1812: The war that shaped America
Posted by PA2 Stephen Lehmann, Friday, April 20, 2012
Looking back over every war that America has been involved in, it’s easy to see the positives in retrospect. World War I and II gave the U.S. a giant boost to its economy, pulling it out of the Great Depression and making it one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world. But, if the Revolutionary War made America free, the War of 1812 kept it that way. Independence aside, what the fledgling country gained from the War of 1812 isn’t so easily quantified.
The Battle of Fort McHenry is a prime example of the intangibles that came out of the war. Baltimore and Fort McHenry were bombarded for 25 straight hours. With all lights in the city and fort extinguished, the only light came from the exploding British shells. Francis Scott Key, a Baltimore lawyer, was negotiating with British officers for the release of American prisoners aboard the HMS Tonnat when he learned of the scheduled attack on Fort McHenry. As the British frigates opened fire on his city, Key was unable to do anything, but watch helplessly.
At dawn the next morning, Key spied that the flag was still flying from the Fort and enthusiastically reported this to the American prisoners below deck. Finally allowed to return to his ship, Key penned “The Star Spangled Banner” after his observations the night before – a poem that in 1916 became America’s National Anthem.
It was obvious from the onset of America’s new war that the British would have the
upper hand in the maritime domain. British sailors had been at war with France for more than a decade before the War of 1812 took place. With the bulk of England’s fleet still fighting in Europe, more than 85 British ships sailed American waters, disrupting trade, blockading ports and impressing American sailors into service to England.
The American Navy was hopelessly outnumbered, but not out-gunned. The average British frigate carried 38 18-pound guns, while the American frigates carried 56 24-pound guns. This being the case, the American navy opted for a more strategic means to reclaim the maritime domain. Rather than engaging the British fleet directly, the American frigates, instead, engaged on a one-on-one level, allowing them to flex their significant muscle on the smaller-built ships.
The most successful of the American frigates was the USS Constitution, so named by President George Washington, defeated five British frigates and captured many British merchant ships. The Constitution earned its nickname of “Old Iron Sides” at its battle with the HMS Guerriere, where the cannon fire from the enemy ship was said to bounce off the sides of the Constitution. The Constitution currently serves as a museum ship, a national treasure still floating on the waters of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
Not all of the war’s battles were fought from ships. The Battle of New Orleans was the single most significant land battle of the war, even though it was fought after a treaty ending the war had been signed. Major General Andrew Jackson and his army made their way through British encampments along the Gulf Coast before coming to New Orleans. Jackson’s forces were sparse at 1,000 regulars and relied heavily on civilians, slaves and militia members who helped build the fortifications that would be the deciding factor in the impending battle. With 8,000 British regulars at his command, General Edward Pakenham attacked the city in hopes of gaining a considerable strategic port city on the mainland, but instead suffered a loss so crushing (approximately 2,000 casualties) that all British designs on New Orleans were abandoned.
Pakenham and many of his senior officers were killed or fatally wounded while Jackson rode his victory to the White House, where he became the seventh president of the United States.
Now, we revisit the War of 1812 in the same city that almost ended the conflict 200 years ago. Navy tall ships, their billowing sails almost disappearing against the background of the cloudy skies, slowly make their way to their mooring in the Crescent City. New Orleans is the first host to a multi-port tour by Navy vessels as they travel around the country, reeducating the American public about the War of 1812. It was a war that set the stage for our future growth and eventual role as a world leader. It was a war that gave us our song, our sovereignty and the pride that comes from overcoming insurmountable odds.