War of 1812 Recalled on its Bicentennial

Two hundred years ago today, June 18, 1812, President James Madison dipped a quill to ink his name on a document that read, "That war be and is hereby declared to exist between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the dependencies thereof ..."

If this isn't on your calendar, it's probably because who wants to recall starting a fight that resulted mostly in getting your teeth handed back to you, all for nothing?

Out East and up North and even near New Orleans, you can find the battlefields of the War of 1812, and, on them over the next couple of years, cannon-firing re-enactors wearing something besides Union or Confederate uniforms.

That's always part of the problem for enthusiasts of "this Rodney Dangerfield of American wars," as The Washington Post recently called it. It's forever overshadowed on the calendar by the Civil War's fraternal bloodletting just 50 years later.

A recent poll in Canada notes that we Americans mostly see the war as where "The Star-Spangled Banner" came from, while they regard it as what saved them from U.S. politics, gun laws and shared citizenship with Snooki.

What exciting part of the War of 1812 occurred in our area? Uh, Capt. Symmes' company of the 1st U.S Infantry Regiment evacuated Fort Osage in 1813. But we're darned sure it was a dramatic evacuation.

No actual Redcoats threatened the remote frontier post, but their allies, the Sauk (or Sac) and Fox tribes, did make settlers nervous east along the Missouri River. Their incursions already had sent the Kansa fleeing west and gained grudging respect from the Osage south of the river. No wimps themselves, the Osage called the Sauk, "the ones who are hard to kill."

All this will come up later in this tale when we get to Missouri's famous "Battle of the Sinkhole." Didn't you have to write a paper about that one in high school American history?

If you were awake in class when this chapter came up, you'll recall how the new nation called the United States was being treated rather shabbily by its former colonial master, Great Britain.

The English had their hands full with Napoleon and were hard-pressed to man their many great warships. So they parked some outside our ports, stopped American vessels and grabbed hundreds of our sailors. Some were deserters from the Royal Navy, sure, but many were Irish immigrants or British-born, but naturalized citizens.

The same Union Jacks blocked much of our trade with the rest of Europe, deeply wounding sections of our fledgling economy.

Another serious thorn was the British guns and powder going to the Indian Nations who were struggling to hold on to lands stretching from Michigan and Indiana to Wisconsin, Iowa and, yes, Missouri. An ocean away from the sharp edge of the tomahawks, London politicians saw the tribes as an excellent buffer for British North America, that is, Canada.

Ranked high among British allies were the Shawnee, led by the great Tecumseh and his brother, called The Prophet.

Many Americans, too, viewed the British with a belligerency born of having whipped the world's best military back in the revolution, never mind that it took around seven years and a ton of French assistance.

Yet not all Yanks, by any means. Out-of-power Federalists had no taste for "Mr. Madison's War," and before it was over, some in the Northeast urged secession.

At first, all those woods above the Great Lakes were guarded only by militia and about 6,000 British soldiers, the rest being tied up on the continent trying to bayonet the Frogs.

To some, grabbing Canada would be a huge bargaining chip in talks with the British. Others agreed with Thomas Jefferson, who suggested: "The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us the experience for the attack on Halifax, the next and final expulsion of England from the American continent."

Either way, we know it didn't happen, eh?

Here's the highlights tape:

Neither side is really prepared for combat, but in 1812 Gen. William Hull drives north near Detroit and, pow! loses the settlement and most of Michigan Territory. Fort Dearborn (Chicago) is burned, as well. Another attack over the Niagara River ... blocked on goal! Back West, Fort Madison in what is now southeast Iowa is besieged and torched.

The score is, uh, Americans, zip. It should be noted that Canadians consider this bicentennial a much bigger deal than we do. An Ipsos Reid poll done for the Historica Dominion Institute found that a quarter of Canadians count the war as the second most important factor behind their national identity. (The first, with 54 percent, was not Mounties or pro hockey, but their universal health care.)

Back to the action: In a winter campaign in January 1813, Gen. William Henry Harrison tries to retake Detroit, losing almost 400 men at the Battle of Frenchtown, in which Shawnee, Potawatomi, Ottawa, Delaware, Sauk, Fox, Miami, Creek and Chippewa warriors are engaged.

Perhaps 60 of his Kentuckians are captured, then butchered by the Native Americans on the River Raisin.

"Remember the River Raisin" is the U.S. rallying cry.

Not quite the ring of "Remember the Alamo" or "Remember the Maine," is it?

A much better line, "Don't give up the ship!" comes from mortally wounded Capt. James Lawrence, whose crew, sadly, does just that.

But overall, the tiny Yankee fleet fares surprisingly well on the water. Our seagoing frigates -- especially the USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides" -- shock the Royal Navy in single-ship engagements.

Mark up a big win, too, for Commander Oliver Hazard Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie. His famous quote: "We have met the enemy and they are ours." This gives Harrison his big chance to march into Ontario, where he wins the small Battle of the Thames, with its big bonus: Tecumseh is slain, and his Indian coalition begins to unravel.

Next, we try to take on Montreal in late 1813. Spunky French-Canadian volunteers get in our way and the drive fizzles out. Before the bell of year's end, Buffalo, N.Y., becomes charcoal.

By the next summer, we're at it again, beating in the enemy's front door at Niagara, but taking so many casualties at Lundy's Lane that we have to pull out again.

The soldiers from Fort Osage ended up in this messy, confusing fight, sometimes even shooting at other Americans.

It is this year, 1814, when we should have said, Uh, oh! in a loud collective breath. Because, at long last, Napoleon is beaten. British generals and sea lords can turn their grim faces back West. They send a British expedition sailing up the Chesapeake Bay and more than 10,000 British regulars marching from Canada into New York.

Before long, federal buildings in Washington are belching smoke, and first lady Dolly has grabbed the White House silver (and the portrait of George Washington, too? New versions of that now) and is making a run for it.

Who, us humiliated? Didn't need that old Senate building anyway. It was crowded with the Supreme Court in there.

On the plus side, the Brits fail to capture Baltimore or Fort McHenry, and outta that deal we get that somewhat unsingable anthem, set to an English club's drinking tune.

Better yet, a little American squadron grabs control of Lake Champlain, which leads to the most crucial American military victory you never heard of, the Battle of Plattsburgh. Those lobster-backs who'd eliminated Bonaparte's Empire?

Stomped. U.S.A! U.S.A!

Out West, American forces do lose the Upper Mississippi Valley, and Black Hawk, whose Sauk fighters raid as far west as Boone's Lick (near Arrow Rock) makes our Missouri Rangers bunker up in St. Louis.

Better news from Gen. Andrew Jackson, who crushes the Creeks in Alabama and then scoots over to New Orleans, where yet another British invasion force is supposed to land.

To quote the historian Johnny Horton: "We fired our guns an' the British kept a'comin'. There wasn't nigh as many as there was awhile ago. We fired once more an' they begin to runnin'..." That's about as accurate as that song gets, but now you're humming it, right? You're welcome.

The British casualties are 2,300 killed, wounded and missing; Old Hickory, about a tenth that. The U.S. combat deaths from the whole war, by the way, total around 2,200 -- a number just about matched by the Union soldiers killed at Antietam in one day.

Pretty serious payback on that Jan. 8, 1815, but as everyone knows, it's after the buzzer. The war's already over.

All things considered, U.S. negotiators got a pretty good deal out of the resulting Treaty of Ghent, signed in Belgium Dec. 24, 1814. Despite all the setbacks, we Americans didn't lose any territory while securing much of it from the Indian threat. It wouldn't be long before the Shawnee were marched west and dumped in that wasteland we know as Johnson County, Kan. The Prophet died here, his grave lost near a spring in southeast Wyandotte County.

Which gets us back to the Battle of the Sinkhole. Whether or not they knew the war was over, Sauk, Fox and Ioway warriors stayed busy ambushing Missouri Rangers and raiding in the spring of 1815. They tried to burn out the Cote Sans Dessien settlement, near present day Jefferson City. The story goes that the women in a blockhouse managed to put out a fire on the roof with the contents of their chamber pots.

When the British in the area finally admitted to him that the conflict was over, Black Hawk angrily ripped off his war belt given to him in Canada.

"I have fought the Big Knives and will continue to fight them until they are off our lands," he declared.

Even without his white allies, he soon was raiding around St. Charles, Mo., and nearby Fort Howard. Cut off by Rangers, Black Hawk and several warriors made a stand in a large sinkhole, singing their death songs.

The Rangers, however, were diverted by another war party, and Black Hawk and his men escaped. As the Osage said, hard to kill.

Not until 1816 did the Sauk finally touch the quill of the peace paper and end the western theater of the war. Though never defeated in battle, they eventually will lose their lands.

For the white folk, though, the War of 1812 was seen as an expensive draw. Madison's government came out broke, as it had declined to raise taxes to fight the war, which sounds vaguely familiar.

Still Americans would nickname it the "second war of independence" against England. It swelled Canadian nationalism, too, but if you ask a Brit about the importance of the war, expect a blank look.

Our own lack of connection to the war, thinks Steve Vogel, author of "Through the Perilous Fight" -- and he's out East where Redcoat sergeants hawked and spat into the embers of our Capitol -- may have to do with the name.

"The War of 1812 is a singularly poor name for a war that lasted nearly three years. The Spanish-American war, everybody knows the contestants. The Barbary Wars are nothing if not atmospheric," he wrote for the Post. "But the War of 1812? It has a clerical feel, something to be filed after the Enabling Act of 1802 but before the Panic of 1819."

Still, said Steve Wilson, site administrator at Fort Osage, "There were a lot of things that came out of that war that put the United States on the map. Americans began to view themselves as a nation, not as the states, but the United States."

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