Donald R. Hickey, author of The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, spoke with us about the recent publication of the latest Library of America volume, The War of 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence.
Library of America: In your introduction you call the War of 1812 America’s “most obscure war.” Why is this?
Donald R. Hickey: This war has long been a forgotten conflict for several reasons. The causes don’t resonate with people today because nations no longer go to war over neutral rights. Who today understands the finer points of the British Orders-in-Council (which barred American trade with the European Continent, then dominated by Napoleon) or impressment (which was the Royal Navy’s practice of conscripting men from American merchant ships)? The outcome is also in dispute. The war ended in a draw on the battlefield, but scholars are still debating who really won. Beyond that, we don’t have a great president associated with the war. James Madison was shy and retiring, not the sort of person to fire the nation’s imagination in time of war. It is ironic that this war gets lost in the public memory because it left a huge legacy that shaped the nation. It gave us Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans, the national anthem and Uncle Sam, the Kentucky Rifle and “Old Ironsides,” a new respect for the national flag, and enduring sayings like “Don’t give up the ship!” and “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
LOA: What can a reader glean from reading these contemporary, firsthand accounts that a narrative history of the war doesn’t convey?
Hickey: You get a real sense of immediacy, a sense that whatever is being described has just happened. Timing was important in this war. Unbeknownst to Congress, as it was voting to declare war—for the first time in U.S. history, no less—the British government was preparing to suspend the Orders-in-Council, which had established the very trade regulations that so offended Americans. But because it usually took six or eight weeks for news to cross the Atlantic, Americans had no inkling of this critical change in British policy. Similarly, at the war’s end, word arrived almost simultaneously of Jackson’s victory at New Orleans, the report of the Hartford Convention (a major statement of Federalist discontent with the war), and the signing of the peace treaty. The effect of this remarkable convergence of news was to burnish the notion that the U.S. had won the war and dictated the peace and to forever discredit the opposition party. By putting us in the thick of things as the news breaks, this book reminds us that history is often shaped by accident, chance, and even mistakes.
Reading the documents also helps us appreciate how effective certain leaders were. Jackson, for example, got a lot more out of the nation’s independent-minded frontier volunteer militia than anyone else could because, quite simply, they feared him more than the enemy. And with good reason, for on more than one occasion he threatened to personally shoot anyone who left camp because his term of service appeared to be up, and he did not hesitate to execute recalcitrant militia (see pp. 406–8). Likewise, we see young John C. Calhoun effectively marshal the arguments for war in his report from the House Committee on Foreign Relations recommending a declaration of war (pp. 10–22).
LOA: How do you think this collection might affect a reader’s views of such famous historical figures as James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Tecumseh, Thomas Jefferson, Dolley Madison, the Duke of Wellington?
Hickey: The book gives readers deep insight into their characters. Tecumseh has such a commanding presence that even his arch-enemy, William Henry Harrison, called him “one of those uncommon geniuses, which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things,” and when we read the great Shawnee leader’s speeches we see why (pp. 27–29, 323–24). Dolley Madison sacrifices her personal property to save vital government papers (p. 506). And Wellington has the wisdom to tell the British to end the American war (pp. 602–5).
LOA: The collection opens with vehement opposition and bloody rioting provoked by news of the U.S. declaration of war. Why was the War of 1812 so controversial?
Hickey: It’s worth remembering that World War II, when just about everyone rallied around the flag, is the exception in our history, not the rule. Almost every other war, from the Revolution to the recent wars in the Middle East, has generated considerable opposition. That makes them a lot tougher to win, but that’s the price we pay for democracy. In the case of the War of 1812, Americans were not yet sure that opposing a war was really legitimate. That’s why Republicans in the summer of 1812 tried to silence Federalist opponents of the conflict with violence or threats of violence. But this was counter-productive in that it only hardened Federalist opposition to the war. Most Federalists considered the war unjust (why target innocent Canada and why go to war against a European nation that was fighting to uphold western civilization against Napoleonic tyranny?) and unwise (why seek concessions on maritime issues that the British would never make?).
LOA: There are a number of pieces by and about Indians. How significant was their role in the conflict?
Hickey: Very. Most of the Indians in the Old Northwest sided with the British, and they played a crucial role in helping the British beat back American invasions early in the war. They were great scouts, trackers, and skirmishers, and their mere presence on the battlefield could panic an enemy force. They were not, however, always a dependable force. They were especially averse to casualties and could disappear in a New York minute if they sensed the battle was going badly or even before it began if they thought it might go badly. This was in many ways an important turning point for the Indians, the last time they played such an important role in any war, the last time they could count on a European ally. Scholars may dispute who won the war, but just about everyone agrees that the Indians were the greatest losers.
LOA: Do you think this book will be viewed differently in Canada than it is in the United States?
Hickey: Yes. Canadians have a much better public memory of this war because, whether they admit it or not, it was their war of independence. If they had lost, Canada might have been swallowed up by the United States. Plus, they don’t have as many other big wars as we have and thus their heroes from this war loom much larger in their history. For Americans, the War of 1812 is one of many wars, overshadowed in the public memory by both the American Revolution and Civil War.
LOA: Most astonishing facts about the War of 1812?
Hickey: The persistent and intense opposition of the Federalists, who laid out their case in a public document issued at the beginning of the war and then again in the report of the Hartford Convention near the end (pp. 46–53, 648–65). No less astonishing is the number of deaths that we can attribute to the conflict. U.S. battle casualties were light, around 2,300 killed in combat. But if you add in all those serving (especially in the militia or on privateers) who died of disease, as many as 20,000 Americans lost their lives as a direct result of this war. Relative to our population today, that would be over 800,000 deaths.
LOA: Most important discovery you made in course of assembling the book.
Hickey: Probably how much material there was to choose from. It’s only when you try to assemble a collection like this that you realize the staggering number of documents that have survived. You also get a real sense for how difficult it was to move men and material through the wilderness, which is why offensive operations usually failed in this war. It was much easier to defend a fortified position near your supply lines than to overrun an enemy post at the other end of a crude or non-existent wilderness road.
LOA: Document you think readers will find most surprising.
Hickey: I think readers might be surprised to learn that at the beginning of the war Jefferson suggested to Madison that Federalist opponents might have to be kept in check with tar and feathers or perhaps even lynch law and how the federal government needed to allow trade with the enemy to keep the war popular (pp. 44–45).
LOA: Personal favorites among the selections or writers in the book.
Hickey: Whenever Federalists criticized the war, I find it compelling because, it seems to me, they were so often on the mark. They had a better sense of how difficult, probably impossible, it was for the United States to force the British to give up maritime practices, especially impressment, that were considered vital to maintaining their naval power and their war effort against France. I also like the handbill publicizing Francis Scott Key’s lyrics commemorating the defense of Fort McHenry. It was initially entitled “Defence of Fort M’Henry” rather than “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the headnote has a lot of detail about how the lyrics came to be written (pp. 544–46). Also among my favorites are Thomas Boyle’s proclamation of a mock blockade of the British Isles (pp. 533–34), and the arresting descriptions of the carnage at Horseshoe Bend, Lundy’s Lane, and New Orleans (pp. 409–11, 457–64, 666–78).