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The forgotten guns of August

by Eric Ferguson on August 25, 2014 · 2 comments

US soldiers at Ft. Shelby, Prairie du Chien, 1814August marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, and certainly that deserves to be amply remarked upon (if all you know of the war is which Roman numeral it gets, here’s a quick primer). However, it reminds me of a 200th anniversary coming up for the decisive part of a war that’s been remarkably ignored. The title of this post is something of a play on words, specifically the title of the seminal book on the start of World War I, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. August was also the start of the decisive battles of the oft-forgotten War of 1812. I feel particularly odd at having stayed wrapped up in current events because I’m a War of 1812 reenactor, or at least was. It’s been long enough that I probably lost my present tense status. But it has bugged me for two years that the war’s bicentennial came and went with little notice outside commemorations at the places where events happened.
So I’m fixing that now. This is the anniversary of a war where the US government was run by people who were delusional about our prospects, and thereby got everything wrong. Campaigns went badly, the economy suffered, and the armed forces turned out to be unready for a badly underestimated enemy. No, I didn’t veer of into talking about Bush’s war in Iraq, though learning some history might have salutary lesson for those who led us into our recent debacle. They forgot, however, assuming they knew, which I don’t actually assume.
Maybe the War of 1812 is forgotten because of the bland name, merely the year the war started, and people at the time didn’t know what to call it. That was true of Canadians and British too. Maybe it’s forgotten because it ended in a draw, which perhaps is boring and gives the impression nothing happened or nothing changed — yet this is a very different country than it might have been. Imagine the Mississippi River is our western border. Imagine the Great Lakes are all British. Imagine the country is split in two with the split sustained by foreign force. Imagine the US, far from being the confident nation we take for granted, looked at the outside world with a strong desire to keep its head down and not be noticed, because the idea we could take on a European great power had been beaten out of us. We came close to all of that being reality. Here in August, we mark the 200th anniversary of the events that settled which future we would have.
Warning: this post gets long following the “read more” link, at least long considering it’s a blog. Get comfy.

Before getting into the decisive events of the war, I probably need to give some background on what happened during the first two years because, you know, that whole being forgotten thing. My apologies for the coming over-generalizations, but I’m not going to try to explain the whole war in a blog post. So accusations I missed some nuances will almost surely be correct.
As might be guessed from the reference above to the US government not knowing what it was getting into, the year of 1812 was disaster. War was declared in June, and our army and militias were basically smushed. American advances into British territory went badly unless you were looking at it from the British point of view, while we lost much of the Great Lakes. The navy was remarkably effective thanks to the cutting edge design of our ships, but they were few in number and had to get back to port eventually, whereupon the British blockade kept them in and commerce out. So the economy suffered while our army proved lousy and militias proved mostly useless. The only reason the US survived was Britain was still fighting Napoleon, and could spare little for North America.
1813 went better. The army got better leadership and developed something of a supply line, and US regulars got up to a professional level of competence. They made a briefly successful attempt to invade Canada, and took back some of the Great Lakes.
The good news in 1814 was there were victories in the Southwest (Mississippi and Alabama), so things were looking up, but there was really bad news. Napoleon went to his first exile, so Britain could now turn its full attention to us, with the world’s best army and navy, and anger that we declared war while Britain was struggling with France.
So here is where we get into Britain’s plan to win the war and what happened in August.
There was a three part plan to attack the US and force it into a weak position for the peace negotiations that were going on, which presumably would result in a peace that left the US smaller and properly chastened. Two parts were meant to be simultaneous to force the US to defend in two places at once. One part was to attack around Chesapeake Bay, especially Baltimore and Washington. Destroying the port at Baltimore would be a serious blow to the teetering American economy, and the loss of threat of loss of the capital might make the Americans accept a worse peace. The British actually thought that was a diversion for the second part, an invasion from Canada down the Hudson River to cut off New England, which had generally opposed the war and even continued trade with Britain, and give encouragement to the secessionists, threatening thereby to split the country in two.
The third part is the part most likely to be known: send a fleet to capture New Orleans and thereby control the Mississippi River, strangling the western economy. The production of America West of the Appalachians flowed down river to New Orleans to be transported to market, unless of course Britain took it. Thus the one part of the war likely to have been heard of, the Battle of New Orleans.
So at this point in August 1814, British ships were moving up the Potomac River to attack Alexandria, while a British army was marching towards Washington. An force of American soldiers, marines, and militia attempted to block the British at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24th. The army and marines put up a fight, but the militia showed why relying on untrained militia was a bad idea, and why we stopped relying on militias after this war. Finding themselves up against the redcoats who beat Napoleon, they did the logical thing and ran. The US defense dissolved, the government fled, and Washington fell. The British burned Washington, targeting government buildings. They may have felt justified by the government’s refusal to surrender, or they may have retaliated for the burning of York, now called Toronto, the capital of Upper Canada, when it fell to American invasion in 1813. Maybe both. In any case, surrender didn’t follow, though the British surely thought their peace negotiators were about to have a stronger hand.
So Alexandria fell, American ships were destroyed, and the whole region was under British control, except the main target, Baltimore. Baltimore came under attack on September 12th. The American commander sent a detachment to try to delay the British land forces while construction continued on the city’s defenses, and they fought the British at North Point, a few miles outside the city. This time the outnumbered Americans didn’t break. They got the delay they wanted, so even though the British held the field, the Americans retreated in order behind Baltimore’s defenses. The British attacked on September 13th, but decided the defenses were too strong to continue the assault, and so decided to have the navy bombard Ft. McHenry. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve heard a song called The Defense of Ft. McHenry, set to the tune of Anachreon in Heaven, and later renamed The Star Spangled Banner. The “rockets red glare” was the Congreve rockets Britain used at that time, and the “bombs bursting in air” were shells which were timed to explode in the air just above the targets’ heads. There were also something like 1500 cannonballs. Once the ships moved out of range of the fort’s guns, the garrison could only sit there and take it. If you’ve ever looked at the verses of the national anthem after the one sung at ballgames, you know that they held out.
The British commander had orders to break off the attack if the city was too strongly defended, and join his fleet with the fleet forming to attack New Orleans. So everything succeeded except the attack on Baltimore, and the British were merely repulsed, not defeated. Still, the campaign was considered a dismal failure, and news reached the peace negotiations about the same time as news of a more definitive morale-sapping defeat.
That other morale-sapping defeat is known as both the Battle of Lake Champlain and the Battle of Plattsburgh, because land forces fought over the town while navies fought over the lake the town sits on. Yes, September 11th was once a good day in US history, until it was forgotten, rather odd considering this was arguably the single most important battle of the war.
Britain had naval superiority on the lake and constructed more ships (when the border region was still wilderness, the only way to get warships on lakes was to build them on the spot). The Americans built their own fleet which was smaller and outgunned, while land forces bought time falling back slowly, doing things like burning bridges behind them. The invasion force, led personally by the governor general of Canada, came up the Richelieu River on August 31. British forces eventually found ways to get to Plattsburgh despite American obstruction, and planned to attack American defenses simultaneously by land and lake. The army would try to overrun Plattsburgh, while the navy would get rid of the US ships and support the attack. That part about getting rid of the American ships was the part that didn’t work out.
The battle is a dramatic story that deserves to be better known, so I encourage following the link above. If you don’t want to rely on Wikipedia, follow the sources. The gist is the Americans were outnumbered and outgunned on both land and lake, and many Americans were militia, but their commanders chose to fight a defensive battle to minimize the British advantages. They fought in the town from fortified positions, while the fleet was placed in a bay that forced the British to attack in a smaller space that negated their advantage in ships and longer range guns. The British had the better of the battle in the town, driving back the Americans even without support from the navy, but the naval battle was a long and close fight that resulted eventually in larger British losses, and the fleet was forced to withdraw. The British commander decided he couldn’t hold the town without the control of the lake for resupply, and withdraw. The campaign intended to sever the country in two was stopped at the start.
The combination of defeats at Plattsburgh and Baltimore caused Britain to decide to move the negotiations to a quick resolution, essentially, a formalized version of the status quo ante bellum. Notice the bombardment of Ft. McHenry started the day after the Battle of Lake Champlain/Plattsburgh, and the news of each battle might have reached the negotiating table simultaneously. The Treaty of Ghent was signed in December, thus starting a myth about the war, that the most famous battle was fought after the war was over. No.
That battle was the Battle of New Orleans, fought on January 8th, whereas the treaty was signed December 24. However, it didn’t take effect until ratification, and word hadn’t even reach North America by January 8th. Besides, I have great difficulty believing Britain wouldn’t have responded to news it had captured New Orleans in any way other than demanding a renegotiation. It was just too big a prize.
The point of capturing New Orleans was to take control of the Lower Mississippi River, to go with control it already had of the Upper Mississippi* (it’s a tangent so I’m not putting it here, but Minnesotans wondering about our state’s role in the war, follow that asterisk). British victory would likely have meant the Mississippi would be America’s western border. It certainly would have allowed Britain to strangle the economy of the American West. In this time when roads were rare and rarely good, commerce flowed down the Ohio River to the Mississippi, and thence to New Orleans, to be loaded on ships.
By the way, if what you know of this battle comes from the Johnny Horton song The Battle of New Orleans, please forget it, because it’s thoroughly wrong. If you don’t know that song, please don’t look it up. Actually, it’s the words that are misleading. The tune was written shorlty after the battle as a commemoration, and entitled The Eighth of January. So the tune actually is from the time. This is the tune without the offending modern lyrics:

Again, whole books have been written on this battle, so I’m not going to try to tell the whole story. It is the case that this was where Andrew Jackson became a national figure, and it was one of the most one-sided battles in either country’s histories. But that stuff about the British being shot at and running away: utter nonsense.
The British army was made of the same units commended by Wellington in the war with France. These were possibly the best portion of the world’s best army. They had to make their way to New Orleans by finding their way through the Mississippi delta’s swamps, moving artillery and supplies as well as themselves, and they did it. American attempts to impede them accomplished some delays. Meanwhile, the American army was a collection of some regulars, several different militia units, and the local pirates led by someone who detested the British. The units varied widely in training, experience, and arms, to the degree they had any.
Jackson made the same smart moves as successful commanders int he aforementioned battles, though he likely hadn’t heard details about them yet. He knew his militias could never fight an open battle, so he chose a defensive position a few miles outside the city and let the British do the attacking, which they did surprisingly badly. The got onto position to march towards the American barricades, and realized they’d forgotten the scaling ladders. Some dreadful decisions by commanding officers left their soldiers standing in the open as American defenders fired on them from behind protected decisions. Dreadful as the officers were that day, what shows the stuff about British soldiers running away was nonsense was that they took the beating and still kept their lines. That’s tough to do. They did succeed in some places in reaching the American lines, but they lacked sufficient numbers to hold them. They retreated in good order, and the smartest thing the Americans did that day was possibly staying at their positions and not pursuing. The British lost about 2,000 compared to seven Americans, but had the largely untrained militias gone after the British regulars, the battle would have reversed in an instant.
From an American point of view, the news about the treaty and New Orleans arrived about the same time, allowing the impression a decisive battlefield victory forced the British to give up. Remember that news traveled at the speed of a boat. Or a pedestrian. There were many newspapers, but no wire services. Americans felt like they won, which in a sense they had, though Canadians would argue the point with valid reason. Americans gained some of the national self-confidence we know consider core to our national character, largely forgetting what a close run thing it had been.
*Minnesota’s part in the war is included in the reference to Britain holding the Upper Mississippi. The area that is now Minnesota and western Wisconsin was referred to by British and Americans as “the Upper Mississippi.” This was era of the fur trade, and the only whites here were the mostly Scottish fur traders and mostly French-Canadian voyageurs of the North West Company, based in Montreal. They traded with the Indians of the region, and won their allegiance to Britain.
Control of the Upper Mississippi was threatened in June 1814 when the US Army built a fort at Prairie du Chien, at the mouth of the Wisconsin River, which was a major post for the North West Company. The company formed itself into a militia, The Mississippi Volunteers. The traders become the officers and the voyageurs become the soldiers. Imagine your workplace was formed into a militia, with military ranks corresponding to your position in the company. Now imagine that actually working, and that’s basically what happened.
A combined force of the Mississippi Volunteers, allied Indians, and a few regulars besieged the fort and a gunboat posted there to support the fort. The gunboat was forced to withdraw downriver, stranding the garrison. The garrison held out as they ran out of food, water, and ammunition, and saw hotshot being prepared to start the fort on fire. They negotiated a surrender that allowed the garrison to be disarmed and paroled (a common practice in this era, odd as it sounds in modern times where POWs are normally treated horribly), leaving the fort in British hands. A larger American force hoping to retake the fort was defeated at Rock Island by a detachment of militia and a large number of Indians.
The British held the fort until news of peace arrived, and they learned British negotiators had recognized American control of the entire Mississippi. Their feelings about this might be inferred from the fact that they burned the fort rather than turning it over as the treaty required. Many traders, forced to choose between trying to establish themselves in British territory, or remaining in this region where they knew the Indians and had trading relationships established, opted to stay here, even becoming American citizens in order to be eligible for trading licenses, and continuing to employ French-Canadians. That is why the fur trade here continued to be conducted in French, and the white population of Minnesota when it first became a territory was mostly French-Canadian.

Eric Ferguson August 25, 2014 at 3:47 pm

Just found out the Minnesota Historical Society has an exhibit on the War of 1812 from the Canadian War Museum, which I visited when I was in Ottawa. They had one of the shot up regimental flags of a British unit that fought at New Orleans.

Grace Kelly August 25, 2014 at 11:20 pm

Awesome article!

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