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October 03, 2022

Armchair Historian: By Dawn's Early Light

By Van Lee

By Dawn's Early Light...

The War of 1812 was a pivotal moment in our history. It brought us into the international scene, it solidified the United States as a nation and showed that we wouldn't just vanish into the night, it led to the organization of a professional army, and it was the nation's first real war. And from it was born our national anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner." The War of 1812 is arguably one of the most important events in the history of our nation, but sadly it also is one of the least remembered.

Europe remembers it little despite the fact that we were war with the British, but for them the War of 1812 was just another front on a larger conflict. Napoleon Bonaparte and his French forces were at war with much of Europe including the British. In fact, this is a major reason for the War of 1812 breaking out. In order to help combat French naval forces, the British navy would often stop ships and impress its sailors for service in the Royal Navy. Many of these sailors were Americans. Needless to say, this did not set well with America. The French also did this but it was largely ignored and pressure was placed more on Great Britain due to other grievances with the British such as the belief that they were supporting native uprisings in the American territories, especially the Ohio Valley. Evidence shows that there was really very little activity by the British in relation to the natives in that territory, but at the time, many believed that the British were actively supporting them. In fact, many claim that the famed Indian leader Tecumseh was an honorary general in the British Army. Whether that is fact or fiction is still a topic open to debate, but the larger conflict in Europe now known as the Napoleonic Wars is the reason why Europe pays very little attention to the War of 1812.

But the fact that Europe doesn't care to remember (or most Americans for that matter) does not change the importance of the war. First and foremost, it was the first real war since the American Revolution. It was the second time that we had gone to war with one of the greatest powers in the world. And it was the second time we didn't lose. The phrasing of that sentence is no accident by the way. While the U.S. didn't lose the War of 1812, they didn't win it either. By most honest accounts, it was a draw with both sides gaining nothing. But by not being defeated, it show that the United States was here to stay.

Another important outcome of the war was that the need to have a standing, professional army was recognized. Before the war, the U.S. military was practically non-existent. Our founding fathers were determined to not become embroiled in European affairs (something that we now see is a bit na?ve and nearly impossible) and as such felt that a standing army wasn't all that necessary. But due to shipping, at least they did recognize the need for a navy. Due to the lack of a proper army, most ground actions by the Americans ultimately led to failure. What few men we had were used in an invasion of Canada (at that time the nation of Canada did not exist and it was still a territory of Great Britain) and had mixed results at best. In retaliation for the actions in Canada, British forces entered the U.S. and actually marched into Washington D.C. and set the White House on fire.

The only operation by ground forces that really stand out for the Americans was the Battle of New Orleans when General Andrew Jackson led an inferior force against British troops and completely routed them. The American forces were outnumbered nearly three to one, but they suffered only 71 casualties compared to 2,036 British casualties. Of course, as brilliant a victory as this was, it didn't count towards anything as the war was already over. Due to slow communications of the day, General Jackson nor the British at New Orleans had received word that the war was over. But even though it didn't matter in the overall impact of the war itself, it did demonstrate what a good leader could do and the improvements made by the American forces.

Political division was also something that really bloomed during the war. The Federalist Party was staunchly opposed to the war. In fact, the party held a conference in Hartford, Connecticut and many were actually pressing for secession from the Union. The significance of this is that it shows that when the southern states seceded from the Union in 1861 it wasn't the first time that states had considered this as a viable option. Unfortunately it would take another much costlier war (The American Civil War) for the nation to finally realize that secession isn't a solution. The political divisions of the War of 1812 wasn't all that different from the divisions that we see today over the war in Iraq. And the significance of that is that it shows that when everything is said and done, the nation can remain united and continue to move forward and grow.

Ironically enough, one thing that didn't change because of the war was the most important issue to begin with, the issue of American sailors being forced into service with the British Royal Navy. In fact, in the Treaty of Ghent, the treaty that officially ended the war, impressment wasn't even mentioned. And why should it have been? Reality is the British, in a last-ditch effort to avoid war, had already stopped the procedure. But once again, with the slow communications of the day, word of this came too late to make a difference. So in the end, the number one issue that the Americans had to go to war didn't even exist anymore. But at the same time, the British never once impressed another American sailor.

Another consequence of the war was an increase of patriotism. For the first time, the nation was at war and the need for patriotic support was needed. Perhaps the most famous instance of patriotism in our nation's history happened during the War of 1812. Keys was a lawyer with poetical aspirations who was sent to negotiate the release of some prisoners being held by the British. The prisoners were being held on a prison ship off the coast of Baltimore. The prisoner release was successfully negotiated, but due to the attack on Baltimore, specifically Fort McHenry, the British made them wait on their ship under British naval supervision during the attack. The attack lasted throughout the night and Keys watched intently. Come morning when the attack was over and "Old Glory" was still flying, he was inspired to pen the lyrics to a song he entitled "Star Spangled Banner." Keys is quoted as saying, "Then, in that hour of deliverance, my heart spoke. Does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song?" Being that the Revolution itself wasn't that long before, many British still thought of the Americans as "scoundrels." In true "American scoundrel fashion," Keys penned his lyrics and sung it to the tune of a popular British song, "To Anacreon in Heaven." And that is another great aspect of America. The ability to take things from other cultures and absorb and adapt it into our own society and in some way make it uniquely American.

The causes of the War of 1812 are much more complex then I stated here. To this day historians bicker and conjecture over the causes and even the results. But in any case, this was a pivotal war in our history. It led to a new national and international identity. It led to a standing, professional army. It opened the doors for politics as we know it. And it created a new and enduring sense of patriotism. None of these things are unique to America, but they do define America and the War of 1812 is the main reason why.

Star Spangled Banner

Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines on the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner! O long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wiped out their foul footstep's pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

To Anacreon in Heaven

To Anacreon in Heaven, where he fat in full glee,
A few fons of Harmony fent a petition,
That He their Infpirer and Patron would be;
When this anfwer arrived from the Jolly Old Grecian
"Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
"no longer be mute,
"I'll lend you my Name and infpire you to boot,
"And, befides, I'll infruct you like me to entwine
"The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine.

The news through OLYMPUS immediately flew;
When OLD THUNDER pretended to give himfelf Airs
"If thefe mortals are fuffer'd their Scheme to perfue,
"The Devil a Goddefs will ftay above the Stairs.
"Hark, already they cry,
"In tranfports of Joy,
"Away to the Sons of ANACREON we'll fly,
"And there, with good Fellows, we'll learn to entwine
"The Myrtle of VENUS with BUCCUS'S Vine.

"The YELLOW-HAIRED GOD and his nine fufty Maids
"From Helicon's Banks will incontinent flee,
"IDALIA will boaft but of tenantlefs Shades,
"And the bi-forked Hill a mere Desart will be
"My Thunder, no fear on't,
"Shall foon do it's Errand,
" and, dam'me! I'll fwinge the Ringleaders, I warrant,
"I'll trim the young Dogs, for thus daring to twine
"The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCUS'S Vine.

APOLLO rose up; and faid, "Pr'ythee ne'er quarrel,
"Good King of the Gods, with my Vot'ries below:
"Your Thunder is ufelefs." - then, fhewing his Laurel,
Cry'd, "Sic evitabile fulmen, you know!
"then over each Head
"My Laurels I'll fpread;
"So my Sons from your Crackers no Mifchief fhall dread,
"Whilst fnug in their Club-Room, they jovially twine
"The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCUS'S Vine.

Next MOMUS got up, with his rifible Phiz,
And fwore with APOLLO he'd cheerfully join
"The full Tide of Harmony ftill shall be his,
"But the Song, and the Catch, & the Laugh fhall be mine
"Then, JOVE, be not jealous
Of thefe honeft Fellows.
Cry'd JOVE, "We relent, fince the Truth you now tell us;
"And fwear, by OLD STYX, that they long fhall entwine
"The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCUS'S Vine.

Ye fons of ANACREON, then, join Hand in Hand;
Preferve Unanimity, Friendfhip, and Love!
'Tis your's to fupport what's fo happily plann'd;
You've the Sanction of Gods, and the FIAT of Jove.
While thus we agree
Our Toaft let it be.
May our club flourish happy, united and free!
And long may the Sons of ANACREON intwine
The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCUS'S Vine.

Article © Van Lee. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-09-12
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