The Forgotten War | (2023)

His name was Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1779-1813; see biographical entry). He was a courageous, fair-minded American general well-liked by his troops. On the morning of April 27, 1813, they followed him into battle as they had so often before, this time in an attempt to overtake the British forces at Fort York (located at present-day Toronto, Canada). The general and his men crossed Lake Ontario and began their march through smoke and bullets, aided by covering fire from U.S. Navy ships on the lake behind them. It looked like the British would soon surrender, so Pike halted his troops about six hundred feet from the fort.

The general was questioning a captured British soldier when, without warning, there was a tremendous explosion. Several hundred barrels of gunpowder and a huge amount of ammunition in the fort's weapons storehouse had been ignited, sending up towers of fire and smoke and spewing rocks and other debris in all directions. More than a hundred men were immediately killed or badly wounded. Pike was slammed by a large boulder that crushed his chest and tore into his back. Passing his command to a colonel, he told his troops, "Push on my brave fellows and avenge your general."

As Pike grew weaker and weaker, he finally heard the joyful shouts of his men as they raised the American flag over Fort York. Although now unable to speak, he motioned for the captured flag of Great Britain to be brought to him. It was placed beneath his head just before he died.

By the time they reach middle school, most American students understand that the Revolutionary War (1775-83) was fought to liberate the United States from British rule. They know that the Civil War (1861-65) was a conflict between the Northern and Southern states and that it involved such issues as slavery and states' rights. The wars of the twentieth century are familiar: World War I (1914-18) and World War II (1939-45), the wars in Korea (1950-53) and Vietnam (1954-75), and the recent Persian Gulf War (1991).

The War of 1812 (1812-14), however, remains a mystery to many people. In fact it is sometimes called "The Forgotten War," because only a few history students can recall why or where it was fought, or by whom. It followed so closely on the heels of the more exciting American Revolution that it seems to have gotten lost in a mist…or perhaps in a cloud of cannon smoke!

Nevertheless, Americans do remember the War of 1812, often without realizing it. Every time we sing our national anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner" at a baseball game, we are really remembering a scene of glory and pride from the War of 1812. Every time we use the expression, "Don't give up the ship!" we are really quoting the famous words of James Lawrence (1781-1813), a naval commander of the War of 1812. If we have heard of Pike's Peak, Colorado, or the folk song, "Sweet Betsy from Pike," we are familiar with the name of the well-known and popular general (and an explorer of the American West) Zebulon Montgomery Pike from the story at the beginning of this chapter.

Contradictions and missed communications

The War of 1812 was a conflict full of contradictions and missed communications. For example, the war might have been avoided altogether if there had been some faster way tocommunicate than waiting for a letter to travel across the Atlantic Ocean on a ship. At the beginning of the nineteenth century there was no telephone or even telegraph to relay the news that Great Britain was willing to change the law containing trade restrictions that Americans were getting ready to fight against. Several years later, when the war's biggest battle was fought at New Orleans, no one in the United States yet knew that a peace treaty had been signed two weeks earlier!

Supposedly, the War of 1812 was all about the United States's right to carry on sea trade without being harassed, yet most of the fighting took place far inland. The Treaty of Ghent, the agreement that ended the war, resolved none of the issues that had started it. And when the dust kicked up by marching soldiers had cleared, and the smoke of cannons fired from the decks of warships had drifted off, neither side could claim victory.

Why was the war fought?

So what was the meaning of this strange, short war, and what were its results? When U.S. president James Madison (1751-1836; see biographical entry) delivered his "war message" to the Congress, in 1812 recommending that the country enter into a war with Great Britain, he stated that the British had committed some unforgivable crimes against the United States. These included the frequent violation of neutrality rights (the right of a nation that is not at war not to be pulled into or hurt by other countries' conflicts), interference with trade, and the practice of impressment, by which British officials often boarded U.S. ships to capture deserters from their own navy, often wrongfully taking American citizens in the process.

But these weren't the only reasons that many Americans sought a war with Great Britain. Some thought that Canada (then a British colony) and Florida (most of which was held by Spain) should be part of the United States, and they reasoned that war would provide a way to acquire both. It also was widely believed that Great Britain was encouraging and even helping the Native Americans in the Northwest Territory (now the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois) to attack white Americans trying to settle on Native American lands.

It also is important to remember that this conflict took place only about twenty years after the United States had won its freedom from England. The euphoria of that victory had given way to the hard realities of running a new nation and keeping it free. The War of 1812 showed Americans and others that, despite differences of opinion and a serious lack of military preparation, the United States would and could defend its independence. That is why the War of 1812 is sometimes called the Second War of Independence.

The war drew to a close in early 1815 at the Battle of New Orleans, where a ragged but plucky assortment of troops defeated a much larger British force. In the wake of this surprising and thrilling victory, many Americans felt a renewed sense of pride in and loyalty to their country. In addition, those who hoped to settle in the vast areas west of the Appalachians (the mountain range that extended from Canada into central America and had previously marked the frontier) could now do so at less risk, because the most important alliance of Native Americans had been crushed. The great Shawnee leader Tecumseh (c. 1768-1813; see biographical entry), who had tried to rally Indians of many tribal nations to join together to resist white people's encroachment on Native American land, had died in the war while fighting alongside the British.

The end of the War of 1812 marked the start of a new phase in America's development. It helped Americans feel more confident as they took up the task of building their economy, settling their land, and creating their own culture.



Elting, John R. Amateurs to Arms!: A Military History of the War of 1812. 1991. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 1995.

Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds. Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1997.

Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Mahon, John K. The War of 1812. 1972. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: DaCapo Press, 1991.

Rutland, Robert, ed. James Madison and the American Nation, 1751-1836. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Web sites

Discriminating Generals. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

Documents on the War of 1812. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001)."War of 1812." KidInfo. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

"War of 1812." Studyweb. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001). Thomas Warner Letters. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

War of 1812. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

War of 1812-1814. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

War of 1812—Forgotten War. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

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