For the past three years the United States has been commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812. It was a war that American popular history tells us the United States won, but historians are less enthusiastic about that claim. Our national memory of the period is so cloudy and confused that this weekend we will repeatedly hear Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” a grand composition written by a Russian to celebrate his country’s victory over Napoleon, and think it was composed to celebrate our conflict with Great Britain and our “second independence.”
The American record in the War of 1812 was a poor one. Former President Thomas Jefferson’s claim that invading and taking Canada would be “a mere matter of marching” turned out not only to be horrific strategic advice, but also quite costly in blood and treasure. The northern theater of the war turned into a stalemate where neither side really made any progress. In the Chesapeake, British sailors and marines raided at will, burning towns and chastising those who might stand against them. The coasts of New England and the southern states remained under tight blockade and American trade collapsed. The economy plummeted. The only export that could be counted on was the grain that was being sold under letters of exception: sold to the British Army to feed Wellington’s troops in Spain. The bright spots of American naval victories by the frigates Constitution and United States early in the war faded quickly when the Royal Navy reinforced its efforts in 1813 and captured the frigates Chesapeake, Essex, and President. Finally, there was the fact that the British took Washington, D.C. and burned the Capitol and the White House. Generally, those aren’t the signs of a successful war.
The British, of course, didn’t do much better. The victory of Oliver Hazard Perry’s squadron on Lake Erie meant that for the first time in history an entire Royal Navy squadron surrendered. Then another was defeated on Lake Champlain. The invasion of New York was turned back at Plattsburgh, and then the final assault on New Orleans became a costly defeat. The attack on Baltimore was rebuffed by a stout defense, something we all know because “the flag was still there.” The British were busy elsewhere and they only allocated the bare minimum force to the conflict in North America. The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo last month reminded us of their real focus.
The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war of 1812, addressed none of the diplomatic issues that Americans said caused the war. It awarded no spoils to either side and made no territorial changes. The problems of impressment and confiscation of American trade with Europe went away, not because of the war in North America but because of Napoleon’s abdication then final defeat. The British simply didn’t need those policies anymore. Diplomatically it was as if the war had simply never happened, which was exactly what the British had been hoping for the whole time.
Despite all these historical facts, however, the War of 1812 was hugely important to the United States of America. Tomorrow marks the 200th anniversary of the first example of why this was the case. On July 3, 1815, the dey of Algiers signed a peace treaty with the United States as a U.S. Navy squadron under the command of Commodore Stephen Decatur stood ready to bombard the city and bring war back to the Barbary Coast. If the patterns of our other wars are any indicator, the end of the War of 1812 should have resulted in downsizing and cost savings by the government. Instead two squadrons of naval ships were fitted out to address the fact that Algiers had been attacking American merchant ships while the United States was busy fighting in and around its own territory. As the peace treaty with Great Britain was ratified, the squadrons under Decatur and William Bainbridge raced to be the first to rearm, re-man with veteran crews, resupply, and redeploy for the Mediterranean. Decatur made it there first, taking two Algerian warships captive and sailing to Algiers with his broadsides ready. The dey of Algiers capitulated as quickly as he could, sending a letter to sue for peace only days after the squadron’s arrival.
After the War of 1812, the United States didn’t retrench and cut its Navy back to the defensive gunboat force it had before the war. Instead, it returned to the world stage and even expanded its global presence. Squadrons were dispatched to the seven seas as American merchant ships returned to the trade routes and the global economy. Over the next decades, between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, trade and American interests expanded through previous relationships with Europe and South America but also across the Middle East and the Pacific. The 19th century is commonly viewed as an isolationist and continental period in American history. But new scholarship, like the work Claude Berube has shared here at War on the Rocks, is starting to show that broad generalization to be false.
There is a lot that can be learned from the history of the War of 1812. But as the bicentennial commemorations have come and gone we must remember that, like all wars, there is also much to be learned from its aftermath. As Andrew Lambert has discussed, the years following the war brought with them the birth of a uniquely American culture. And America’s political leaders realized that a capable Navy was just as vital in peacetime as it was during war. Two hundred years ago in the harbor of Algiers, the United States showed that, while it may not have won the War of 1812, it emerged from the war victorious.
BJ Armstrong is a naval officer and PhD Candidate with the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. His second book, 21stCentury Sims: Innovation, Education and Leadership for the Modern Era, was released in February by the Naval Institute Press. The opinions expressed here are his own and are presented in his personal capacity.