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‘Forgotten’ War of 1812

by Bill Castanier
February 21, 2012

There’s lots of confusion about the War of 1812.

Although two popular songs were inspired by the war, Muskrat Love was not one of them. But once you learn the importance of the marsh rat during the war, you can understand the confusion.

And let’s not forget the wartime call to action, “Remember the Raisin,” which was universally understood by the populous during what was also called the nation’s first civil war but has little meaning today.

Much of the confusion and lack of knowledge could change, at least in the Midwest, as the bicentennial of the War of 1812, which lasted until 1815, is commemorated beginning this year. Visit the state’s official War of 1812 website.

In 1812 approximately 5,000 non-Indian residents of the Michigan Territory were trying to scratch out a meager existence on the far-western fringe of the United States. In mid-July, war broke out between the young nation and its former landlord, Great Britain, over trade embargoes, land grabs and high seas piracy. With the Canadian border well within cannonball range, the old Northwest was a critical arena in waging a successful war.

The War is often referred to as the “forgotten war,” due in part to its lack of heroic battles and muddled goals, but also because it’s currently being overshadowed by the anniversary of the Civil War of the 1860s, which runs almost concurrently.

“I like to say two famous songs came out of the War of 1812: The Star Spangled Banner and The Battle of New Orleans,” said author, historian and archivist Brian Leigh Dunnigan, who has written extensively about Michigan history during that era. “The War of 1812 is often associated with the 1812 Overture, which is a mistake. The overture has nothing to do with America’s war.”

The overture was written about the Russian Defense of Moscow against Napoleon, Dunnigan explained. “It gets played at every [War of 1812] event, but it’s not appropriate,” he said.

As most fourth graders know, The Star Spangled Banner was written by Francis Scott Key following the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Chesapeake Harbor on September 3, 1814. Within weeks the song, which began as a poem, was published in newspapers and provided a valuable lift to East Coast residents who had seen the U.S. Capitol and the White House burned to the ground by the British forces.

No one is quite sure why, nearly a century and a half later, Johnny Horton recorded the song Battle of New Orleans about the U.S. defeating the British in 1815, but in 1959 it was a Billboard Magazine “Number One Hit.” Appropriately, the song was originally written by a high school principal to help students learn history.

The War of 1812 also was not without its own battle cries, such as, “We have met the enemy and they are ours” and “Remember the Raisin.” They may not have the same panache as “Remember the Alamo,” but both cries refer to battles which took place on Michigan soil, or at least within hailing distance of land.

Dunnigan, author of Frontier Metropolis: Picturing Early Detroit 1701-1838 and A Picturesque Situation: Mackinac Before Photography, also recently wrote an introduction for a seminal book on the conflict: The War of 1812 In the Old Northwest written by Michigan State University history professor Alec R. Gilpin in 1958. The book had long been out of print and was recently republished by Michigan State University Press.

The book details some of the developments leading up to the war and covers some of the important battles, including the Surrender of Detroit, the Siege of Fort Meigs (Ohio), the River Raisin, Lake Erie, the Thames (Canada) and Mackinac Island.

Dunnigan, who is associate director and curator of maps at the University of Michigan William L. Clements Library, said one reason the War of 1812 is often discounted is that it was a relatively small war and, unlike the Civil War, which was intensely recorded for history by the new fangled invention of photography, the War of 1812 relied on relatively few battlefield sketches to illustrate it.

He also said the book shows how the war was further complicated by being waged in what Dunnigan calls “disparate theaters,” referring to battles being fought from the coast of Maine to upper New York to Maryland to Michigan and as far south as the Gulf Coast. The war was so spread out that it took several days for news about the battles to reach the western territories, sometimes resulting in such unforeseen outcomes as the British moving on Mackinac Island prior to the Americans even knowing about the war’s start.

However, the war did produce some important results, according to Dunnigan, even though it is nearly impossible to judge which side won or lost. He said the book points out that if there was a loser, it might have been the American Indian population, which was further marginalized by the war. Most Indians living in the territory aligned themselves with the British, and after the war found themselves even further under the thumb of the United States.

The Canadians, since there was no clear winner or loser, also claimed victory, believing that the War of 1812 kept the Americans from extending their territory north.

Numerous future political leaders in this country made their name in the war, including three presidents (William Henry Harrison, Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor), a vice president (Richard M. Johnson) and a future Michigan senator, Lewis Cass, who also was Michigan’s territorial governor.

Dunnigan said the war also was an “annoying sideshow” for the British, who were waging a war on the continent with Napoleon. He admits that the two fronts were beneficial to the Americans, “Otherwise, we would’ve been crushed.”

Dunnigan comes by his interest in this relatively obscure war almost naturally. As a child he spent summers on Mackinac Island, one of the war’s strategic sites, playing in the blockhouses of the old fort. He later would spend nine summers working as a tour guide on the island. He was bitten by the history bug, and was especially fond of the history of the Mackinac region.

Both sides considered Mackinac Island, then, called Michilimackinac, of strategic importance in controlling trade through the Straits of Mackinac. When war was declared on July 18, 1812, the Americans occupied the fort with a small, poorly armed force that lacked provisions for any sustained battle (water could only be obtained at a well outside the fort) and had not yet received news of the war’s outbreak.

On the other hand, the British, by creating alliances from their fur trading days, had already enlisted the aid of hundreds of American Indians to attack the fort. What was perhaps the earliest version of NAFTA had allowed British and Canadian fur traders to conduct business in the Territory, which enabled the British to begin moving onto the island prior to the actual declaration of war.

By the time American forces became suspicious, the fort was an easy target and its surrender gave the British their first victory in the new war. A little less than a month later, Detroit, under the command of Brigadier General William Hull, also surrendered – an action that would lead to his court martial.

For awhile in the old Northwest, British dominance seemed solidified. But on less solid ground the British were defeated soundly the next year in a naval battle on Lake Erie.

Control of the Great Lakes was pivotal in the war, and on September 10, 1813, nine U.S. ships engaged six British vessels just off the coast of modern-day Monroe. The crews on the British ships were better trained and the British ships carried more advanced canonry, but when U.S. Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry was forced to abandon his own ship, he took over a new vessel and led the U.S. naval fleet to victory.

With the British ships captured or sunk, Detroit and Michilimackinac were cut off from the rest of the British forces and supplies. Dunnigan said it was at the Lake Erie battle that Perry uttered the famous line, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Another slogan emanating from a War of 1812 naval battle and often mistakenly attributed to Perry is “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” which was actually spoken by a U.S. naval commander in Boston Harbor – after he gave up the ship to the British but ultimately won the battle. In Lake Erie, Perry’s battle flag carried that slogan, and he carried on the tradition of winning after giving up the ship.

With British supply lines cut, the battle for the Old Northwest should’ve been all but over, except bad military decisions stretched the war out.

Gilpin, in his book, shows how their alliance with Indians allowed the British to spread their force while at the same time striking fear into the frontier settlers. Dunnigan said the British use of Indians was a “tremendous psychological factor which spooked settlers pretty easily.” In the 1780s there had been some skirmishes with Indians that resulted in atrocities on both sides.

Indians from various tribes fought alongside the British in every one of the battles in Michigan, Dunnigan said, and Gilpin shows how at one point the Indians were close to re-establishing an Indian homeland. Ultimately, Dunnigan said, the Indians were left holding the bag when the peace treaty was signed.

Dunnigan, as a member of the Michigan War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission, said he is working on a 30-minute documentary about the war. Various events commemorating the war in Michigan and Canada are also planned and a schedule can be downloaded here.

For Michigan, Dunnigan said, the war was unique because it was the site of the only conventional land battles ever fought on our soil — and which left the British as an occupying force. The Battle of Lake Erie likely took place only in Ohio waters.

Southeastern Michigan was the site of the Battle of the River Raisin in the winter of 1813. In the seesaw battle for the Northwest, a superior force of British and Indians defeated a badly disorganized American force in what was then called Frenchtown (modern Monroe). On January 22 a force of more than 900 Americans fought; ultimately only 33 survived what was called the Raisin River Massacre. The battle was the largest land battle fought on American soil, and the defeat set back the invasion of Detroit. An account of the battle is available online.

According to Dunnigan, the British and Indians employed “scorched earth” policies out of necessity. He said that on the frontier, agriculture was barely subsistence level, and Detroit and the Raisin River bottomlands grew most of the food. With the presence of military there was not enough food to go around. The British confiscated food and used fence posts for fires.

Legend, somewhat backed by history, has it that residents of the Frenchtown area turned to the muskrat for food. Prevalent in the marshes along Lake Erie, the muskrat became a major source of protein even on Fridays in the predominantly Catholic area. An exemption from the Church allowed residents to eat the marsh rat.

Battles over eating muskrat would continue into the next century, and the unusual epicurean selection would get national notoriety along with pasties at the National Folk Life Festival on the Smithsonian Mall when they were served to celebrate Michigan’s statehood in 1987.

For the celebration of the War of 1812, the National Parks Service has created Major Muskrat as a mascot to promote the event to children.

The War ended in late December 1814, but due to limited communication one of the most remembered battles of the war, The Battle of New Orleans, took place on January 8, 1815, after, as Johnny Horton sang, “In 1814 we took a little trip along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip.”

Other books recently published on the War of 1812 include:

  • The Fall and Recapture of Detroit in the War of 1812: In Defense of William Hull by Anthony Yanik. The book details the spotty record of Brigadier General William Hull, who surrendered Detroit to the British early in the war without a shot being fired. Hull was ultimately court martialed.
  • 1812: The Navy’s War by George C. Daughan
  • How Britain Won the War of 1812 by Brian Arthur
  • The January-February edition of Michigan History Magazine has an excellent summary by Dunnigan of the beginning of the war in Michigan. The magazine promises additional coverage of the war through the bicentennial.
  • A reading list on the war can be downloaded here and additional resources found online.

Bill Castanier, a retired state government administrator and Michigan State University advertising graduate, writes a weekly literary column for Lansing City Pulse and manages the blog, a daily look at Michigan literature and authors. He also is a member of the Michigan Notable Book selection committee and the board of MSU Press.

February 21, 2012 · Filed under Bookit Tags: , ,

34 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Paul Long // Feb 24, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Thank you, Bill, for this very well done essay on this important period in history.

  • 2 Sheyenne // Oct 17, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    This helped me a lot! My band class is playing the 1812 Overture, and my homework was to find an interesting fact about The War of 1812. My teacher is going to be surprised when she finds out that the song doesn’t have anything to do with the war. Thanks!

  • 3 Curt B // Apr 5, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    This was a great reminder of this war. It’s always amazed me how close things came to completely changing the look of a modern map. Canada was considered low hanging fruit, easy pickings by US forces. Still waiting for a major Hollywood treatment of the War of 1812, would make for some rousing history!

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