With the bicentennial of the War of 1812 coming up, we’re likely going to hear more about it as the months go by. One such discussion took place on BBC radio the other day, with British naval historian
Andrew Lambert giving his take on the war, especially the causes(31 minutes into the clip).
For Lambert, it was the U.S. desire to invade Canada. Most historians seem to disagree. For Donald Hickey and others, the main cause was impressment, the forcible recruiting of U.S. sailors into service in the British navy. The reason is that the British were fighting Napoleon at the time, and they were very short of men.
Hickey writes in The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, that it was hard to tell then who was British and who was American on ships because of a lack of good formal identification, and many British
served on American vessels, anyhow, so mistakes were made. Several thousand of them, apparently, according to Hickey. Lambert says the British didn’t care who was British and who American, as long as they spoke English.
Lambert believes it was okay for the British to do impressments, but I wonder how that can be. It would seem to be obvious on its face that it’s wrong for one country to force the citizens of another to serve in its armed forces, but Lambert doesn’t see that. He also portrays British involvement in the west territories — Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois — as essentially positive. The British were aligned with the Indians there at the time, because Lambert says, they were interested in trading, while the American settlers were farming and pushing the Indians off their land.
But he makes it sound as if British alignment with the Indians was something more than just an intersection of economic interests, despite the fact that in the previous century Britain and the American
colonists had fought side by side against the [Indians and French] for control of North America.
The British were also well aware of how some of the Indians did things — torturing and murdering their captives — and used this as an instrument of terror against the Americans in the west. But Lambert
doesn’t talk about any of that.
Instead, he just talks about how the Americans burned down York (later called Toronto) and that the British decided to give the Americans a taste of their own medicine by burning down the White House and other public buildings in Washington, D.C.. But he leaves out some of the atrocious things the British did in the Chesapeake Bay area when they occupied some towns.
There was tit for tat along the U.S.-Canadian border, too, in upstate New York. The Americans went too far and burned down a Canadian fort, then the British retaliated by crossing the border, burning
an American fort on that side, and more.
Lambert believes it was up to the elites alone as to whether or not there was a war, and since the merchants on the east coast didn’t want it, he believes that those in the west who wanted to invade Canada must have been responsible. But the desire for war was strong with many people on the east coast, too. Sentiment was so strong for war that Republicans, similar to today’s Democrats, rioted in Baltimore,
nearly killing two publishers who were against it and dared to say so. Irish Americans, for example, hated the British.
At one point during the course of the war the British caught some Americans who were naturalized citizens, originally from Ireland. The British viewed these people as traitors to Britain rather than as citizens of another country, and put them in shackles. The Americans heard about it, and demanded that they be treated like any other prisoner. The British refused. The Americans in retaliation began mistreating British officers who were prisoners, and then the British retaliated in similar fashion. Eventually, it got to the point where the Americans threatened to start executing British captives, and went so far as to build gallows for the purpose. Finally, everyone backed off,
and the Irish-American captives were freed from their shackles.