This month is the bicentennial of the start of the War of 1812. President James Madison declared war on Great Britain two hundred years ago today, June 18, 1812.
If the War of 1812 has a reputation among non-historians, it's that American War that no one knows anything about today. I disagree; I think the Spanish-American War and the Mexican-American War are even less known, to say nothing of the Quasi-War with France or the Barbary Wars (not that I'm an expert on any of these myself). America was pretty bellicose in the 19th Century.
However, the War of 1812 rarely ever gets the spotlight except now, because of its bicentennial. I believe that the reason it's not remembered the way it could be is that many historians call it a second American Revolution. If you like to take a patriotic view of the past, it's not particularly glorious that we went to war for freedom from Britain a second time. So, the war is more interesting to historians than to Americana buffs, and honestly, a lot of how we hear about history comes from that second group.
The United States fought England over control of the North American continent, and because the Americans felt the British were interfering with their right and ability to compete in the marketplace of transatlantic trade. The war ended in a stalemate (according to most U.S. historians -- Canadians disagree), but Europe began to see America as a legitimate player in the global marketplace and foreign affairs.
Much of Cambridge, like much of New England, opposed the War of 1812. The seaport economy of the region had suffered from the Embargo Act of 1807, which had been intended as a less drastic way to address some of the same issues that led to the war. Cantabridgians involved with the War of 1812 were likely either in the Cambridge Light Infantry, a force of about 50 men,1 or in the Navy or the Marines, sailing from the nearby Charlestown Navy Yard.
There are a number of great resources on this often-ignored war coming out of the woodwork for the bicentennial. Here are a few.
- Speaking of the Charlestown Navy Yard, the USS Constitution Museum has a number of great resources on the war, including this short overview, a silly but addictive online game portraying the life of a Navy sailor during the war, and of course, events and exhibits at the museum itself. The Navy Yard itself is a National Park Service Site, and Navy offers free tours of the ship USS Constitution.
- Historian James Ellis spoke with Radio Boston on why New Englanders opposed the war. You can listen to the discussion or read the transcript of "Why New England Almost Seceded Over the War of 1812" on their website.
- The factoids in Smithsonian Magazine's article The 10 Things You Didn't Know About the War of 1812 range from the mundane (#1, the war needs to be re-branded, because it formally lasted until 1814 and isolated fighting continued until 1815) to the poetic (#3, the rockets really did have red glare). Smithsonian has a number of great articles on the war, collected here.
- The interactive War of 1812 Timeline presented by the Naval History and Heritage Command's War of 1812 Bicentennial Website, "Our Flag Was Still There" is a great source of information. It is a little hard to scroll through in some browsers, but it has a map that displays the location of events as you click on them, and it includes international events with indirect relationships to the war as well as events of the war itself. Overall, the website is a little flag-wavy and American-centric, but still a good resource.
- If you prefer something flag-wavy and Canadian-centric, read the text of a speech given by Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore about plans for the Bicentennial.
If you want to learn more, there are a number of histories of the subject. Here are a few:
- The War of 1812: A Short History, by Donald R. Hickey. University of Illinois Press.
- 1812: The War That Forged A Nation, by Walter R. Borneman. Harper Perennial.
- 1812: The Navy's War, by George C. Daughan. Basic Books.