It began innocently enough. I volunteered on a museum’s boat-building project — a replica of a longboat of the type used by Commodore Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.
Before I knew what was happening, there I was in period military attire, rowing the boat around the Lake Erie islands. As we mark the 200th anniversary of the battle this month, it’s an appropriate time to reflect on that conflict.
It began inauspiciously. Congress, at President James Madison’s request, declared war on Britain, the superpower of the era, without making anything in the way of adequate military preparations.
Our Army had only 6,744 men under arms, and the navy possessed just seven frigates and some worn-out gun boats.
Madison, the war hawks, and even Thomas Jefferson thought they’d have a cake walk into Canada while England was occupied with Napoleon, but Bonaparte’s unexpected disaster in Russia freed up British resources, especially the Royal Navy, to fight in North America. It turned into a near disaster for the United States.
The war was fought with limited objectives and means. Neither the United States nor Britain was out to eradicate the other as a part of the international system. Civilians and non-military assets were often, but not always, spared destruction.
But as Karl Von Clausewitz warned, wars have a way of escalating “to the extremity.”
The Americans attacked York, present day Toronto, in April of 1813 and looted. The next year, the British seized the new U.S. capital city of Washington and burned government buildings including the White House. The British troops maintained discipline and destroyed little civilian property.
By mid-1814, America was in dire straits. Congress still refused to fund the war or to approve Madison’s request for conscripting troops. Soldiers went unpaid and began to desert in large numbers. The British navy’s blockade of American ports took in the entire coastline by May 1814, preventing nearly every ship in the U.S. Navy from putting out to sea. Coastal trade and related tax revenues plummeted, and the government defaulted on the national debt.
Pro-military myth-makers claim that the United States somehow won the war militarily in spite of being almost totally unable to continue the fight by late 1814 and failing at practically every land offensive. The more important reason why the British government agreed to a non-punitive peace settlement was that it was pressured by a vigorous anti-war movement at home.
Another war myth is that of U.S. national unity and resolve during the conflict. In fact, there was such dissension that Connecticut and Massachusetts seriously considered secession. Many New England merchants sold much-needed supplies to the British as the war raged. The Royal Navy occupied much of Maine’s coast and found many Americans prepared to pledge allegiance to George III. The desertion rate for both sides was over 10 percent, and the U.S. executed 205 men for that offense. As the war ground on, America was anything but unified.
One good thing did come of the conflict. The Rush-Bagot Treaty of 1818 set the stage for the de-militarization of the Great Lakes, along with the establishment of the world’s longest undefended border between the United States and Canada.
The war’s real losers were Native Americans. Abandoned by their British allies, they were dispossessed of most of their lands east of the Mississippi. The unstated aim of American leaders to push them off their lands was likely a key factor in the U.S. decision to declare war in the first place.
While I have the greatest respect for the bravery of the troops on both sides of the War of 1812, and the Battle of Lake Erie in particular, I have mixed emotions about the reenactment, as well as my own role in it. To the extent that we glorified war, or encouraged American national chauvinism, which is bad enough already, it wasn’t such a good idea.
War is an ugly business, and it should be remembered that way.