18 June 2012

Anniversary: War of 1812, Part 1 of, well, a bunch!

As a part of the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812, we've press-ganged some excellent writers into contributing a few thoughts for us on the war. Stay tuned for more this week.

First up, Jim Werbaneth, a wargamer and historian who teaches military history at the university level, and runs the Line of Departure wargaming magazine (that's been around a lot longer than Carl Prine's Line of Departure blog)...



The War of 1812 involved three countries: Great Britain, Canada and the United States. For Britain, the conflict was little more than a sideshow from the great struggle against Napoleon. Until his first abdication from the throne, the British exercised economy of force, adopting a largely defensive strategy with minimal force, especially land forces. Additionally, Britain did not press territorial demands, and under the premiership of Lord Liverpool, concluded peace on what was basically the prewar status quo. If anything, Britain conceded more than the Americans, as it abandoned the Indians of the upper Midwest whom it traditionally supported.

For Canada, the War of 1812 was far more important. With divided loyalties at the start among its Anglophone population, Canadians were forced to decide whether they owed allegiance to the Crown, or had vestigial loyalty to the United States from which many originated. In the crucible of war, Canada started down a path of nationhood that would culminate in a specific national identity, both North American and royalist.

For the United States, the legacy is confusing and, at times, overstated. The War of 1812 was never the “Second War of Independence” as which it is sometimes portrayed, and the American experiment was never truly endangered. Then when the war was over, the United States and Britain rekindled commercial and political ties, while the Americans lost a major Indian impediment to western expansion.

more after the jump!

The most enduring consequences of the war were in terms of leadership, specifically in two leaders elevated to prominence. One proved to be the dominant political force of his time, giving his name to an age in American history. The other established the professionalism of the United States Army, and ended up as an architect of victory in three American wars.

Andrew Jackson won the last battle of the war, New Orleans, ironically after the conclusion of peace; his victory in 1815 occurred before news of the Treaty of Ghent could reach North America. A rough-hewn, self-made and highly driven man, and as much a politician as a soldier, General Jackson built on his victory to be elected President of the United States in 1828. In two terms he remade the landscape of American politics, implementing his own visions of populism and a democracy. More than an ephemeral office holder, he founded a tradition in which American candidates appealed to “the people” as much as moneyed, educated elites that persists to this day. If the Founding Fathers set up the original institutions of the American political system, Jackson was the force who democratized them and started the transformation of the United States of America from a republic into one that was also a democracy.

Arguably, none of this would have happened without his War of 1812 service. Defeating the British at New Orleans burnished a reputation of beating Indians and the hapless Spaniards; only in the British, and Wellington’s peninsular veterans at that, did Jackson have an enemy that he and his contemporaries could portray as first-class. Thus, ultimately Andrew Jackson was a military hero who made the transition to political preeminence.

The second half of the War of 1812’s American legacy was entirely different, and manifested in an entirely different sort of leader. Winfield Scott was a young general who fought the British along the Niagara frontier. Rather than move into politics after the war, he remained in the United States Army, only running for president in 1852. But while General Jackson was one of the giants of American political history, General Scott was one of the most ineffective candidates ever to receive a major party nomination. In fact, his defeat by a former Mexican War subordinate, Franklin Pierce, was so overwhelming, and Scott’s performance so poor, that his Whig Party never again nominated a presidential candidate, and soon gave way to a new Republican Party.

Yet in his own way, Scott had a place in American history nearly as important as Jackson’s. A poor politician, Scott was one of the greatest soldiers in American history, in the long run outshining even Jackson. Not only a major figure in the War of 1812, he orchestrated the American victory against Mexico three decades later. Even as an elderly, fat and infirm commander, he formulated the Anaconda Plan at the center of Union strategy in the Civil War, before heading into reluctant if well-earned retirement at West Point.

During this long tenure in uniform, Scott was a driving force in professionalizing the American profession of arms. America’s most important military intellectual, he introduced European, and especially French, thought into an institution in which thought of any origin had been a rare commodity. Prior to Scott’s ascendance, American military theory and practice had been rather haphazard and amateurish. Under the command of a particularly talented commander, such as Andrew Jackson, American forces could be effective. Under the command of a less gifted individual, such as William Hull, the pathetic leader who surrendered Detroit early in the War of 1812, it was no match for the British.

Even during the war, Scott was a committed trainer, whose efforts at discipline paid off at Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane. After the war, he was intensely interested in the new United States Military Academy, working with the faculty on the curriculum. Additionally, Scott was a mentor for generations of talented officers.

While Jackson had the nickname of “Old Hickory” and Scott’s friend and sometimes rival Zachary Taylor earned the sobriquet “Old Rough and Ready,” Scott was “Old Fuss and Feathers,” reflecting an unusual infatuation with dress uniforms and military ceremonial. While this might have seemed strange to many American soldiers, to Winfield Scott it was emblematic of his commitment to be a proper, professional officer in a proper, professional army.

As with Andrew Jackson, the War of 1812 was pivotal to his career. Without the war, Jackson might have been a prominent politician in Tennessee; with it, he was a figure of national import who could put his stamp on the presidency, and the nation, as few could, before or since. Similarly, without the opportunities presented by the War of 1812, Winfield Scott might have been one more quarrelsome and sometimes downright insubordinate junior officer among many. With the war, he was a brigadier general by the age of twenty-eight, with the chance to demonstrate his talents. In the war with Britain he gained the stature that enabled him to put his stamp on the United States Army for decades to come.

Therefore one could see the War of 1812 as an episode of unlocking. For the United States in general, the removal of British support for the Indians of the Midwest unlocked westward expansion to the prairies. For the American political system, the War of 1812 unleashed a force of nature named Andrew Jackson. For the United States Army, it freed Winfield Scott to become one of the most important officers in American history.


Brands, H.W. Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times. New York: Anchor Books, 2005.

Coles, Harry L. The War of 1812. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Eisenhower, John S.D. Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Elting, John R. Amateurs, to Arms!: A Military History of the War of 1812. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.

Johnson, Timothy D. Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998.

Millett, Allan R. and Maslowski, Peter. For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

Werbaneth, James P. “Counterproductive Distractions: Britain’s American Diversion in
the Pursuit of Victory Over Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.” Paper presented to the Conference of Army Historians (Arlington VA), 27 July 2011.

_____. “Defense, Reaction and Passivity: British Strategy Toward New York and New England in the War of 1812.” Paper Presented to the New York Military Affairs Symposium, 30 March 2012.

_____. “Scott’s Mexico City Campaign: Jomini, Clausewitz and Winfield Scott,” Line of Departure Online Features (http://www.jimwerbaneth.com/online_features/scott_mexico.html), 27 December 2011.


Thanks to Jim for his excellent essay, and watch GrogNews for some more coverage of the war, including some Canadian perspectives!

By: Brant

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