DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, October 5, 2012

Washington and the War of 1812

The British burn the White House in 1814
If you learned about the War of 1812 in history class, you were probably told that the United States went to war with England because the British were illegally taking sailors from American ships. And while that is true, it is only part of the story. For the complete picture, you need to look at the Americans at the time who wanted to eliminate British influence, conquer Canada, expand the U.S. borders westward, and handle problems with the land's 1st citizens, the Indians.

At least that is the way National Parks ranger Lowell Fry, who has been leading free War of 1812-themed trips in D.C. this summer, sees it. Last week, we accompanied the energetic Fry on one of his last informative, engaging trips of the season to see what new details about the period we could discover.

The almost 3-hour walking tour covers 4 main elements: the war's causes, some of its major battles, the burning of Washington by the British, and the end of the war and its aftermath.

Some historians believe that the War of 1812, often termed the 2nd Revolution, was inevitable considering the aftermath of the initial Revolution that created the new country. "There wasn't a clean break; it was kind of jagged," Fry said. "It was sort of like the old westerns - this place isn't big enough for the both of us." For example, the British were supposed to give up western forts. They didn't. The Americans were supposed to pay renumeration to the British. They didn't. Americans on the western frontier (Kentucky, Indiana etc.) blamed the British for egging on Indians to attack  settlers. "They wanted to make the war a war to obliterate the Indian threat," Fry said.

However, the 1st official call for war in history by Congress was by a bitterly divided vote. The Federalists, mostly merchants from New England, were opposed, wanting trade with the British to continue and immigration to America severely limited. The other major party the Democratic Republicans supported any immigrants as long as they weren't blacks or Indians and thought a complete break with Britain was needed.

In the years leading up to the conflict, the Democrats were led by then President Thomas Jefferson, an enthusiastic Francophile and an equally avowed Anglophobe.  Jefferson also favored taking over British Canada to expand American territory. As for the Indians, Jefferson favored turning them into docile farmers, a position the tribes strongly opposed. Culturally, Indian women did any farming and the men were warriors, a system the Indians saw no reason to change. "Jefferson was really trying to make these people into something they were not," Fry said

Once the war was declared, the fate of 3 largest minorities in America was greatly affected. Indians fought on both sides. But when the war ended, those fighting for Americans suffered the same relocation fate as those who sided with the British. In the South, black slaves fled and joined the British. At the end of the war, they were abandoned and returned to slavery. Those fighting on the American side suffered a similar fate; their promised freedom never materialized. "Both the blacks and the Indians really got a raw deal," Fry said.

The 3rd group, the British-hating Irish, fared better. Many fought in the war and after the conflict, the group began its ascendency to political power, especially in New York and other large cities.

Early British victories in the north kept the Americans from capturing Canada. The lowest point of the war for Americans came in 1814 when British troops routed the Americans just outside Washington, marched unopposed into the city, and burned both the White House and the Capitol. But America rallied, successfully defending Fort McHenry and thereby giving the country a new national anthem. There were several  significant American victories in sea battles. Finally, England, still battling France, decided to negotiate with the Americans, talks which produced the war-ending Treaty of Ghent. As part of the tour, our group visited the Octagon House, which still contains the original table where President James Madison signed the treaty. Ironically, America's greatest victory in the war at the Battle of New Orleans came after the Ghent treaty was signed.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
This was second tour led by Fry we have taken. You can read about the 1st, the intriguingly named How World War I Birthed Monty Python, by clicking here. If you are in the DC area when Fry is giving a tour and have free time, I highly urge you to participate. You can get a complete list of Ranger-led DC tours by clicking here.

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