Guest Host: Susan Page

A discussion on the War of 1812 which began 200 years ago today. Often called “the forgotten war,” it tested a new generation of American leaders, shifted the global balance of power and set the stage for American westward expansion.


  • Walter Borneman Author, "1812: The War that Forged a Nation"
  • Troy Bickham Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University and author of "The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, The British Empire, and The War of 1812"
  • Donald Fixico Professor of History at Arizona State University
  • James Cusick Curator of the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida at the University of Florida Library and author of "The Other War of 1812: The Patriot War and the American Invasion of Spanish East Florida"


  • 11:06:54

    MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Today marks the bicentennial of the start of the War of 1812. Only 3 percent of Americans in a recent poll said it was the important war in the formation of our nation's identity. My guests today might disagree. Joining me in the studio to talk about the legacy of America's so-called forgotten war, Troy Bickham of the Texas A&M University. And from KGNU in Boulder, Co. we're joined by historian Walter Borneman.

  • 11:07:28

    MS. SUSAN PAGEAnd from WUFT in Gainesville, Fla., James Cusick of the University of Florida. Gentleman, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:07:35

    MR. TROY BICKHAMThank you.

  • 11:07:36

    MR. TROY BICKHAMThank you.

  • 11:07:36

    MR. JAMES CUSICKThank you.

  • 11:07:37

    PAGEWe are gonna invite our listeners also to join our conversation in just a bit. Our toll free number, 1-800-433-8850. Or you can send us an email to or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Troy, why is the War of 1812 called America's forgotten war?

  • 11:07:56

    BICKHAMWell, mostly because it's not very well studied. Usually, in history courses, it's sort of overlooked and overshadowed at the forefront by the American Revolution and then afterwards by the rush to the American Civil War. And so it's short, it's relatively bloodless with about 4000 casualties or so on. So it's pretty easy to ignore. And it doesn't help that the end is relatively ambiguous.

  • 11:08:23

    PAGEWell, Walter Borneman, tell us what do American's know about it? What do they tend to remember?

  • 11:08:29

    BICKHAMI think if anything, Americans tend to remember a few glorious moments. Perhaps the USS Constitution, Old Ironsides, winning victories on the high seas. And certainly they remember Jackson's glorious triumph at New Orleans at the end of the war. But in between, there's really not a lot of military triumph to celebrate.

  • 11:08:49

    PAGEAnd of course, the national anthem, written during that war.

  • 11:08:53

    BICKHAMThat would be the third point. Certainly, Francis Scott Key and the defense of Fort McHenry. And again, everyone remembers that, but it's just those few key points. Everything else sort of gets glossed over. And the fact of the matter is, is that militarily there are an awful lot of American defeats during the war.

  • 11:09:13

    PAGESo, James Cusick, take us back. Why was this war fought?

  • 11:09:18

    CUSICKWell, there was a series of reasons for fighting the war. Primarily, it was American anger with Britain. Britain was involved in a major European war at that time against the forces of Napoleon. There was a major sea war going on. Britain didn't have that much of an army at that time that it could put into Europe so its navy and its mercantile fleet were very important. And the British had a habit of impressing -- stopping American ships and impressing men that they thought were British subjects into the navy. They also started a series of policies to stop American shipping with France and to intervene.

  • 11:10:03

    CUSICKAmericans depended on their trade at this time and also were still angry at Britain over the American Revolution. And so this riled up a lot of anger in the United States, that Britain was still treating the United States as a colony.

  • 11:10:21

    PAGESo, Troy, looking back at this war, what are the important consequences of it, the reasons why we ought to remember it perhaps more clearly than we do?

  • 11:10:30

    BICKHAMWell, I'd say probably the most important thing is what we get out of the War of 1812. And from an American perspective is independence. In 1812, America is a relatively fragile nation. It's divided by sectionalism, politics, different viewpoints and so on. It's not really clear in 1812 that the United States is going to last. It really still is very much an experiment. And because the United States manages to survive this war, it's pretty clear that the United States is here to stay.

  • 11:11:02

    BICKHAMAnd of course, my British perspective looking at the war, they're very interested in stopping American expansion west and to the north and to the Floridas and so on as well and growing as a commercial nation. And because the Americans are able to fight the British effectively to a stalemate, that secures their future as the preeminent power in North America.

  • 11:11:22

    PAGEJames, you've written about the war in terms of a kind of domino effect. What do you mean by that?

  • 11:11:30

    CUSICKWell, the war of 1812 was essentially fought on two fronts. The northern border lands with Canada, the southern border lands with what was essentially Spanish territory and Native American territory. The war didn't have a clean finish in the South. It sort of paved the way there for the expansion of the American self, but it also set up what you could call a domino effect, in that it started a lot of hostilities in the South that continued after the war. There was an American occupation of Spanish territory, south of Georgia and peninsular Florida during the war.

  • 11:12:10

    CUSICKThere was an Indian war with the Creek Confederacy over in what's modern-day Alabama during the war. And those conflicts actually continued even into 1816, 1817, 1818 because of the resentments and the retribution that the war stirred up. But ultimately it meant that the South expanded to what we come to know as the antebellum South of the Civil War, which included Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, which at that time were all still either foreign territory or territories within the United States.

  • 11:12:52

    PAGEYou know, you've all mentioned how there was a lack of kind of really powerful, impressive military action by American forces during that war. Walter, tell us about the battle of Stoney Creek as perhaps a microcosm of the military side of this war.

  • 11:13:13

    BICKHAMStoney Creek is a good example of repeated American attempts to invade Canada. There's really this fixation in the United States with conquering Canada. Many Americans think that Canada ought to be part of the United States. And that's a mentality that really goes back to even before the American Revolution. And during the course of three years, from 1812, 1813, 1814, there are at least half a dozen major attempts to invade Canada which end up failing. Stoney Creek, which is on the Niagara frontier, is an example, again, of American forces that are trying to invade Canada. There are some regulars from the American Army. There's a lot of other militia that aren't too sure if they really wanna leave their native states and go fight other places.

  • 11:14:06

    BICKHAMAnd it just really becomes a mix-match, if you will, in terms of American forces being opposed by some British regulars, but also Canadian militia. Again, there's this perception that Canada is going to greet the United States almost as liberators. And particularly in the case of the Canadian militia, that just doesn't happen. They really, really fight hard to defend their native soil.

  • 11:14:35

    PAGESo interesting. You know, we don't think of ourselves as being a nation who has a history of war with Canada. And, Troy, Americans tend not to have a really clear recollection of the war in 1812. What about Canadians? How do they view this war?

  • 11:14:51

    BICKHAMIt's huge. I mean, if you were to go Ottawa today, you'd see all sorts of banners. Most of the reenactments for the War of 1812 are taking place along the U.S./Canadian border. Yeah, it's an enormous deal. And largely the myth is that it is Canada's war of independence, in a lot of ways. They fight off the imperialist aggressors from the United States and as a result they're successfully British and are part of the British Commonwealth today.

  • 11:15:18

    PAGEIsn't that interesting? And, James, you talked a little about the impact this had on forging the South. Did it in a way set the stage for the Civil War or some of the divisions that we saw in the Civil War that would follow?

  • 11:15:34

    CUSICKIt might in the long term. The immediate concerns of the South -- we mentioned the causes of the war. In the South there were some additional causes that weren't openly declared. Southerners were very concerned about the power of Native American politics in the South, particularly the Creek Confederacy, which was a very powerful Native American group on the borders of Georgia. And they were also very frustrated with the fact that they had Spanish territories to the south of them that they could not control.

  • 11:16:03

    CUSICKAnd they didn't like the fact that slaves ran away into those territories and that also the Spaniards had a habit of allowing their free people of color, their free men of color to join in their local militias and train as soldiers and go under arms. So, you know, probably the immediate consequences in the South were directed at trying to weaken Spanish control of the area, trying to weaken Native American control. Long before anything happened with the Civil War, what that probably led to was the wars of Indian removal, which affected the Seminoles, which affected the Creek, which certainly came to the forefront when Andrew Jackson, a military hero of the War of 1812, became president.

  • 11:16:48

    PAGEAnd, Walter, one of the things that Americans do remember about this war is the burning of Washington, D.C. Tell us a little about that.

  • 11:16:58

    BICKHAMWell, in 1813, the British have actually made a number of raids in Chesapeake Bay area. And in 1814 they make a very major raid, first against Washington and ultimately they're gonna end up attacking Fort McHenry in Baltimore, but this is really a raid in response to at least the burning of the government buildings, response to an American raid that has been made against York in Ontario, which is the capital of lower Canada at that point. And whether by accident or whether on purpose, those Canadian government buildings are burned by an American raid.

  • 11:17:38

    BICKHAMAnd I think when the British get to Washington in September of 1814, there is sort of a vengeance element there that, well, we're going to burn the American capitol. And of course in doing so they set fire to the White House and Dolly Madison has that moment when she saves the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. And that's one of the things I think people remember from the war, as well. But the British troops are only in Washington for a couple of days. Again, they set fire to the town. And you have to remember that Washington at this point really is a very small place. It's not nearly the national capitol that it will become even in the days before the Civil War.

  • 11:18:23

    BICKHAMSo militarily and politically it's relatively unimportant. But there is something that really strikes to the national psyche of, well, how dare you burn our national capitol.

  • 11:18:34

    PAGEIt was the only time, I guess, since the Revolutionary War that we had that kind of action in our own capitol. Well, we're gonna take a short break and when we come back, we'll talk to a professor who is an American Indian about what this conflict meant for American Indians. Stay with us.

  • 11:20:05

    PAGEJoining us now from his office in Tempe, AZ is Donald Fixico. He is a professor of history at Arizona State University. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • 11:20:16

    MR. DONALD FIXICOGood morning. Greetings from Arizona.

  • 11:20:18

    PAGENow, tell us what does this conflict mean for American Indians.

  • 11:20:24

    FIXICOThis was a tremendous conflict because what it meant was literally opening the west. In my view, the War of 1812 is really kind of the last standpoint for American Indians to make a final resistance. And of course, there's -- one of the other battles and famous battles that ensued, but this one was one massive effort led by Shawnee leader by the name of Tecumseh to gather many native people according to tribal communities to stop the American advancement.

  • 11:20:52

    PAGENow, you yourself are an American Indian. Is that right?

  • 11:20:55

    FIXICOYes. And actually, I'm part Shawnee, the same background that Tecumseh came from.

  • 11:21:00

    PAGEYou know, we've talked about how many Americans don't remember this war clearly. For American Indians, is this an event that looms large?

  • 11:21:12

    FIXICOWell, in fact, we remember it very well because Tecumseh might very well be regarded as the greatest American Indian to have ever lived. His legacy, because of this war, because of this vision to form a massive Native American army to stop the American settlement from coming in to the Ohio country and for the west. He also had allies. He was Creek Indian. His mother was Creek as well as I'm part Creek.

  • 11:21:36

    FIXICOAnd so there was a Southern frontier that the Creeks in planning with Tecumseh, they were trying to stop the American advancement, even going into the South.

  • 11:21:44

    PAGEAnd so Tecumseh built this confederation of Indian nations to work together. What happened to that?

  • 11:21:52

    FIXICOWell, when you look at overall, a lot of people might say, well, he did not succeed because he did not win the victory. But when you think about how that his vision begin to be realized with the gathering of many native people from at least about two dozen groups, I mean, that were Shawnees and Pottawattamis and out to the west, you know, Kickapoos and Osage and into the south, Creeks and Seminoles.

  • 11:22:17

    FIXICOHe traveled in, like, an entourage, you know, to gather all these people because they spoke different languages. And that was one of the huge obstacles because they spoke different languages, he formed a common cause and bring them all together. And that was his vision. And that actually worked because when they begin to form a gathering at the Prophetstown or also known as Tippecanoe. That was the first forming of this very large collective group.

  • 11:22:42

    PAGEAnd Tecumseh died in this war, is that right?

  • 11:22:45

    FIXICOYes, he did, at the Battle of the Thames in Canada because he -- when you have such a plan and you tell the warriors of many different groups that you will lay down your life, it's going to be worth your life that you're actually die in battle and he does.

  • 11:22:59

    PAGENow the British head played a role in dealing with the American Indians. Tell us about what the British role was.

  • 11:23:08

    FIXICOWell, the British role was actually kind of find native people as allies and vice versa. So Tecumseh really knew that he could not defeat the United States without British help. And the British realized the same thing. So, in turn they became partners and obviously, you know, fought against the United States. And when you look at the overall activity of native people in this War of 1812, stretching from about 1811 to about 1815, there are like 40 battles, skirmishes, fire fights, things like that. Forty is such a large number.

  • 11:23:42

    PAGEYes, that is. And what happened to that British-Indian alliance?

  • 11:23:45

    FIXICOWell, the British-Indian alliance is really trying to stop the American advancement. And largely with William Henry Harrison on the western frontier, then he becomes the other kind of major kind of master player of chess, you know, with Tecumseh. They form strategy against each other. They work against each other. And so, they almost become legends, at least in this kind of Indian part of the War of 1812.

  • 11:24:11

    PAGEAnd Professor Fixico, could you talk just briefly about what the legacy of this war is for American Indians?

  • 11:24:19

    FIXICOThe legacy of the war really leaves a kind of a memory that, well, if there was going to be one large campaign to stop the westward settlement and advancement towards the west, then that would be right here. There are going to be other battles obviously, you know, that took place but this was the first major resistance.

  • 11:24:43

    PAGEAll right, Donald Fixico, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 11:24:47

    FIXICOThank you.

  • 11:24:47

    PAGEHe's a professor of history at Arizona State University. Troy, anything you would add to the perspective of what this meant for American Indians?

  • 11:24:58

    BICKHAMWell, I think to a large extent, at least looking at the British-American Indian alliance, I think it was kind of the final nail on the coffin for the potential of having an alliance between Britain and American Indians. I mean, the British had of course allied with a large number of American Indians during the American Revolution, making all sorts of promises to stop American advancement and so on.

  • 11:25:18

    BICKHAMThey had effectively betrayed them at the Treaty of Paris in 1783 by handing over a lot of the interior lands, which became the Ohio, Indiana and so on over to the United States. And there was a kind of a period of cooling off and so on. And then in 1811, 1812, it flares up again. They ally again. And the interesting thing is that they very much are allies of convenience. From a British perspective, they're looking for allies to help stop the American advancement.

  • 11:25:46

    BICKHAMInterestingly, the American Indians that ally themselves to the British are largely living in the United States. Those American Indians living inside Canada are very slow to ally themselves to the British and help defend Canada. They ultimately do, but it takes a lot of pushing and shoving and so on to get them to do so. And one of the promises that the British make to bring allies in is they offer them their own country.

  • 11:26:12

    BICKHAMIt'll be carved out of the United States, to take about 20 percent of American territory. And they start to push for that when they start negotiating with the Americans. But as always, they quickly abandon it. And effectively leave the American Indians to themselves afterwards, just like they had in 1783.

  • 11:26:28

    PAGEWalter, here's an email we've gotten from David. He writes: "How about the Battle of Lake Erie? The victory in this battle settled the question of boundaries on the lakes. It was glorious as battles go and gave us a memorable quote or two. Quote, 'we have met the enemy and they are ours -- two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.'" Can you talk a bit about the Battle of Lake Erie?

  • 11:26:47

    MR. WALTER BORNEMANCertainly. And this ties in with William Henry Harrison, too, who's trying to move into the northwest territories, capture Detroit. And there are really very small forces on the Great Lakes. But Perry is in charge of building the American fleet. And he constructs two brigs at a place called Erie, PA, Presque Isle. And his fleet with those two principal brigs, the Niagara and the Lawrence sails Lake Erie.

  • 11:27:16

    MR. WALTER BORNEMANAnd the British at that point are in Detroit and they have a similar small flotilla. But these two fleets come at one another in September of 1813 in a place called Put-in-Bay, which is very close to Sandusky, OH. And in the beginning there's very little wind. And, you know, for a sailing ship to really be able to operate and gain what's called the weather gauge, you really have to have some wind blowing.

  • 11:27:45

    MR. WALTER BORNEMANBut what happens in that Perry in the Lawrence is actually leading his flotilla against the British fleet. He kind of gets ahead of things and all of the British fleet are concentrating their fire power on the Lawrence. And at that point, it's, gosh, some people would say that Perry perhaps should have struck his colors. But his flying a flag with the words: Don't give up the ship. And he takes that and rows over to the brig that really hasn't engaged yet from the American side, the Niagara.

  • 11:28:20

    MR. WALTER BORNEMANAnd onboard the Niagara, re-engages and sails through the British fleet. And, of course, what happens is that the British flotilla surrenders. And this is one of the few times in British naval history that an entire flotilla has struck its colors. And the end result, even though there were relatively small numbers and small ships engaged is that the Americans become masters of Lake Erie. And what that enables William Henry Harrison to do is to cross from Detroit into Ontario and fight that Battle of the Thames that included Tecumseh that we talked about a moment ago.

  • 11:29:04

    PAGEInteresting. We have actually a tweet from someone who writes: "My eighth grade history students in Tecumseh, MI sing a War of 1812 version of Aretha Franklin's 'Respect' when we study this era." That sounds like a great teacher. Let's go to David. He's calling us from Cincinnati, Ohio. David, hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:29:24

    DAVIDYeah. Hello. How are you?

  • 11:29:26

    PAGEFine, thank you.

  • 11:29:27

    DAVIDThis is a very interesting program. And the reason -- I was shaving when I heard this. So the -- my whole family began in the War of 1812 because my great, great grandfather was a conscript into the British army and taken away from Napoleon. He comes from the Piedmont area, if you know northern Italy. It was not unified yet and there was (unintelligible). And the Royal Piedmont (word?) was the part of Napoleon's army, but was taken almost entirely and used in this war.

  • 11:30:06

    DAVIDAnd so when they landed in Lake Champlain, promptly within the first week, 700 of these men just deserted, the Italian-speaking or French-speaking, depending on where or what they spoke at home. And my great, great grandfather moved literally from (word?) moved 70 miles only to start his own family. And from that one single individual, he then the whole is spread throughout the United States.

  • 11:30:36

    PAGEWell, isn't that interesting, David. Thanks so much for your call. James, what do you think?

  • 11:30:42

    CUSICKWell, the -- I mean, the heritage of the war probably affects more parts of the nation than we ordinarily think. It really was, in some ways, a national war. Today I think when people tour sites, they do tend to think of the northern borders, the Canadian and U.S. border. But in fact you can find important sites from this war all over the United States. And American militias and American troops were heavily involved in it.

  • 11:31:16

    PAGEJames, we talked about what this war meant for American Indians. Tell us about the role of slaves and free blacks in the War of 1812.

  • 11:31:26

    CUSICKWell, that's a very interesting one because blacks fought on all sides. There were many black sailors in the American Navy. There were a lot of runaway slaves and blacks and also black regiments fighting for the British. The Spanish in Florida had black militia units fighting for them. And in many cases, this was an avenue to escape slavery, sometimes to escape the borders of the American South and win freedom elsewhere.

  • 11:32:03

    CUSICKIt also, I think, is one of the reasons why it shows a sort of the vehement in the South, the reaction to having blacks under arms. You'd asked before about how it affected the Civil War. Well, we know during the Civil War that the confederacy condemned Union efforts at recruiting and using black troops. That wasn't anything new. Black troops have been fighting in the America since the 1600s.

  • 11:32:31

    CUSICKAnd it was very common in the War of 1812 to find black troops. In fact, when the British pulled out of the South, they left the Florida Apalachicola River, well-fortified, well-armed that was a magnet for runaway blacks. There was a huge black maroon population there of several hundred people after the war. That was considered so dangerous in the South that in 1816 American forces moved in and destroyed that fort.

  • 11:33:00

    PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Let's talk to Jeremy. He's calling us from Salem, IL. Hi, Jeremy.

  • 11:33:11

    JEREMYHow you doing? I got a question. I had read some British history books. And the British seem to -- the one in the history books I read portrayed the war as a war of expansion from the United States, trying to prey on Britain when Britain was locked in a war with Napoleon. And they said that was the real cause of the war. Of course, this is from the British point of view. And they had said that basically there was very little support for the war in New England, which would have been the case if there was actually a war about pressing soldiers into service.

  • 11:33:45

    PAGEYou know, that kind of goes back to some of the groundwork laid for the Civil War. But, Troy, tell us about the British perspective. We talked about the Americans and the Canadians. What about the British?

  • 11:33:56

    BICKHAMSure. The British look at the Americans as a threat. The Americans don't have any kind of any significant military. But as a result of Britain's being tied down in the Napoleonic wars, the American merchant navy grows enormously. And by the time we're getting to about 1800 or so, the American merchant navy is only second to the British. The American merchant navy is controlling a lot of what's called the carrying tray.

  • 11:34:19

    BICKHAMThat's basically transporting goods from other places, basically freight traders essentially. They actually do more trade with South Asia than the British are by this point. Primarily it's because their insurance rates are lower. If you are a neutral ship like the Americans, you pay lower insurance rates. And it means that at the end your service, you can provide a lot less. And so, in Britain there's a lot of agitation over this.

  • 11:34:45

    BICKHAMThe British are divided over the war as well. One group that merchant trading groups are very upset with the Americans, they're worried about them. Also those who have ties with Canada are worried about the potential effect on the Canadian trade. Then there's another group and that's primary the manufacturing districts, like Birmingham and Liverpool, Manchester and so on. And those people, one of their major trading partners are the United States.

  • 11:35:08

    BICKHAMThey're the major market for British goods. And so they are opposed to the war. So Britain's really divided over this. But certainly the political lean is ready to squash the Americans as upstarts and they're looking for an opportunity to do it. And in fact, they push very hard for the War of 1812 to break out. In fact, in 1807, they start drawing up battle plans should a war break out, different types of potential preemptive strikes that the navy could conduct against places like New York or Baltimore and so on.

  • 11:35:38

    PAGEWalter, were there global implications that you see from this war?

  • 11:35:43

    BORNEMANI think the point is that the Americans were in the beginning in 1812 and 1813 really just fighting part of the British empire, if you will. And that's because, as Troy just said, France and Great Britain were locked in this Titanic global struggle. And after Napoleon has been defeated at the first time, Great Britain starts to move more troops and forces to North America. So by 1814, Great Britain is really directing the full might of his power against the United States.

  • 11:36:22

    BORNEMANAnd that's why we have those strong raids into the Chesapeake area, Baltimore and Washington. It's where we have that strong invasion attempt via Lake Champlain that one of the earlier callers referenced. And I think that on a global scheme then what that means is that Great Britain is coming to the U.S. in force in 1814, trying to subjugate it and really trying to restrict its expansion westward across the country, maybe even try to reclaim the Louisiana territory and continue its western expansion in Canada.

  • 11:37:04

    BORNEMANSo when those attempts fail and it really is sort of a combination of things that makes that failure, the United States is set up for a whole another generation of western expansion and Great Britain is pretty well locked out of the North America.

  • 11:37:22

    PAGEWe're going to take another short break. And when we come back, we'll continue our conversation about the forgotten war, the War of 1812. And we'll take more of your calls and questions. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:04

    PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, Troy Bickham. He's an associate professor of history at Texas A & M and author of "The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, The British Empire and the War of 1812." And joining us from KGNU in Boulder, Colo. is Walter Borneman. He's author of "1812: The War that Forged a Nation." And from WUFT in Gainesville, Fla. James Cusick. He is at the University of Florida, author of "The Other War of 1812: The Patriot War and the American Invasion of Spanish East Florida."

  • 11:40:43

    PAGESo while some people may call this the forgotten war, that is certainly not the case with our three historians today. Let's go to Mark. He's been waiting patiently on the phone calling us from Jacksonville. Hi, Mark.

  • 11:40:54

    MARKHey, hello. As a young naval officer back in the '80s, I served aboard a destroyer that was named for, as all Americans know, the hero of the Battle of Lake Champlain, Commodore Thomas McDonough. And I remember standing many long watches looking at commissioning plates seeing his famous quote, again which everybody knows, the Lord has seen fit to grant us a single victory.

  • 11:41:18

    MARKBut my question has to do with the impressments of sailors. I'm kind of curious how that worked. Was it widespread? You know, what did the British do after -- yeah, you would think that these people that had been kidnapped would escape at the first opportunity. Did these people make it back? Were they returned? Were they killed? What exactly went on with that?

  • 11:41:42

    PAGEAll right, Mark. Thank you for your call and thank you for your service. Let me turn to Walter. Walter, can you answer Mark's question?

  • 11:41:49

    BORNEMANYes. Let's remember why the British were impressing sailors to begin with. They simply needed more and more manpower to man their ships during the Napoleonic wars in their fight against France. And the way it would happen operationally is that either in ports, sometimes in American ports, sometimes in neutral ports, sometimes by stopping ships on the high seas, the British would send what were called press gangs. And anyone who had just sort of a small iota of British blood or perhaps British citizenship in any way would literally be, as you suggest, imprisoned and taken aboard the British warship and made to serve in the Royal Navy.

  • 11:42:37

    BORNEMANNow, did people try to escape? Yes, all the time but in many respects if you were halfway around the world or out on a blockade there was really little place you could escape to. And when you were in port the crews were watched very heavily and more likely than not press gangs were also employed then to go out and round up even more sailors.

  • 11:43:00

    BORNEMANInterestingly enough this is an issue that never was resolved by the War of 1812. The resolution really comes about because the Napoleonic Wars end and Great Britain no longer has this critical manpower need. But it's not an issue that was addressed in the treaty of Ghent between the United States and Great Britain ending the war.

  • 11:43:23


  • 11:43:23

    BICKHAMSure, if I could just add to that. One of the big issues really over impressment is the issue of citizenship versus subject hood. The idea of citizenship is a relatively new idea that the Americans are advancing. A citizen volunteers or chooses to be a member of a nation, whereas a subject from the British terms of the old European law is a once and forever subject.

  • 11:43:48

    BICKHAMSo in other words, naturalization is not something the British recognize as legal. So although someone might leave Britain, move to the United States at a young age, pursue a career and soon find themselves on a ship and the British might say, you're a subject. And the Americans' perspective would be, nope, they're an American citizen, we're protecting them. The British position is that they once and forever are a subject.

  • 11:44:09

    BICKHAMAnd in fact, the British argue that the Americans allowing their subjects to serve on their vessels is in fact an act of war. That's the position of the king's advocate general when he writes a legal position on it. And the British pressed this pretty heavily. And it's important to know, as Walter said, it's vague on whether these are Americans or the British. It's a vague legal issue throughout this period. And we're talking about quite a few people. About as many as 20,000 so called British subjects are serving on the American merchant vessels.

  • 11:44:39

    PAGEAnd how many of them made it -- did they tend to make it back to their homeland?

  • 11:44:44

    BICKHAMWell, some do, some don't. Sailors during this time, we have to realize, are really almost like an ethnic group in and of themselves. They dress differently than other people. They wear their hair differently. It's not really clear who's American and who's British but it is clear who's a sailor. When they show up in a port city like Boston or they're in Kingston, Jamaica they tend to live by themselves, have their own rules.

  • 11:45:05

    BICKHAMA typical ship, a merchant ship might be technically an American ship but they might have a dozen different nationalities onboard. And those nationalities, they have their own lingo, their own language, everything else. So it's not -- it makes it even harder to determine who is and who isn't. And the Americans, while somewhat sympathetic to their plight, you know, to be honest they're a group that's better known for sort of prostitutes, gambling and blasphemy.

  • 11:45:29

    BICKHAMAnd so there're a lot of Americans, particularly in New England, who aren't that sympathetic when the British seized them off the ships were generally the sort of people they don't want in their towns or at least not for very long.

  • 11:45:38

    PAGELet's go to Phil. He's calling us from Illinois. Hi, Phil.

  • 11:45:43

    PHILYes, good morning. I have a quick question for you. When I was at the University of Illinois I was taught by an expert on Andrew Jackson. And his opinion was that General Jackson would've been a regional hero not a national hero without the Battle of New Orleans. And that without General Jackson we would have no policy of manifest destiny. If you listen in the background you can hear the Native Americans cheering. And there would not be a Jackson on the $20 bill or a president buried at the hermitage without the Battle of -- without the War of 1812. Your opinion, please.

  • 11:46:14

    PAGEPhil, thanks very much. James, what do you think?

  • 11:46:17

    CUSICKI think that's probably true. I think the Battle of New Orleans made Andrew Jackson's reputation. It made him the greatest American general since George Washington in the eyes of a lot of Americans. It certainly helped his bid for executive office. And Jackson did espouse and believe in a type of manifest destiny that was going to come at the expense of a lot of the Native American tribes. And it was his administration that began the policy of removal of the Cherokee, the Choctaw, Chickasaw, all the southeastern tribes to the west. So I think that's basically true.

  • 11:46:55

    PAGEHere's an email we have from Madelyn. She writes, "One of your guests mentioned that the British burned the town. It is true that the soldiers burned the public buildings in Washington, but the town itself was sacked by local Washingtonians. Many of the wealthy residents had fled the town at the approach of the British so poorer residents took the opportunity to help themselves to the treasures they left behind and in the process caused much damage." Is that true?

  • 11:47:21

    BICKHAMYes, I mean, to some extent. But the same thing happens in any kind of burning or attack. I mean, in York, the capitol of Upper Canada becomes Toronto. There's a lot of debate on who actually set fire to the buildings to start with. There's a lot of resentment there and people looking for opportunities to lute. And it's not -- it's pretty -- kind of standard practice if you saw an attack in a European city or an American one or a Canadian one.

  • 11:47:43

    PAGEHere's -- the rest of this email reads, "The British commander sent troops to Mount Vernon to ensure that no damage was done to George Washington's home, an indication of their respect for him." Also true? Anybody on the panel know?

  • 11:48:00

    CUSICKI don't know.

  • 11:48:00

    BICKHAMI believe that's true.

  • 11:48:00

    BORNEMANI've heard it, yeah.

  • 11:48:03

    BICKHAMI can't -- I've never seen a letter saying it's true, but it's one of the lore that surrounds it, yeah.

  • 11:48:11

    PAGEAll right. Let's go to David. He's calling us from Grapevine, Texas. David, that's for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:48:18

    DAVIDHi there. Thank you for taking my call. I am a Canadian actually living in the United States and I can tell you from our perspective as Canadians we're taught from a very early age that the War of 1812 was paramount in our becoming a country, more than anything because in our own confederacy in 1867 there was a response to the expansionism of the United States. And that is, for us, one of the things that defined us as a country was the War of 1812. Although we were British subjects we felt that that was our coming out party, as some would say.

  • 11:48:55

    DAVIDAnd you already corrected the earlier mention of York as the capitol of Lower Canada. It was the capitol of Upper Canada because of geography. The river flows from the Upper Canada to Lower Canada and that's why it was called Upper Canada rather in geography. When you look at a map it's lower but it's upper. So thank you very much.

  • 11:49:16

    PAGEDavid, before you get off the phone, were you -- as someone who learned this was such an important war in Canada, are you surprised that so many Americans are kind of clueless about it?

  • 11:49:28

    DAVIDYeah, we are. It's also because there's an opinion in Canada I think for a lot of people that Americans are sometimes afraid to admit to a stalemate. They don't like to lose or have a stalemate. So -- but in terms of our history it was very much a focal point for Canadians as a people.

  • 11:49:50

    PAGEAll right, David. Thanks so much for your call and your perspective. Well, let me ask -- let me go around the panel and ask who won this war? James, you go first.

  • 11:49:59

    CUSICKWell, technically it was a stalemate. The Canadian border with the United States remained very much the same as before. I can say that as far back as 30 years ago a prominent historian in the south Frank Owsley, Jr. from Auburn University said that in the opinion of southerners they won the war. And Andrew Jackson's victory at the Battle in New Orleans helped to convey that idea that they came out of the war triumphantly. Depending on which side you were on people would debate that but...

  • 11:50:35

    PAGEWalter, who do you think won this war?

  • 11:50:38

    BORNEMANWell, certainly the losers in the war were the American Indians. I think that ultimately the Americans come out of the war the winners simply because of what the war does to the national psyche. You know, before the war there's 18 states that are sort of a loose confederation. But thanks in part to Jackson's victory at New Orleans, thanks in major part to that I think there's a new sense of national identity and a new sense of national purpose.

  • 11:51:11

    BORNEMANAnd having pushed the American Indians out of the Northwest Territory and at least begun to push them out of a lot of the deep south, this really sets up a whole other generation, the next generation of western expansionism that certainly takes the United States to the Mississippi River and then looks ahead farther west from there.

  • 11:51:32

    BORNEMANYou know, just a point about Canada, interestingly enough, this fixation that Americans have with Canada that predates the Revolution that we talked about really is strong even through the American Civil War. When the caller talked about the confederation in 1867 of Canada, there are still people at that point in the United States who think that Great Britain should seed Canada to the U.S. in part for reparations with the Alabama claims that come out of the Civil War. Those are where ships were attacking union vessels with the aid, at least somewhat, of Great Britain.

  • 11:52:10

    BORNEMANSo I think that Canada, and I've had people tell me this in conversations, Canadians definitely think that they won the war. But in the overview of American history I think it's a pretty strong point for the American nation.

  • 11:52:23

    PAGETroy, what do you think?

  • 11:52:24

    BICKHAMWell, I'd agree that certainly it's easier sometimes to identify the losers. In this case, of course, American Indians, but also African American slaves. Because of the defeat of the Creek confederacy in the course of the war, this opens up a lot of the areas that become massive cotton plantations in the expansion of slavery throughout the south. So indirectly, African Americans.

  • 11:52:44

    BICKHAMAnd I would agree with what's been said so far in terms of the U.S. There's a big winner, but not all of the U.S. I mean, an element of the U.S. New England's a big loser out of this. It's the end of the Federalist Party, which is very strong in New England. It's the victory of the expansionist. People like Andrew Jackson, people like James Madison, Monroe, Harrison, Taylor advance enormously because of this. And this sets up a new vision of manifest destiny for the United States.

  • 11:53:08

    BICKHAMAnd of course the Canadians, and again an element of the Canadians. I mean, the Canadians that are interested in setting up their own position inside the British Empire. Before the war starts most people in Britain don't care about Canada. Afterwards Canada's a major part and very much on the map.

  • 11:53:22

    PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones. We'll talk to Doug. He's got an interesting question. He's calling us from Columbia, Mo.

  • 11:53:32

    DOUGHi. My question is about how the war was commemorated or memorialized or celebrated by contemporaries in 1812.

  • 11:53:39

    PAGEYeah, interesting question, Doug. And we've been listening during the breaks to some music from that era. Who would like to take this question? How was it commemorated at the time by contemporaries?

  • 11:53:52

    BICKHAMOne of the things they do is they wrap it into the celebrations of American Independence. And so when they have parades initially on the 4th of July they also ask the veterans of the War of 1812 to march as well. And it stays very much part of New York's celebrations and in the south as well for a number of years and fades off as we move to the American Civil War.

  • 11:54:13

    PAGEBut while historians are -- debate even who won the war, at the time among contemporaries was it portrayed as a big American victory?

  • 11:54:20

    BICKHAMAbsolutely. Yeah, the timing works out really well. They find out that the peace treaty had been signed basically about the same time as they find out that Jackson had won in New Orleans. I mean, and looking at American as a whole it arrives at different times. In some newspapers, particularly up north, the news is mentioned within a week of themselves because of the distances that we're talking about. And so it's very, very easy for Madison to stand up and declare it essentially a great American victory.

  • 11:54:47

    PAGEYou know, John has sent us an email from Marion, N.C. which asks, "What are some good not too scholarly books that examine the War of 1812, other than those by the panelists," of course, which we've already mentioned? James, could you suggest a book or two that would not be too academic but might be interesting to someone who wants to learn more?

  • 11:55:08

    CUSICKI actually like David and Jeanne Heidler's work, "The War of 1812," that I think came out with Greenwood Press. It's written more in kind of short almost encyclopedia type sections with subheadings. And so you can move through things very rapidly. Although I have to say, I use Walter Borneman's work all the time too.

  • 11:55:27

    PAGEWalter, how about you? Do you have a suggestion beyond your own book, which is called "1812: The War that Forged a Nation?"

  • 11:55:34

    BORNEMANI would suggest Don Hickey's "Myths of the War of 1812" to look at that. I have high regard for Don Hickey as a historian. And he's written an academic piece. But this "Myths of the War of 1812" is a little bit more of a popular read.

  • 11:55:50

    PAGEAnd, Troy, anything that you would suggest?

  • 11:55:52

    BICKHAMWell, J.C.A. Stagg has a relatively new sort of a short introduction, short history of the War of 1812, which is excellent. But of course, I use Walter's work as well in my courses.

  • 11:56:02

    PAGEAll right. Well, I want to thank all three of you for joining us. Troy Bickham, Walter Borneman and James Cusick, thank you so much for being with us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:56:13

    BORNEMANThank you, Susan.

  • 11:56:13

    CUSICKThank you.

  • 11:56:13

    BICKHAMThank you.

  • 11:56:14

    PAGEWe're going to close the show with the Star Spangled Banner, one of our -- part of our heritage from the War of 1812. Now, this is the 1814 Baltimore version. It's performed appropriately by the Canadian Brass. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.

Related Links


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows