Uncle Sam and the War of 1812

Uncle Sam and the War of 1812 Credit: Illustration by Randy Jones

You probably don't have this marked on your calendar, but Monday will mark 200 years since America first declared war on another nation. As we prepare to celebrate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, it's important to put this conflict in context. It's one of America's least-known wars, yet one whose legacies are with us every day.

At first blush, it might not seem a large enough conflict to have left much of a legacy. More Americans died in the collapse of the Twin Towers than were killed in battle during the nearly 21/2-year war. A total of 2,260 Americans were killed in battle, compared with 1,600 British. The number of dead among the Indian nations, most of whom were British allies, was not recorded -- at the time, their lives were not deemed important enough to count.

Five times as many Americans died of infectious disease as died of battle wounds, and twice as many British. But even with those losses to disease added in, 1812 is dwarfed by the Vietnam War, the two world wars and the deadliest conflict of them all, the Civil War. Even for its day, the War of 1812 wasn't nearly as bloody as the Napoleonic wars, when the forces of Britain and her allies contended with Napoleon's France for domination over Europe. Five times more men died in one day at the Battle of Borodino, fought outside Moscow and commemorated in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, than died in the War of 1812.

Then consider that, after two and a half years of warfare, nothing was gained. No territory changed hands and the war's major cause, ending impressment of American sailors on the high seas, had not been achieved.

By 1812, Britain's navy required nearly 12,000 new sailors a year, and impressment was Britain's solution. A British warship on the high seas would stop a merchant vessel and search it for "deserters." A number of such deserters -- usually equal to the number of sailors the warship happened to need -- would inevitably be found and pressed into British service. By the time the war began, the American State Department had on record 6,257 cases of American seamen impressed by the British -- almost as many men as the American army had at the time.

When the Treaty of Ghent was finally signed on Christmas Eve 1814, nothing had changed. With a little effective diplomacy, the war might have been avoided altogether.

 

So what makes the bicentennial of such a low-key affair worth commemorating? For starters, it was the first time Congress exercised its power to declare war. It also gave our nation one signature victory, whose praises are sung, quite literally, every day.

Francis Scott Key's poem, "The Defense of Fort McHenry," was written as he watched the British beaten back from their attack on Baltimore. The poem's meter fit a popular tune, and together, they became "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The war produced two generals who became president, Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison, as well as a young captain named Zachary Taylor. Until Jackson, every president (except the first two, who never had a chance) had served as secretary of state. Jackson, having made his reputation in the war, changed that. Harrison rode into office on a slogan commemorating his most famous battle, "Tippecanoe and Tyler too!" Richard Johnson earned his place as Martin Van Buren's vice president largely on the claim that he had personally killed the war chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames.

As far as relations with other countries, the United States proved it could stand up to the older and larger nations of Europe. Just eight years later, President James Monroe was able to issue the Monroe Doctrine, a warning to Europe to stay out of this hemisphere's affairs. The War of 1812 made that a credible threat.

When the war began, the British navy was the most powerful military force on Earth. Though the American sailors were vastly outnumbered, by war's end they had proven themselves better in ship-to-ship battles. And at the Battle of Lake Erie -- with Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's flagship flying a battle pennant proclaiming "Don't Give Up the Ship" -- a small American fleet forced a British fleet of equal strength to surrender. No British fleet had ever surrendered to the enemy before. That proved to our young nation once and for all that a standing navy was essential to the country's defense.

 

But perhaps the most important legacy began on the banks of the Charles River, running through Waltham, Mass. In the final year of the war, Francis Cabot Lowell of Boston built a water-powered cotton mill, which brought to these shores the industrial revolution that Britain had tried to maintain as a national monopoly. Britain's wartime blockade of American shipping had forced entrepreneurs to manufacture the things they could no longer import. This made America independent of Britain in a way that neither the Revolution nor the War of 1812 itself had.

One less tangible legacy -- yet one recognized worldwide -- still resounds from the war today. Sam Wilson and his brother were meatpackers from Troy who supplied the army. They stamped the barrels of meat they shipped "U.S." Some of the workers at the new army arsenal across the Hudson River joked that the "U.S." meant the meat was Uncle Sam's.

The nickname stuck. Cartoonist Thomas Nast popularized the image in the 1870s, and illustrator James Montgomery Flagg immortalized it in his iconic "I Want You" lithograph in 1917.

That's what makes 1812 Uncle Sam's first war. It may have been a small one, but its effects shaped us into the powerful country we remain today.