You’d be forgiven you don’t remember much of what you’ve learned about the War of 1812. It doesn’t figure large in British or American memory––for the English the time is more memorable for Napoleon’s march on Moscow; for Canadians, however, this conflict is their equivalent of the Revolutionary War in the United States, a defense of “freedom, and liberty, and democracy”. For Native nations it represents the loss of self-governance and land.
And yet the conflict did give birth to an enigmatic Native American hero, revered by his allies and enemies alike (Tecumseh) and “The Star-Spangled Banner”, to say nothing of other myths and legends.
The origins of the war itself are rooted in a conflict between Britain and France and America’s desire to remain neutral. The Royal Navy seized American ships and impressed over 6,000 sailors from American ships to shore up heavy casualties incurred in the ongoing war. This policy of impression intensified between 1800 and 1810, although no serious military conflict occurred between the United States and Britain. In this final year, American politics began to change as a new breed of leaders––those born after the Declaration of Independence––began to find their foothold in public life. Among other concerns, expansion into Indian territories was seen as being of paramount importance.
Ninth president William Henry Harrison’s acquisition of Indian land led to increased tensions between the United States and Native Americans, in particular Tecumseh, a seasoned veteran of battle who opted to defend tribal principles and see Indian nations united in order to prevent further erosion of lands on the part of white politicians. At the end of 1811 Harrison led troops toward Tecumseh’s home base, intent on attack, though Tecumseh and his forces managed to strike first, leading to heavy American casualties. (Harrison nevertheless reported a glorious victory.)
President James Madison left the decision to others with the House of Representatives and Senate opted to declare. It was a poor time for war in England––political upheaval was in the air––and Canada as well. Madison viewed entering Canada as “a mere matter of marching.”
It is there, in the moments after the war officially comes into view, that this two-hour documentary finds its purchase in the viewer’s mind, detailing the battles and disappointments––and successes––that followed from the middle of 1812 to the war’s end in early 1815. (In truth, a treaty had been signed at the end of 1814.) What was gained? Nothing for the United States. It is deemed here––and elsewhere––as ending in a stalemate. Territorial lines had not changed, many lives had been lost, and James Madison’s standing in the eyes of the American people increased with the end of the conflict.
But Canada began its glide toward sovereignty in that moment although the Native peoples were, by all accounts, those who lost the most––the cultural costs alone cannot fully be understood or accounted.
In the end, The War of 1812 sheds light upon this conflict, reminding those who have forgotten and educating those who never knew.