war. Much of it was fought within a few minutes by car from where I live. But as fascinating as the conflict itself is the way its remembered and/or celebrated in Canada, the US. The Americans focus a lot on the naval aspects of the war and New Orleans; Canadians tend to highlight the battlefields in Ontario. It’s fascinating to observe what aspects of the conflict the British emphasize.

    • There isn’t much interest in this war in Britain. I probably should have pointed out that, although all three of the academics who appeared in the programme are professors at British universities, two of them, Kathleen Burk and Frank Cogliano, are Americans. Perhaps this is a sign of the lack of interest in this conflict amongst British people?

      The only 200th anniversary book by a British author that I’m aware of is ‘The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812’ by Andrew Lambert. To the best of my knowledge, the most recent British book covering the whole of the war is Jeremy Black’s ‘The War of 1812: in the Age of Napoleon’, published in 2009.

      The War of 1812 is overshadowed in Britain by the war with Napoleon for several reasons. It was larger, more important to Britain, was a clear cut victory for Britain and its allies and was against the French.

  4. The “War of Both Sides Behaving Badly” imho.

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