This PBS documentary offers the highly sanitized mainstream version of the War of 1812, a historical event Canadians study in school but not Americans. This was the only war in history in which the US invaded Canada and lost. The main weakness of the documentary is its failure to point out that the US money supply was 80% controlled by London banks – both before and after a pointless war that ended in stalemate (see How the US Uses War to Protect the Dollar).
The “official” justification for the US declaration of war in June 1812 was the British policy of seizing US merchant ships headed for France. Owing to their war against Napoleon (1803-1815), the British seized hundreds of US merchant ships and impressed 6,000 US merchant sailors to serve in the British Navy. The final straw occurred when the British fired on a US naval vessel, the USS Chesapeake, which was harboring four British deserters.
According to the documentary, the true motivation was the desire of President James Madison and young Congressional Republicans to seize Indian and Canadian lands for sentiment and development.
For me the most significant aspect of this war was the strong antiwar movement that arose opposing it. Northern banks refused to finance the war (it was eventually financed by London’s German-owned Baring’s Bank) and New England states, which threatened to secede, refused to volunteer their militias.
For the fist year of the war, the US government relied mainly on state militias, as service in the US army was voluntary and pay and conditions were abysmal. The poorly led US militias made three disastrous attempts to invade Canada at Detroit, across the Niagara River and north through Vermont’s Champlain Valley. The US militias were defeated, despite outnumbering Canadian forces five to one. Most of Britain’s military forces were tied up fighting Napoleon in Europe. The Canadian side relied on a few British regulars, Native American warriors led by Tecumseh and French, Scottish and British farmers defending their land.
In 1814, the British captured Napoleon, releasing 60,000 troops for service elsewhere. In August 1814, they sacked and burned Washington (including the Capitol, the White House, the Library of Congress and the Navy Yard) and the city was only spared by a freak hurricane that forced British troops to retreat.
The Battle of Baltimore and the Battle of New Orleans would spell a reversal of fortune for the US. By this point the US had more professionally trained troops, though they depended heavily on Baltimore residents to build ramparts and state militias to help defend the city. The successful defense of Fort McHenry (Baltimore) in September 1814 would inspire Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner. Congress would make it the US national anthem in 1931.
My favorite part of the documentary depicts the Battle of New Orleans in which Revolutionary War hero Andrew Jackson successfully led 4,000 irregulars – consisting of poor white farmers, slaves, creoles, and Native Americans – against 10,000 highly trained and experienced British troops.
The battle is celebrated in Johnny Horton’s 1959 ballad The Battle of New Orleans (the second video). The audio is blocked in the documentary for copyright reasons. Too bad Congress didn’t make Battle of New Orleans the national anthem. They should have.