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11 February 2010


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Medicine Man

I've read a couple of Bernard Cornwell's books; I rather enjoyed them. Sean Bean, depicted above, did a credible job of playing Sharpe in the TV adaptations, although I didn't find them as good as the books.

On topic though; the funny thing is Col Lang, the wiki page you link to makes the war of 1812 sound like a draw.


Having one's capitol burned is a pretty good sign that one didn't do very well.


Ha!!! I am grinning from ear to ear.

I think the relevant point is the 20 years the British Army had spent fighting revolutionary French armies and then Napoleon. Towards the end of the war, British regulars were shipping straight from the Iberian Peninsula to Upper Canada. As you wrote these were battle hardened men (who also got beat in New Orleans).

The American side needed a quick end to the war.

They did have early success and if that had been successfully capitalized on most of present day Southern Ontario would likely be part of the United States. Additionally, if the American side had concentrated their forces on Montreal or Kingston, they potentially could have taken control of the lower St Lawrence and Lakes Ontario and Erie, cutting Britain’s North American holdings in half – isolating the Niagara region and Britain’s Indian allies who ranged further south into Ohio.

The real losers were Britain’s native allies, many of whom eventually moved to Upper Canada (Ontario) and settle along the Grand River – where their land claims to this day remain contentious.

Ironic, because part of the conflict’s appeal for the American side was to free the Ohio valley from interference from un-cooperative natives (who it was thought were controlled by the British) and open it up to settlement. Which is what resulted: Britain being in no mood for more war and expenditure and didn’t really go to the mat for the natives when negotiating the conflict’s end.

Bobby Murray

Thank you Col. Lang. I know our capital was burned early on. And that I don't recall any battles that the US won save for what you mentioned.

In regards to Andy Jackson - who harbored an intense hatred for the British. As a youth during the Revolutionary War, Jackson was a courier for the Americans and was captured and slashed with a saber by a British officer for refusing to shine the officer's boots. He pretty much lost his entire family during the war and rightly or wrongly - blamed the British. That said, Old Hickory was probably the wrong guy for the British to run up against in New Orleans. The moral? If there is one - some wounds never heal. I am fully aware I am not telling you anything you don't know Colonel but to me I always thought it was another example that prisoners of war should be treated humanely.

Kind Regards,


I'm sure the Brits were very good for the reasons you point out. But I also understand that our land campaign in the Northwest Terr. & against Canada was poorly planned & inept in leadership, training, and logistics.

Patrick Lang


Well, yes. That's most of being a capable force. pl

Patrick Lang


To the extent that most Americans know anything about that war, they know of the naval war and New Orleans. They think it was a draw.

How many Canadians (or Americans)know anything about the Mexican War? It was a very interesting thing. Scott's landing at Vera Cruz was quite astonishingly modern. pl pl


Colonel -

Not sure how you can say the USA was "defeated" in the War of 1812 when you consider the reasons why it was fought and the political situation. The USA was basically dragged into war by a combination of British behavior on the high seas and western USA citizens hungry for land. The New England states were against war with Britain and continued trading with Blighty during the war. Due to our Jeffersonian ideals, the USA had barely what you could call an army and blue water navy, aside rom the aforementioned heavy frigates.

As with the north at the beginning of the US Civil War, the US in the 1812 war started with abysmal leaders. This was beginning to improve by wars end, e.g. Winfield Scott. We mainly fought the war with militia, but bear in mind the US was on the attack most of the war and I would imagine the Canadians and their Indian allies were at their best defending their home turf. Look what happened when in turn the British went on the attack, e.g. New Orleans. On paper, in terms of quality of troops and armaments, the British should have swept into New Orleans like their did into Washington DC. It is harder to attack than defend.

As to the burning of DC, that was a short-lived raid, not any meaningful occupation. Napoleon burned Moscow in 1812 but that hardly turned his campaign into a victory. Ditto for the Brits burning of DC.

But back to the political reasons for the war. The British expected to push the US around and had nothing but disdain for their former colonial subjects. At the end, in the Treaty of Ghent, Britain had to swallow a bitter pill by treating us as equals. Britain dropped the right of impressment and agreed to treat us properly under international law. And they had to pack away their plans for governing New Orleans.

So no, 1812 was not a defeat. Militarily it was a standoff, in that each side failed in its invasion of the other. Politically it was a US victory on the terms on which the war started, which was to be treated as an equal by Her Majesty's Empire.

Patrick Lang


I suppose you know all about the US/Canadian Special Service Force?

I knew one of these guys long after, a real p----k. pl

Patrick Lang


We were roundly defeated in several battles in Michigan and Indiana or some such place (former Virginia posession). pl

scott s.

I would think the Battle of Lake Erie might be considered at least as important as the actions of the USN's frigates. My understanding is the historian's typical "take away" is the poor performance of the US Army's officer corps, and the establishment of a military academy as a corrective, the fruits of which were observed in the Mexican War.

What I would like to see is a history looking at the actions against the natives as campaigns in the context of a larger "long war" which at times involved offensive military efforts and at others defense cordons (after removal).

Patrick Lang


you have read the old "Wars of the United States" series of books. Several volumes deal with these subjects. pl

SubKommander Dred

I am very familiar with the exploits of Richard Sharpe and his Greenjackets (North American Volunteers I think was their official name, although only one of them was an actual Yank.) In fact, though you and the fictional Lt Col Sharpe ("Waterloo" made him a colonel in the service of the Dutch), I can't help but think you both would be someone I wouldn't want to mess with on a battlefield.

Pete Deer


Well I understood the Limeys burned down DC as reciprocation for our burning down the British Colonial Parliament buildings. It was done the year before the burning of DC in what is now Toronto.

And the Brits only lasted one day in DC. It was a raid - quick and simple - they had to retreat within 24 hours. Also much of the damage in DC was done inadvertently by Americans who burned the Navy Yard to keep it out of British hands.

I think we also kicked some British butt at the Battle of Baltimore - the land battle, not Fort McHenry. The Maryland militia faced down 5,000 British veterans of the Napoleonic wars and made them back off. They killed the British General Bobby Ross who had ordered the burning of DC.

Not sure I trust wikipedia regarding the War of 1812. Seems like it was written up by Churchill or maybe John Cleese.

Patrick Lang


This is better than I expected. Go for it. Mexico next. pl


To me, whether a war is won or lost has much more to do with the political outcomes of the conflict than on who won this battle or that.

The US won almost all "battles" in Vietnam, but it cannot be said that the US defeated North Vietnam. Likewise, when you look at the political ramifications of 1812, the outcome was a draw.


Lost the War of 1812? That's not what they taught us in history class in K-12.

I love Richard Sharpe, but he was/is fiction.

What say you about Pvt. Thomas Keith of the 78th Highlanders? Now there was a British soldier.
(same period, different war).


OK, I feel compelled to add my two cents' worth here -

First, as regards the actions in the field: scott s is absolutely right - the Battle of Lake Erie really has to be seen as a major US victory. As a result of Perry's destroying the British fleet on Lake Erie (and I really think that this is the ONLY time an entire British fleet has been eliminated in a single battle, with the possible exception of the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse in WW II), the British were unable to operate effectively anywhere east of the Niagara Penninsula, south of the Lakes. That has to count as a strategic defeat of the highest order. AND it was delivered by a 28-year-old who had first had to build his fleet (and the shipyard to BUILD the fleet) from scratch.

I won't go into the infantry actions, except to observe in passing that there is a clear improvement in the quality of the Regular Army units (especially those trained by Winfield Scott) over the course of the war - and by the end of the war it's clear that US Army Regular units, under competent command, could match any British unit (whether they had extensive experience in the Penninsula or not), just fine.

Second, setting aside the question of the battlefield results, and looking only at the higher-order outcomes (which really is something I hate to do, because it minimizes or at any rate discounts the hell that people go through for these results); one important outcome for the US of the war was that Tecumseh's Indian Confederation was destroyed, and the pernicious British influence to the west of the Northwest Territories was removed. This really opened up these areas to aggressive US colonization...which would NOT have been possible without the war.

Third, the war was the conflict that catalyzed the development of the US Army as a professional force. It began the career of Winfield Scott; which let inevitably to the success of the Mexican War and to the deployment of the Anaconda Plan as the keystone in the Union victory in the Civil War.

Finally, I do agree with you that the US didn't "win" the war - although the strategic realignment resulting from the war allowed us free reign on a third of the North American continent. However, I don't think that the British "won" it by any means either - at best, they fought it to a draw. The real winners (in my opinion) are the Canadians. Their exploits, heroism, and military successes (I think) are a large part of what gave them a coherent national identity and started them on the path towards seeing "Canada" as a nation, and not as a colony of Great Britain.

At any rate, having said all that, I must finish with the observation (possibly slightly silly) that all that effort and misery, pain, and suffering on the part of so many - has somehow resulted in a North American continent that may not be perfect (and we have a huge obligation to the past, to try to make it better) - but which nevertheless remains an example to all the rest of the world. (I'm tempted to invoke "City on the Hill" imagery, but that would probably be maudlin, presumptive, or both.)

Peter Hug

helpless dancer(drouse)

The American frigates did do well in a couple notable single ship actions. That is when they were able to slip the british blockade. OK, here come the dreaded phrase, I wrote a paper about this in college, but. Whereas the american navy had problems just getting to sea, american privateers, sailing ships of the type we would call a boston clipper, were able to evade the blockade at will. There were a veritable plauge of them and they disrupted british trade immensely. The land war being pretty much a wash, the King's privy counsel persauded him to agree to a treaty that returned to pretty much to the state of things prior to the war. You see the King's advisors were major stockholders in things like the East India Shipping Company and they were losing money hand over fist.

William R. Cumming

Did not both "Sharpe" and technology changes in infantry weaponary in the first two decades of the 19th Century hold some glimmer of changes afoot or ahand of infantry tactics and strategy? Was the War of 1812 the last of the Brown Bess Musketry wars fought by the British?


Correction (obvious) to my post - after the Battle of Lake Erie, the British were unable to operate WEST of Niagara...

Speaking of east, the naval contest on Lake Ontario is actually fascinating - neither side was willing to try for a conclusive battle (understandably so, given the stakes), so they engaged in an unrestrained building war. By the end of the war, both sides were building (or had built) first-rate ships-of-the-line on Ontario as big as anything Nelson had at Trafalgar.


Colonel -

Aside from the British raids on Washington and attempt to conquer New Orleans, the battles of 1812 were fought close on either side of the US-Canadian border. And both sides had victories, e.g. some US and Canadian towns were burned.

Canadians are justly proud of how they defended their lands. But let's be real - the US was hardly a military machine in 1812.

The leverage the US gained by putting up a fight in 1812 meant that later on we had leverage on things like the Oregon question, Monroe Doctrine, freedom of the seas (interestingly later on one of the reasons we went to war in 1917 as an ally of Britain).

I surprise myself at how jingoist I sound here, since I am usually more cognizant of the downsides of Manifest Destiny, e.g. the poor way native Americans and African-Americans were treated, the injustice of the war with Mexico, etc.

But I could not believe my ears that the war of 1812 was being called a US defeat.

Jan F

Just a note- the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY was established in 1802, a decade before the War of 1812. It was not established as a result of the War of 1812. It is true that the Mexican War was the test of combat that "proved the worth" of the new academy, with West Point graduates preforming very well. It is interesting to compare the performance of the U.S.Army, especially the officer corps, between the War of 1812 and the later Mexican Wer. The U.S. Army was actually potentially outmanned in a number of battles which were won by the Yanks.

William P. Fitzgerald III

Pat and Everyone,

I have a few points to make.

The main American war aim was to take Canada. The failure (on land) to do so was primarily due to the fighting of Canadian militia with minimum help from the few British Army units available. Since we declared war with the aim of acquiring all or part of Canada and failed to do so, it is fair to say that we lost.

On the other hand, the naval victory on Lake Erie, I believe one of the two most decisive fleet actions in our history, (the other being Midway) solidified the result of the Revolutionary War in determining our northern border.

After Napoleon's defeat in 1814, the British Army was able to release units for service in North America, hence the Chesapeake, Lake Champlain, and New Orleans battles.

The war ended because of the British blockade, which was effective, and American privateers preying on British trade, which were also effective. The Treaty of Ghent was a return to the status quo ante-bellum.


Cold War Zoomie

My take from the Wikipedia article is that the war was OBE - Overtaken by Events. Neither side really won nor lost in a strategic sense when considering the immediate goals of the war. But it does look like the always inevitable unintended consequences happened to fall into our favor. In other words, we were lucky.

On a personal note, my great-great-great-grandfather Thomas, the son of a Rev War veteran, served in the NC militia during the War of 1812.

Take that all you Limeys and Canucks!

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