Ft. McHenry, War of 1812

The Forgotten War of 1812, Part I

Today and tomorrow, September 13-14, 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the defense of Fort McHenry and the City of Baltimore. As most of us are taught as children, it was the defense of the fort that inspired Francis Scott Key, a Washington, D.C. attorney seeking the release of an American prisoner and watching the bombardment from shipboard, to write the poem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” that years later became our national anthem. However, beyond our national anthem, many people are hard pressed to explain anything about the War of 1812.

In an article for Slate, “Happy 200th Birthday, War of 1812! A primer on America’s most bumbling, most confusing, and most forgotten conflict” James M. Lundberg, an assistant professor of history at Lake Forest College, says it so well:

Like Avogadro’s number or the rules of subjunctive verbs, the War of 1812 is one of those things that you learned about in school and promptly forgot without major consequence.

There are plenty of reasons for this. The War of 1812 has complicated origins, a confusing course, an inconclusive outcome, and demands at least a cursory understanding of Canadian geography. Moreover, it stands as the highlight of perhaps the single most ignored period of American History—one that the great historian Richard Hofstadter described as “dreary and unproductive … an age of slack and derivative culture, of fumbling and small-minded statecraft, terrible parochial wrangling, climaxed by a ludicrous and unnecessary war.”

When Congress declared war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812, the country was divided on whether or not to even fight it. The New England states that had been most affected by the offensive British practice of “impressment” seemed the least willing to pursue military action. In order to have the manpower, states put forth their own militias, whose records are a boon to genealogical researchers. Books like Virginia Militia in the War of 1812, Kentucky Soldiers of the War of 1812, Roster of Ohio Soldiers in the War of 1812, and Muster Rolls of the Soldiers of the War of 1812 (North Carolina) each contain thousands of names often with other pertinent details like rank, dates of service and where these men served.

When it came time for these militiamen to fight, the results were mixed. Some units were filled with unruly men loath to follow orders, while other units suffered from a lack of good leadership:

No one more fully embodied the pathetic state of early American military might than General William Hull, the bloated and incompetent governor of the Michigan territory charged with the initial matter of marching into Canada. Entering present-day Ontario from Detroit at the head of an ill-trained troop of 2,000 militiamen, Hull met with little initial resistance, but his triumph ended there. Upon hearing news that the British had taken Fort Mackinac at the northern tip of Michigan, Hull panicked and pulled his men back to the American fort at Detroit. When he received a bogus document warning of a vast force of Indians on the march, Hull lost it. Barely coherent, stuffing his mouth with so much tobacco that the juice ran down his face, and crouching to avoid imaginary artillery shelling, Hull yielded Detroit without any real fire from a smaller force of British Canadians and Indians. Incursions to the east didn’t go much better that fall. The war was just a few months old, and the entire Michigan territory had fallen into British hands.

Not all of the battles went as poorly as the infamous surrender of Detroit. The Battle on the River Raisin was fought in and around Frenchtown (now Monroe), Michigan from January 18 to 23, 1812, and was one of the four principal campaigns of the War of 1812 engaged in by the Kentucky forces. Following the massacre of American forces at Frenchtown – including as many as 60 Kentucky soldiers – patriots exhorted one another with shouts of “Remember the Raisin,” which gave the new nation the “vengeance-fired impetus” to wage the remaining battles of the War of 1812. The book Remember the Raisin! is a bipartite volume containing detailed biographical and genealogical sketches of nearly 100 officers and enlisted men who served on River Raisin, and complete rosters of the Kentucky soldiers who saw action there.

Please see Part II for additional discussion on the War of 1812.

Image credit: By Dr.frog at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons