Chaney Scholar Explains 1812: Our Forgotten War With Britain

This past week, the Center for the Study of Democracy welcomed this year’s Chaney Visiting Scholar, David Healey, who came to discuss the U.S.’s forgotten war — the War of 1812. The lecture, entitled 1812 in the Maryland Imagination: A Star-Spangled Exploration, gave those present an insight into a part of Maryland history on the eve of the bicentennial of the declaration of war.

The beginning of the talk dealt with French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. During the opening years of the 1800s, Bonaparte had plunged Europe into a “world war.” At the same time, relations with Britain and the United States become even more frigid. The British did not recognize the U.S. as a sovereign nation and the Royal Navy kidnapped many U.S. sailors, forcing them to serve on British ships. The British were also funding a “cold war” between the western settlers and the Native Americans.

On June 18, 1812, Congress, on the recommendation of President James Madison, declared war on Great Britain. Madison would be the only President to actually lead troops in battle. However, the war went just as well as the Battle of Bladensburg, also known as the “Bladensburg Races” due to the fact that the American militia raced out of the way as the British marched on Washington.

The problem that faced the U.S. was that it picked the wrong enemy. According to Healey, “after the fall of France, Britain became the world’s first superpower which had the strongest navy and military [in the world].” When peace broke out in Europe, Britain was able to turn its attention to the U.S. front.

The United States was not ready to fight a war since it had virtually no army nor a navy to defend itself. In order to protect the Chesapeake, Joshua Barney built barges that were fast and could attack the Royal Navy’s ships and then hide in the marshes. However, these small boats were no match against the Royal Navy’s “First Rate” ship of the line, “which took 6,000 trees to build, 800 souls to man, and 30 pound guns on several decks,” said Healey.

“By 1813, the British had the Chesapeake Bay locked up more than the King’s bathtub,” joked Healey. However, this was no laughing matter at the time. Under the leadership of Admiral Sir Cockburn, the Royal Marines became the terror of Marylanders. As veterans of the Napoleonic wars, they destroyed most of the resistance of the American militias.  The militias were so bad that “fighting on land, sailors were the best trained soldiers,” said Healey as he described the major disadvantages the Marylanders were facing.

Healey then described several battles, including the defense of Elkton, one of the few victories for the U.S., the burning of Havre de Grace, which galvanized Marylanders against the British, and the well-known Battle of Baltimore and the defense of Fort McHenry.

Healey also mentioned the Legend of Kitty Knight. During the burning of Georgetown (Cecil County, MD) and after the rest of the town fled to the woods, Kitty Knight resisted the British soldiers and protected several older houses within the town. For her bravery, most of the older part of town was saved.

After Washington was destroyed, “public opinion in London started turning away from the war effort, mainly because of the burning of the Library of Congress, which was filled with British books that predated the Revolutionary War,” said Healy. Realizing that there could be peace for the first time in decades, the British people began to push for the end of hostilities. Following the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Day 1814, and the Battle of New Orleans, the U.S. and Britain ended most hostilities.

Despite the importance of the war, Healey explained that hardly anyone recounting U.S. history remembers the War of 1812. For many years afterwards, Defender’s Day was celebrated throughout the state. However, as time passed, people soon forgot about the war and what it meant to the people involved. Healey described how events like this war “fade into history.” At the end of his talk, he alluded to the fact that even modern wars will one day be forgotten in their entirety for future generations.

The talk seemed to be well received by the entire audience. “I really enjoyed it and he drew the audience in,” said Rebecca Prasher, junior, on Healey, “He was very easy and interesting to listen to.”


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