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The War of 1812: two questions

Seeing as this year marks the bicentenary of the War of 1812 and seeing as I know precious little about it, I thought I’d ask the commentariat the following:

1. Who were the good guys and who were the bad guys?
2. Who won?

50 comments to The War of 1812: two questions

  • David Crawford

    1. Who were the good guys and who were the bad guys?

    The good guys were the Americans. Duh. My proof? Well, we got a cool song out of it. That out to be proof enough.

    2. Who won?

    Need you ask? Proof from Hollywood.

  • Ed Snack

    Best i can come up with is:

    1. Depends on your point of view; and
    2. Depends on your point of view.

    Tactically, the British did not do well, but strategically they did achieve their ends, which broadly put, was to maintain the blockade on Europe as a means to defeat Napoleon.

    Apart from losing some of their best trained troops at New Orleans (being lead by your standard 19th century duffer rather than the Duke of Wellington at the time), which did deprive them of a better quality army in the Waterloo campaign (not that it mattered in the end) the British losses were more in a certain amount of prestige.

  • Alsadius

    Britain was fighting Napoleon, and used a blockade as part of it. The Americans got pissed off, and went to war over it(though amusingly, the Americans most opposed to it were the actual shippers, because they knew the US didn’t have a hope in hell of beating the RN, and it’d ruin all their foreign markets). Hilarity ensued, and after a couple years of stalemate and Napoleon’s exile, they just decided to call it a draw. And naturally, one of the bloodiest battles of the war happened three weeks later.

    Basically, the Americans got their anthem, the Canadians got a chocolates store, and nobody else cared.

  • Dawnsblood

    1) It depends on how you look at it and where you learned history.

    2) I’d class both sides as victors. While Ghent mostly restored the status quo, later negotiations facilitated by the treaty solved most outstanding issues rather nicely. That alone makes it a rare conflict that actually ended up a net positive for both sides.

  • Regional

    The Yankees were lucky the British generals were among their best generals. Andrew Jackson had his men stand in a gully and fire at the advancing British, losing about 37 men to the British losses of over 2,000 and if they had taken on the British in hand to hand fighting they would have lost as the British were experts with their bayonets. The British generals rode around on white horses directing their troops. Even the attack on Washington was a fiasco due to inept British generalship.

  • Well, I recollect that war is diplomacy by other means, and note Dawnsblood’ comment “a net positive for both sides”.

    So it seems possible that really the various and multiple war/defence ministries of both the UK and the USA won, and the losers were the Foreign Office and State Department. Or whatever they were all called at the time, in their early forms.

    Best regards

  • Flat Eric

    1. We were; they were.
    2. We did.

  • Kevin B

    Bit of a tricky one this. Normally in any war involving the English, we are the bad guys and they are the good guys. The problem with this war is that the Americans are the other side and that complicates matters.

    The question facing historians is at what point did America transition into the most evil bad guy on the planet?

    A hint to the resolution of this dilemma can be found by reversing question two and asking “Who lost?”

    The answer of course is the Native Americans, the African slaves and the plucky Celts who do all the fighting for the evil English.

    So the answers to your questions are:

    1) Both were the bad guys and
    2) The white man.

  • 1, dunno.

    2, Song writers, sloganeers and white paint manufacturers.

  • Antoine Clarke

    Talleyrand said: “It’s a shame they couldn’t both lose.” 😉

  • Richard Quigley

    1. Canadians/Yanks
    2.Canadians eh!

  • Dale Amon

    There were a number of issues. American seamen were being impressed at sea by RN ships in need of crew; there was the lucrative triangle trade that Americans was being blocked for British mercantilist reasons.

    Americans won what they wanted and made some major innovations in the process. The USS Constitution was probably the best warship in its class at that time and could easily take on a similar sized British warship because they outgunned them. It is, btw, still on the US roster as a live USN warship. It is used for training teamwork and occassionally goes out into Boston Harbor with a small crew of USN officers.

    As for New Orleans, Jackson’s actions are even more impressive that stated. He arrived in New Orleans to defend against the British invasion force and created a good chunk of his army out of the civilian population there; then he did what we would to today call ‘shaping the battlespace’. He set things up so the British army was at a terrible disadvantage.

    Fort McHenry not only gave us an anthem, it also withstood the bombardment of the British fleet including that modern innovation, the Congreve rocket. With the fort in operation, landing an invasion force was not possible.

    As to the burning of Washington, DC… please guys, do it again! Just leave the museums and libraries alone! But be really thorough on the various regulatory agencies. To the ground and mix the ashes and chipped stone with the mud.

  • steve

    Both sides were doing things that could be considered acts of war, but I would give the edge to the Americans as the good guys. Basically, the Americans were selling war materials to Napolean during a European wide war often running the British blockade themselves to do so. Meanwhile the British were impressing American sailors into service with the Royal Navy. They were stopping American ships on the high seas claiming some of the sailors were British citizens (sometimes they were) and forcing them into service at gunpoint. I give the edge to the Americans because the blockade runners were private citizens. It was not the policy of the American government to help Napolean in his war against Europe.

    As for who won, militarily it was the British but the Americans won the peace. The British pretty much went where they wanted to go and did what they wanted to do. All of this while simultaneously fighting Napolean. The Americans where a sideshow in a wider war to the British. As mentioned by other posters, they only lost one major battle three weeks after the war ended. However, the Americans won the peace. They recieved all British lands south of Canada and east of the Missippi. Combined with the Louisiana purchase, the Napoleonic wars greatly expanded the territory of the United States.

    Of course as mentioned by another poster, the big losers were the Indians that had sided with the British during the war. The British basically gave up the land they were living on and just abandoned their so called allies to the Americans genocidal Indian campaigns begun immediately after the war.

  • Alligator Horse

    New England threatened to secede over this war, and the East Coast has continued to write our history books, saying that the war was an unimportant dispute over the British impressment of Yankee seamen.

    But inland, where much of the war was fought (as on Lake Erie) we remember better. Britain had not fully given up the territory ceded to the United States. For the men of Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky (a real motor in the war), the war involved suppressing hostile British-backed Indians and pursuing them into their neighboring sanctuary.

    The battles of Putt-in-Bay, the Thames, and Tippecanoe were American victories, and the fact that Tippecanoe was fought six months before war was declared shows one of the reasons for the war.

  • Calais, Maine was only town occupied by the British in the war of 1812. So in Maine, at least, the British were the bad guys. The irony was that parts of the maritimes provinces who were under British control were smuggling supplies to the Mainers. Mainers are not fond of people from Mass after this evening. You see Maine was part of Massachusetts then and asked for assistance against the British. None was forthcoming, so Maine made sure to become their own state as soon as they could.

  • RRS

    1. Rather than “good” guys there were just a bunch of ordinary people caught up in a series of political swells. James Madison did not come off too well, but not really bad; but the poorest of the lot, in position to “do” anything were the politicians, particularly in the English Parliament at that time – many of them might be qualified as “bad” both for motives and actions.

    The British Naval Commanders’ tactics on the peninsula of Virginia were reprehensible, not matched by anything the yanks did – bad guy! Worse than the retaliatory burning of D.C.

    2. What was “won” was a great technological advance by the U S in naval architecture, which ended the absolute unbridled control of the seas by England, which though numerically superior in ships lagged in adaptations. That said despite bottling up a large part of the U S Frigates in the New England ports. So, the USN became the major beneficiary.

    Britain won by restoring its unique and critical access to resources of the western hemisphere, that made possible its industrial and commercial expansion over the next 50 years.

    Many other U S technology advances came on shortly after, in part as a result.

    A great and easy read is: Six Frigates by Ian W. Toll

  • M. Thompson

    1. Neither side really. The US was pushed into war on issues of pride and boundaries, and gave about as well as could be expected against a Great Power.

    2. Both sides more or less won, as explained above. The Treaty of Ghent that ended the war gave everyone pretty much what they wanted, the end of impressment and settlement of much of the US-Canada boundary, and set the future for things like the Treaty of 1818 that set the boundary from the Lake of the Woods to the Rockies at 49N.

  • Midwesterner

    Dale beat me to it. My first thought was that it was the last time a campaign launched from anywhere beyond K Street was able to get anywhere in Washington DC. That alone gives it some plus points. That and the line from that song about, “the bombs bursting in error“. Reading the Wikipedia entry on Congreve rockets (“…although at any range they were fairly inaccurate and had a tendency for premature explosion.”), it sounds like they did that quite often. Was Key being punny?

  • Dale Amon covered what they teach in US government schools (and yes, it really is covered that briefly, or at least it was in the 1980s). Looking at just that part, the US were the good guys and they won.

    However, it’s a bit more complicated then that. There were quite a few Americans in the northern states who successfully used the war as an excuse to try and conquer Canada, and that attempt turned out rather badly for them.

    So, there were good guy Americans and bad guy Americans. The good guys won and the bad guys lost. And that’s not even considering the British. 🙂

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Well, I recollect that war is diplomacy by other means….

    Posted by Nigel Sedgwick at March 11, 2012 10:32 AM

    A common misquote (along with “War is politics by other means”), and one that yields a fatal misunderstanding. What Clauswitz actually wrote is that “War is policy by other means.” The West’s tendency to confuse diplomacy with war makes us willing to turn off (or at least, turn down) war in order to turn on (or turn up) negotiations, which actually reduces the pressure on our enemies to negotiate. IIRC, the North Vietnamese got some useful breathing spells out of this.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Incidentally, as time goes by and consequences elaborate, it gets harder and harder to say if some past event was ‘good’ or not. If the American Revolution had failed, or never taken place, might not a unified Anglosphere have dominated, enlightened, and pacified the World these last two centuries? Would a North America under British control have become less free, or would the British dog have been wagged by the American tail? Canada manages to be a pretty free place, after all.

  • Matt Cooper

    The bad guys? Look into “Hamilton the Hair Buyer”. Of course the limeys were the bad guys.

    Winner? It was a draw, but in the long run it worked out well all around the for the US and Canada, The UK quit stirring up trouble in the Midwest, the US gave up invading Canada and the US-Canadian border was always peaceful after that. Clearly the British-allied Indians were the losers, but they were toast anyway.

    If there are any residual hard feelings, as a loyal Yank, I hereby invite her majesty’s troops to sack Washington DC again. Afterwards maybe we can all meet in Vancouver for a couple pints.

  • Regional

    The Englanders liked to capture American ships as they were better than theirs also a lot cheaper than building their own.

  • Alan Peakall

    My understanding is that since the Americans opted for war on solely on the issue of impressment (all other issues having been resolved) and the final treaty contained no specific mention of impressment, it has to be considered a British vistory on a technicality.

    Obviously, whoever won, the losers were the Native Americans.

  • James Hargrave

    Just read the short account of the war written many years ago but reprinted by my late friend Harry L Coles, an American academic historian free of much of the usual political baggage of his profession.

  • Miv Tucker

    I don’t have an answer, but I can recommend Kate Caffrey’s excellent 1978 study “The Lion and the Union: The Anglo-American War 1812-1815”.

  • reg

    good guys- Canada(us)/new england( refused to turn on good neighbours)
    bad guys- US- so go after the british if you are pissed.

    loser- natives
    winner- Canada- loyalists and Quebecois fought against US , made the idea of Canada inevitable.

  • reg

    By the way , burning Washington was payback and Ottawa is our capitol because it is out of easy reach , unlike York(Toronto).

  • Kristopher


    Payback? We should have given those troops medals for burning that fucker down.

  • steve

    LOL Matt Cooper.

    This made me spit up my coke.

    “I hereby invite her majesty’s troops to sack Washington DC again.”

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    If the thirteen colonies had no broken away, then there might be an Indian Nation in the middle of the current US. And the French finances would have stayed within bounds, so no French King recalling Parlaiment, and not controlling it, causing that revolution.
    And, even worse, the greatest country in the world, Australia, would have been left for inferior nations to grab and colonize! Quelle Horreur!!! Or, Das Horror!!!

  • Mel Gibson makes a movie about the War of 1812.


  • Thanks to PersonFromPorlock at March 11, 2012 07:07 PM for substantiating my recollection with the attribution to Clauswitz:

    Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln. [“War is a mere continuation of politics/policy by other means.”]

    The German to English translation of “Politik” is definitely ambiguous, though I agree that, here, “policy” is probably to be preferred. This is through doubting that Clauswitz meant anything near ‘politicking’, but rather the usual process of foreign relations through negotiation (without actual use of force of arms).

    Best regards

  • Matt Cooper writes at March 11, 2012 07:22 PM:

    The bad guys? Look into “Hamilton the Hair Buyer”. Of course the limeys were the bad guys.

    This would be Henry Hamilton, a British regional governor before and during the American War of Independence. He had a bad reputation for having some American Indians as allies, and they scalped people.

    However, he died in 1796. As far as I can see, he never returned to the USA after 1781; this was when he was paroled for prisoner exchange (captured in 1778), and it was a close run thing against him continuing to be treated as a war criminal rather than a (high-ranking) prisoner of war. He was however, from 1782 to 1785, Lieutenant-Governor/Deputy-Governor of Quebec.

    Was he really a contributor to the USA’s desire for war (let alone their decision to declare it), 34 years after his alleged war crimes and 16 years after his death?

    And Matt writes:

    Clearly the British-allied Indians were the losers, but they were toast anyway.

    Indeed, nearly all the Indians were toast anyway. But was that not for being there, rather than for who they chose as allies?

    Best regards

  • Jack Olson

    I subscribe to the idea that historians should not make moral judgements, merely report the facts and let the readers judge the actors’ morality. As for who won, it was clearly the United States. Great Britain had failed to defeat the Americans even without the French intervention which was so vital in the Revolution. This meant that other empires, including the Spanish which still owned Mexico and the Russians who claimed Alaska and even parts of the west coast of America, would eventually lose these territories to the expanding Republic. They might as well sell them, as Napoleon had, before they lost them to conquest. If the empires of the world were to expand, after 1814 they would have to do so on other continents.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    The German to English translation of “Politik” is definitely ambiguous, though I agree that, here, “policy” is probably to be preferred.

    Posted by Nigel Sedgwick at March 12, 2012 10:07 AM

    Actually, I think ‘winning’ would be a more honest translation of Clauswitz’s meaning than ‘politics’, ‘policy’ OR ‘diplomacy’. I wonder what the German jawbreaker for ‘coming out on top’ would be?

  • mdc

    1. No one.

    Explanation: America was fighting for Napoleon. Britain was fighting for military slavery. There is no good side! Of the two, Britain is preferable if only because Napoleon would institute even more wide-spread military slavery.

    2. No one.

    Explanation: US abandoned her war aims and Britain burnt down their capital. This is traditionally regarded as a loss. However, the US managed to defeat Britain’s native american allies and open the way for indefinitely expansion to the West.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Olson, I think you are wrong. If Napoleon had beaten the Russians, by capturing the Tsar and his family, and then beaten or invaded Britain, his megalomania would have ensured that he’s want to invade the U.S., to get ‘French’ Territory back, as well as wanting French Canada. Indeed, he’d have been on the road to a real World Empire!

  • Laird

    I also think Olson’s first sentence is wrong. Historians always make moral judgments; they just aren’t always open about it. And reducing history to a mere recitation of “the facts” (if that were even possible; the mere selection of which facts to report necessitates the application of value judgments) would render it a sterile affair indeed. Facts are largely useless and meaningless without an understanding of context and the actors’ motivations. Math is facts; history is human emotions.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    What were the aims of the countries involved? The country which achieved all, or most, of its’ aims can be judged to have won, surely? These are facts we can judge.

  • Russ

    1. Nobody
    2. The Americans lost (i.e., That Devil Jackson survived and was able to spin some complete propaganda about how his militia, and not africans and pirates, beat the Brits into an unstoppable Presidential bid, thereby allowing him to screw over the Tsalagi/Cherokee, censor the US mail, encourage mob violence against antislavery activists, and screw over the nation’s finances more or less b/c he had a personal beef with a banker.

    I mean, come on, couldn’t you Brits have employed a sniper or something?

  • Laird

    I’m not a big fan of Andrew Jackson, but he certainly was right about the Second Bank of the United States (which was thoroughly corrupt). Would that his successors had possessed the same wisdom in 1913 and declined to charter the Federal Reserve banks.

  • Paul Marks

    I have not got time to read all the comments – so apologies if someone has already written what I am about to type.

    War was declared by the United States in 1812 over the impressment of U.S. sailors into the Royal Navy.

    The British government had already agreed to stop this practice – but news of the British position did not reach Congress in time.

    The main battle of the war (the Battle of New Orleans) occurred after the war was over – but the commanders on both sides of the battle were unaware of this.

    Of course there were other factors (such as the American invasion of Canada – dear to the heart of Henry Clay and so on) and the burning of the Whitehouse during the war and……

    However, the basic reply to the questions is….

    No one was the good guy or the bad guy – as the reason for the war was over before the war started.

    And “who won” – see above (the war left things as they were before).

    The whole thing was, therefore, an absurdity.

  • Well it all depends doesnt it? Everyone has rushed headlong into an anglocentric view of the world when I – semi Gallic with a Russian wife – sincerely thought you were going on about the Patriotic War of 1812. In which case the answer is easy. Napoleon wanted to stop the Russians from defying him and his continental blockade so tried to conquer the whole of Russia. This makes the inherently evil guys the French, the really good guys the Russians and the Russians licked them fair and square with a little help from General Winter.

  • Alisa

    That was my initial reaction too, Neil – but that would have been way too obvious to raise the original question.

  • Paul Marks

    Good point Neil and Alisa.

    Compared to the attack upon Russia in 1812 the “War of 1812” was a dinner party.

    Boney marched into Russia with 600,000 troops – at the end he had (after the dead, captured and run away are taken off) only 30,000 troops under his control.

    The Grand Army was perhaps the biggest army in history up to that time.

    And if we define “casuality” as “the commanding General losing control of” (not just “dead”) it had an effective casuality rate of some 95%. Or over half a million men.

    Rather more important than the house of the President of the United States having to be painted white (to hide the burn marks), or General Pakenham behaving stupidly at the battle of New Orleans and getting himself (and about two thousand British soldiers) killed.

  • Laird

    “Rather more important” depends upon where you’re sitting.

  • Paul Marks

    True Laird.

    But I doubt that Napoleon would have left the United States alone.

    He gave his word with a light heart (for he had no honour) – and that deal with Jefferson (“have all French claimed land in return for X amount of Dollars”) would have been broken as soon as Napoleon felt strong enough.

    Nelson’s naval victories would not have held Napoleon in check for ever.

    Napoleon destroyed himself….

    By his treachery in Spain (trying to put a relative of his on the Spanish throne – thus sparking off a desperate war against the people of what had been an ally, a war that drew in 300, 000 French troops).

    And by the attack on Russia.

  • Alisa

    Laird, as far as I can tell, Patrick is sitting in the UK, so…:-)

  • Paul Marks

    I think it is a matter of language.

    In history books the NAME “The War of 1812” applies to the war between the United States and the United Kingdom.

    Largely because of confusion over what else to call it.

    Was it “the war over the impressment of American sailors in the Royal Navy” – that would be too silly (as their was an agreement to end this practice before the war started.

    Was it “the American invasion of Canada” – that collapsed into farce.

    For example, the American commander in Detroit surrendered before he had “invaded” anywhere.

    He believed himself to be surrounded by blood crazy savages.

    The British commander actually had rather few indians (blood crazy or otherwise), but was rather dishonest in his conversations with the American commander (who had his family at the fort).

    “There are thousands of them, I can not control them – if you do not surrender I do not know what they will do……..”

    And on and on.

    Boney’s invasion of Russia was not like this.

    This is not to say the war of 1812 was fluffy – for example that very British commander (Issac Butt – a Guernsey man if my memory holds) who conned the American commander at Detoit was later killed in a real fight.

    However, the whole thing was a different universe from what was happening in Russia.