Illustration of British forces burning Washington, D.C., 1814 by Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras
The War of 1812 is the most misunderstood war in American history. Its causes, course, and consequences have long been obscured by the shadows cast by two great conflicts that are its chronological bookends: the American Revolution and the Civil War.
According to Richard Bell, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, it’s a mistake to overlook the importance of this war to the course of American history. It was nothing short of momentous: Fought on three fronts, including the streets of Washington, the War of 1812 unfolded on a grand continental canvas. Like the American Revolution that preceded it, it combined bloody battlefield skirmishes with dramatic home-front conflicts that pitted neighbors and communities against one another. Like the Civil War that followed a half-century later, it was also a struggle involving slavery and slaveholding in which enslaved people themselves would claim decisive roles.
More than simply the inspiration for the poem that later became our national anthem, the War of 1812 was a watershed moment in the history of a young republic that can best be understood as both the last battle of the Revolution and the first battle of the Civil War.
Despite its famously inconclusive outcome, the war once and for all established the credibility of the newly formed United States among its European rivals and decisively secured its independence from Great Britain. It cemented American citizens’ own sense of themselves as a nation apart, emerging from the crucible of this war a proud and patriotic people. It also worked to entrench states’ rights ideology across the slaveholding South, and to unleash the new nation’s own imperial ambitions.
These experiences, however, came at extraordinary human cost, which Bell illuminates as he talks about the ordinary soldiers and seamen, merchants and laborers, enslaved African Americans and Native Americans, whose wartime experiences have long been obscured by history.
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