The War of 1812 Magazine
Issue 4: September 2006
Leading Myths of the War of 1812
By Don Hickey, Wayne State College
Like so many wars, the War of 1812 has long been encrusted in myth. There are a great many notions about the war that are widely believed and often repeated but are untrue. These myths, or perhaps more properly, misconceptions, have colored our view of the war for many years, in some cases since the beginning of the war itself.
Where do these myths come from? Many originated with the participants themselves, who misunderstood, misstated, or misremembered what had actually happened. Writers who followed in their wake relied on these sources and sometimes added their own embellishments. Mythmaking flourished in the nineteenth century because legend and lore were widely accepted as a substitute for verifiable history. On the American side, patriotism and chauvinism coupled with the desire to establish a national identity shaped the mythmaking process. On the Canadian side, an interest in fostering imperial connections and a desire to establish a Canadian identity drove the process. By demonstrating that they had faithfully supported Great Britain during the War of 1812, Canadians could show their imperial loyalty and at the same time establish an identity for themselves. Even in Great Britain, where the war was quickly forgotten, there was a widespread willingness to embrace myths to preserve the reputation of the Royal Navy. In all three nations, history was made to serve broader national purposes.
Although the number of people directly responsible for inventing or propagating myths about the War of 1812 runs into the thousands, three nineteenth-century writers played a special role: William James, Benson J. Lossing, and Henry Adams. All three were superb historians in their day, and all three did much to foster an understanding of the war. But they also did more than anyone else to promote, popularize, and legitimatize many myths associated with the conflict.
What follows is a brief discussion of ten leading myths associated with the War of 1812.
The War of 1812 was a second American war of independence.
This hearty perennial was first articulated by Republicans at the beginning of the conflict and has been repeated by countless historians ever since. It is not true. None of the British policies that precipitated the war actually threatened American independence, nor was American independence ever at stake in the war itself. British policies that led to the war were a direct outgrowth of the Napoleonic Wars and would cease when that war ended. At no time after 1783 did the British have any real designs on American independence or was American independence in any real jeopardy.
Although the War of 1812 was not an American war of independence, it was a war of independence for people living in Canada and for Indians living on both sides of the border. Natives in the Northwest and the Southwest lost the war and as a result lost control over their destiny, and it the United States had conquered Canada, the people living there would have lost their identity and any chance for independence as well. In North America, the United States was the only belligerent that could lose the war and still retain its independence. Since Great Britain’s independence was at stake in the Napoleonic Wars, one might argue that the United States was the only belligerent on either side of the Atlantic in the War of 1812 that had nothing to fear for its independence.
Unlike Federalists during the Quasi-War, Republicans tolerated opposition to the War of 1812.
This notion is implicit in virtually every American history textbook. Even the briefest mention the Sedition Act, which Federalists adopted in 1798 to curtail opposition to their administration and to the Quasi-War, while even the most comprehensive ignore a similar threat posed by the Republicans in 1812. Both parties tolerated opposition to their war policy only reluctantly, and both parties sought to suppress opposition, at least initially. The main difference was in the means used.
While the Federalists used a sedition act, the Republicans resorted to violence and the threat of violence. Republican mobs in 1812 drove Federalist newspapers out of business in Savannah, Georgia, and Norristown, Pennsylvania, and in a particularly vicious and deadly series of riots sought to silence the Federal Republican in Baltimore. In addition, the editors of Federalist newspapers elsewhere in the middle and southern states reported that they were warned to tone down their opposition or risk a similar fate. The violence and threats of violence were widespread enough to constitute a pattern.
It is not simply that both parties acted alike, but the Federalists actually held the higher moral ground. After all, it is surely more commendable to fine and imprison opponents of a war than to subject them to the rage of a murderous mob.
The Militia saved Canada and the United States.
The militia myth has been powerful and durable on both sides of the border. Americans and Canadians alike traditionally have wanted to believe that they could rely on their militia in time of crisis because citizen soldiers are cheap and politically reliable, posing no threat to established institutions or to the government.
In fact, the real work in the War of 1812 on the Canadian side of the border was done by British regulars with an important assist from their native allies. The main contribution of militia was in a supporting role. On the American side, militia played a more significant role, but with a few notable exceptions–at the Thames, Baltimore, and New Orleans–this role was not critical on the battlefield. On both sides, militiamen performed best when fighting defensively and in conjunction with regulars. Terrified at the prospect of blood, they showed little discipline and were quick to desert. They were also reluctant to undertake offensive operations and often were unwilling to serve beyond their own borders.
American heavy frigates were ships-of-the-line in disguise manned by picked crews that relied heavily on British subjects.
After generations of success against the French and Spanish on the high seas in the Second Hundred Years Wars (1689-1815), the British found it hard to swallow their naval defeats at the hands of the United States in the War of 1812. To explain away these defeats, they developed a series of erroneous notions that have been repeated by British naval historians ever since.
America’s large frigates represented a new design of heavily armored and heavily armed vessels that were rated at 44 guns but usually carried more than 50. They were not ships-of-the-line in disguise but were comparable to fourth rate British ships, which carried 50-60 guns and were always rated below the line between conventional frigates and line-of-battle ships. In fact, they were so outclassed in battle by true ships-of-the-line, which typically carried 74 guns, that fourth rate ships had all but disappeared from the Royal Navy by 1812.
Far from being manned by picked crews, American warships had to compete for tars on the open market with privateers and even with the U.S. Army, which offered such princely bounties by the end of the war that some seamen forsook their traditional line of work to enlist. Moreover, even though perhaps 35 percent of the crews on American warships before the War of 1812 were British, this changed with the declaration of war. British tars in 1812 left the U.S. Navy in droves, either because they did not wish to fight their countrymen or because they feared being captured and hanged as traitors. It is unlikely that British subjects made up more than 10 percent of the crew on any American warship during the War of 1812, and typically they made up far less.
American warships were well manned, not because they relied picked crews or British tars, but because the nation had a rich maritime tradition with an experienced labor force and because the fleet was small and American naval officers trained their men well.
Kentuckians and their rifles played a central role in the War of 1812.
When the British came under heavy small arms fire, they often attributed it to Kentucky riflemen or at least to Kentucky rifles. Americans were happy to buy into this myth, and the role of Kentucky riflemen was celebrated in song, poetry, and prose after the war.
In fact, Kentuckians constituted only a small portion of the American troops engaged in the War of 1812, and except for a few battles in the West, rifles usually played second fiddle to muskets. Even in the most celebrated American victories in the West–at the Thames and New Orleans–the role of rifles was overrated. The musket, after all, was the standard weapon of issue in the U.S. Army, and national and state armories were stocked mainly with muskets. There was, it is true, a rifle corps in the U.S. Army, but it never constituted more than 10 percent of the army’s total force, and it did not play a crucial role in any major battle.
Tecumseh was the most important Indian leader in the War of 1812.
Tecumseh was considered the leading native leader during the War of 1812, and since then his reputation has only grown. Although the Shawnee leader was undeniably the preeminent Indian war chief in the Northwest, his star did not burn brightly for very long. He did not eclipse his brother the Prophet as the most influential leader in the Northwest until after the Indian defeat at Tippecanoe in November, 1811, and in less than two years he was dead on the Thames battlefield. Moreover, the native alliance that he forged was always tenuous and was built on the religious movement that his brother had founded.
Even before the Thames disaster, Indians were defecting from Tecumseh’s cause because of the lack of Anglo-Indian military success in 1813. Moreover, his influence was limited to the Northwest, which was the least important theater of operations in the War of 1812 because it was so far removed from the centers of power, population, and commerce further east. Finally, although Tecumseh helped the British win control of the Northwest in 1812, he also played a role in their defeat at the Thames the following year when he insisted that they make an ill-advised stand instead of withdrawing to Burlington Heights.
If the role of Tecumseh has been overrated, that of John Norton, a Scottish Cherokee mixed-blood who became a Mohawk chief, has been underrated. Norton played a crucial role throughout the war in keeping the Grand River Iroquois in Upper Canada loyal to Great Britain. He also took part in almost every military operation on the Niagara frontier, playing a particularly conspicuous role in the British victory at Queenston Heights in 1812. Without Norton and the Grand River Indians, the British might not have been able to retain their hold on the Niagara country, and this would have been a far greater blow to the British than any defeat in the remote West. It also would have enhanced American bargaining power in the peace negotiations.
The Battle of New Orleans was fought after the War of 1812 was over.
The Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8, 1815, two weeks after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. However, contrary to popular belief, the treaty did not end the war. In Europe the normal practice was to end hostilities whenever a peace treaty was signed. But the British refused to agree to a similar stipulation in the Treaty of Ghent because on three different occasions–in 1794, 1803, and 1806–the United States had sought to renegotiate a treaty that its agents had signed in Europe. The British feared that this might happen again. If it did, they might find themselves in the awkward position of having agreed to end hostilities in a treaty that the United States refused to ratify without changes. If this occurred, the British would have little choice but to agree to those changes or to restart the war.
Thus, Article I of the Treaty of Ghent stipulated: "All hostilities both by sea and land shall cease as soon as this Treaty shall have been ratified by both parties." The British ratified the treaty almost immediately, on December 27, 1814, but it was not until February 16, 1815, that the U.S. Senate consented to the treaty and that the president ratified it. American ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, which took place five weeks after the Battle of New Orleans, marked the official end to the war, although fighting continued for some months in the more remote theaters.
Federalist opposition prolonged the War of 1812.
Whenever there is opposition to a war, the opponents are often charged with prolonging the contest by demoralizing soldiers and civilians and by encouraging the enemy. Although this may sometimes be true, it is more likely the Federalist opposition to the War of 1812 had the opposite effect.
The British tried to exploit Federalist opposition, first by leaving Federalist New England unblockaded and trading with the region, and then by threatening to offer the region a separate peace if the United States refused to ratify the Treaty of Ghent. Still, there is no evidence this opposition encouraged the British to prolong the war. On the contrary, American opposition probably helped induce the administration in 1814 to give up its impressment demands and to seek peace on the basis of the status quo ante bellum. Whig opposition in Great Britain probably had a moderating effect on British policy as well.
The United States won the War of 1812.
Two days after ratifying the peace treaty, President James Madison announced to Congress that the war was “a campaign signalized by the most brilliant successes.” With the entire nation buzzing over the great victory at New Orleans, he was echoed by Republican orators and editors all across the country, and some American historians have repeated these claims. Even those scholars who have questioned whether the United States actually won the war generally have argued that Americans had every right to hold their heads high because at least they had fought the British to a draw.
It is true that militarily the War of 1812 ended in a draw, but one cannot look at battles and campaigns to assess the outcome of a war. One must look instead at the war aims of the belligerents, and this casts a very different light on the outcome of the War of 1812.
The United States went to war in 1812 to force the British to give up certain maritime practices, particularly the Orders-in-Council and impressment. The American war plan called for seizing Canada and holding it for ransom on the maritime issues. If the British refused to make any concessions on these issues, then presumably Canada would be annexed. But the United States failed to conquer Canada, and the maritime issues were not even mentioned in the peace treaty. By any reasonable measure, Republican war policy was a failure, and the United States actually lost the war–even if it has never acknowledged the fact.
The United States could have conquered Canada.
Ever since the War of 1812, armchair strategists have faulted the United States for pursuing a flawed strategy, for frittering away its resources in a pair of three-pronged campaigns in 1812-13 that fixed the focus of its operations too far west. According to these critics, the United States should have concentrated its resources against Montreal and Quebec, the two cities that anchored Britain’s defenses on the St. Lawrence River. Control of these cities would have meant the control of most of Canada because the posts and settlements further west all depended on supplies that were shipped up the St. Lawrence River.
Although this criticism is sound, it is unlikely that an eastern strategy would have changed the outcome of the war. After a decade of neglect, the American military establishment was in a deplorable state: undersized, inexperienced, badly led, and poorly trained. Nor could the militia provide much assistance. Most citizen soldiers lacked the training and inclination to support an extended campaign in enemy territory. Moreover, the logistical problems of supporting operations across several hundred miles of wilderness were formidable, perhaps even insurmountable. Finally, the enemy consisted of a small but battle-hardened veteran force ably assisted by Indian allies whose reputation for brutality put the fear of God in any potential foe.
Although Montreal probably could have been taken, the conquest of Canada would never be complete without the fall of Quebec and Halifax, and taking these cities was nearly impossible. The British had captured Quebec in 1759 only because of a favorable combination of circumstances: naval support, a fine army, and a weak enemy. There is little reason to believe that the United States could have duplicated this feat in 1812. Not only had the British strengthened the defenses of Quebec, but from the spring to the fall of each year they could count on the support of the Royal Navy. Any American campaign launched later in the year would be fighting the clock, first to avoid a long winter siege and then to secure the city before a British relief force arrived when the St. Lawrence thawed in the spring.
In addition, the British made it clear that they were willing to sacrifice everything else in Canada to preserve Quebec. As Sir George Prevost, the governor-general of Canada, put it shortly before the declaration of war, "I have considered the preservation of Quebec as the first object, and to which all others must be subordinate."
Halifax was an even harder nut to crack. By land, a small force could take advantage of the isthmus that linked New Brunswick to Nova Scotia to hold off an invading army from the west as long as the British navy protected its flanks. An assault by sea would be even more problematical. Even if an enemy force landed on the coast, the Royal Navy could prevent it from being reinforced or withdrawn. Sir George Prevost, who was not likely to overestimate his ability to defend any of his domains, was confident that Halifax could survive an attempt to take it.1
And what if Canada did fall? Would the British cave in to American demands on the maritime issues or accede to the loss of Canada? Or would they instead bide their time until the war in Europe was over and then use their awesome military might to retake what they considered rightfully theirs?
These considerations suggest how problematic America's prospects were in the War of 1812. Given the state of its army, the logistical problems it faced, and quality of its enemy, the United States probably could not conquer Canada or win the War of 1812. This suggests that the decision to go to war in 1812 was more reckless and ill-advised than even the harshest critics of Republican leadership have suggested.
This article was adapted from the author’s book, Don’t Give Up the Ship! Myths of the War of 1812, which was published by Robin Brass Studio and the University of Illinois Press in June of 2006. All of the themes discussed here are developed more fully in that book. An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic in Columbus, Ohio, on July 19, 2003.
. For an insightful and favorable view of the sedition act, see Leonard W. Levy, “Liberty and the First Amendment: 1790-1800,” American Historical Review 68 (October 1962), 22-37. For Republican violence in 1812, see Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana, IL, 1989), ch. 3.
. For a discussion of the role of the militia in the war, see William Gray, Soldiers of the Kind: The Upper Canadian Militia, 1812-1815 (Erin, ON, 1995), 7-46; and C. Edward Skeen, Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812 (Lexington, KY, 1999).
. Theodore Roosevelt,The Naval War of 1812, 3rd ed. (1883; reprint, with an introduction by H.W. Brands, New York, 1993), 84-86, 437-41; Nicholas Blake and Richard Lawrence, The Illustrated Companion to Nelson’s Navy (Mechanicsburg, PA, 2000), 23, 32-33.
. For the navy’s recruiting problems, see Hickey, War of 1812, 91-92.
. For the composition of American crews, see Roosevelt, Naval War of 1812, 44, 59-63.
. See, for example, “The Hunters of Kentucky; or, the Battle of New Orleans,” a song written in early 1821 by Samuel Woodworth (1784-1842). Printed versions of this song vary slightly. For a typical version that has been reproduced from a contemporary broadside, see Journal of the War of 1812 2 (Summer 1997), inside back cover.
. For the limited role played by U.S. Army riflemen during the war, see John C. Fredriksen, Green Coats and Glory: The United States Regiment of Riflemen, 1808-1821 (Youngstown, NY, 2000).
. R. David Edmunds, "Tecumseh, the Shawnee Prophet, and American History: A Reassessment," Western Historical Quarterly 14 (July 1983), 261-76; Alfred A. Cave, “The Shawnee Prophet, Tecumseh, and Tippecanoe: A Case Study of Historical Myth-Making,” Journal of the Early Republic 22 (Winter 2002), esp. 666-67; and John Sugden, Tecumseh: A Life (New York, 1997).
. Carl F. Klinck, “Norton, John,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, ed. George Brown et al., 22 vols. to date (Toronto, 1966–), 6: 550-53; Carl F. Klinck and James T. Talman, eds., The Journal of John Norton, 1816 (Toronto, 1970).
. Article I of Treaty of Ghent, December 24, 1814, in David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds., Encyclopedia of the War of 1812 (Santa Barbara, 1997), 583.
. See Hickey, War of 1812, 307-08.
[12 ]. Madison to Congress, February 18, 1815, inAnnals of Congress, 13th Cong., 3rd sess., 255.
 . This theme was explored by the author in “Who Really Won the War of 1812?,” a paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, in Berkeley, California, on July 13, 2002.
. For a lucid analysis of the British capture of Quebec, see C.P. Stacey, Quebec, 1759: The Siege and the Battle (1959; updated by Donald E. Graves, Toronto, 2002).
. Prevost to Earl of Liverpool, May 18, 1812, in J. Mackay Hitsman, The Incredible War of 1812: A Military History (1965; updated by Donald E. Graves, Toronto, 1999), 286.
. Ibid., 287-88.
© Copyright 1995-2015, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.