The War Nerd’s Twelve Days of 1812 Day One: Badass French and Loudmouth Canucks
“Jingle bells/ bursting shells/ shrap-nel in the air!”
Yessiree, it’s time to sing in the Yuletide (whatever a Yuletide is), and as your faithful War Nerd, I’ll be singing Yuletide in the form of twelve consecutive days of The War of 1812.
My official excuse for talking about this war is that this is the 200th anniversary. Although it’s true that Yuletide is a little late to start this, because most war action happened in the summer in those days. You try tramping into Quebec in the winter, wearing homemade shoes and a ridiculous hat, and you’ll see why. So it’s kinda like Grandpa used to say on Hee Haw when they were celebrating America’s 200th back in the 70s: “It happened two hunnerd years ago…eh, more’r’less.”
In fact, “more’r’less” pretty much sums up this war for most of us, because we don’t know or care about it. We’ve got a soundbite for all our wars except 1812 and Korea. Try it and you’ll pop up the right cliché easy as spitting. American Revolution: three-cornered hats, redcoats falling in a line like chorus girls, cold feet at Valley Forge. Civil War: big beautiful tragedy that either was or wasn’t about slavery depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line you live on. WW II: The Greatest Generation, and Nazis’r’bad, mmmmkay? Viet Nam: tur’ble, tur’ble shame, all them fine young men.
But those two, 1812 and Korea—we don’t talk about them much. For one thing, they both ended in a draw. And like coaches always say, a military tie is like bayoneting your sister. It’s a shame, because they were both wild, funny wars — much more interesting, if you ask me, than that overrated WW II.
Maybe the problem is that both those wars featured big bug-outs by American infantry—something we don’t much like to remember. But then both those wars also had moments of real glory: Inchon and Chosin in Korea, Baltimore and New Orleans in the War of 1812. You’ll notice that the only two songs about 1812 are about those two battles. The Siege of Baltimore is what our national anthem (an old British drinking song with Key’s lousy lyrics about Congreve “rockets’ red glare” slapped on it) is actually babbling about, if you can make any sense of it.
For a really great song, you’ve got to go to the Battle of New Orleans, maybe the best battle song in American history:
In 1814 we took a little trip, Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip’ We took a little bacon and we took a little beans And we fought the bloody British near the town of New Orleans.
The way that song got written shows you how hard it is to get anybody to focus on this war. A high school history teacher in Arkansas, back in the 1930s, came up with it as a last-ditch try to get his students to remember something about this war. It still might work for teaching, although I don’t know if they’d let you get away with “bloody British” any more. You could change it to “the inappropriately behaving British” or something and make it into one of those overproduced duets with a woman singing high and a guy rapping low, Avril Lavigne warbling out the first line and Jay-Z getting down and dirty with the bacon and beans.
Avril would be all for it, too, because she’s some kind of Canadian, and the only people on this planet who get all weepy and emotional about the War of 1812 are the Canucks. It’s a big, big deal north of the border, especially in Ontario. There’s even a Canadian band, The Arrogant Worms, that did a pretty cool parody of the “Battle of New Orleans” song, with lyrics about how great it was that they burned down Washington D.C. and stopped a half-assed invasion of Canada:
Them hillbillies from Kentucky, Dressed in green and red, Left home to fight in Canada, But they returned home dead It’s the only war the Yankees lost, except for Vietnam And also the Alamo... and the Bay of... ham. The loser was America, The winner was ourselves, So join right in and gloat about the War of 1812
Not bad for a bunch of Canadians. I didn’t like the Canucks I saw in Victoria — seemed all snotty and serious, rule-bound and twitchy — but then again, Canada did produce SCTV so there’s hope yet. Maybe.
I’d have to quibble with their military history though. The Alamo was one of those lost battles that win wars by buying time, a tactical defeat and strategic victory, for starters—and it’s not exactly right that we lost the War of 1812. It was a straight-up draw, which wasn’t bad for anybody facing the British Army around 1812.
The British Army has had some wild ups and downs over the past 300 years, unlike their navy, which has been damn good straight through. The redcoats we faced in 1776 weren’t much of an army—the troops were seldom-fed unemployables and the officers mostly dim-bulb second sons. That was one of the reasons the US woofed so loud at the Brits leading up to 1812: we were bigger and stronger and figured if we beat them back in the 1780s it’d be a cakewalk now.
Trouble is, they were bigger and stronger too—a lot bigger and stronger. They’d been fighting the French for a decade, and what people forget is that at the start of the 19th century the French were by far, and I mean by far, the best soldiers on the planet. Nobody in the Anglo world, either us or the Brits, likes that fact, so they deal with it by saying they fought “Napoleon” as if that stubby Corsican was a one-man army, a freak of Nature doing all the bayonet charges, cavalry sweeps, and pulling the lanyards all by himself.
Truth is, the French won almost all the time in that era, even when outnumbered, like they were at Austerlitz, and against anybody—Prussians, Russians, and English. Not to mention Austrians, because frankly Austrians don’t count for anything except comic relief. If you’re in an alliance with Austria, your insurance automatically goes up because stats show you’re gonna lose, lose, lose.
Napoleon was a great general, sure, but he was one of hundreds of great commanders in the Grande Armee. It’s weird how little you read about these guys, growing up as a war nerd in an English-speaking country. You can read all you want about Wellington, a mediocre commander, but you have to work damn hard to find out about guys like Lazar Hoche, one of the great commanders in history, a stable boy who soldiered all day and did general labor for pennies all evening so he could buy books. By the time he was 25 he’d made general by sheer brains and ferocity and smashed every Prussian army he met—and somehow he still found time to die of TB before Bonaparte was even a celebrity.
The French made war with the bayonet and cannon — the musket wasn’t worth much yet. Suvorov, the one general early 19th-century French armies were afraid of, had a saying he taught his men: “The bullet is a fool, the bayonet is a fine fellow” — meaning that the bullet usually misses, but the bayonet generally goes where you stick it. Hard to miss a guy’s torso at bayonet range, but very easy to miss with an unrifled musket, especially when it’s being fired by the typical infantryman circa 1800: a half-starved drunk who’s been beaten by his sergeant every day until he’s learned to stand still while being fired at by big, slow cannonballs. Very distracting, standing in a line waiting for the order to advance or fire while you watch the guys next to you turn into hamburger helper, or find themselves a leg short when one of those big balls hits them on the bounce.
The French were easily the best at that kind of fighting, mostly because they were the first enlisted men to call each other “citizen” and treat each other with some respect. Made for good morale. Whereas the non-stop beating that was the main morale-building technique in most European armies made for guys who were too flinchy to run but not all that eager to distinguish themselves in close combat, either. Every time an army of scared conscripts fought the French, they lost, which is why the British troops under Wellington in the Peninsular War had a simple rule: Always engage the Spanish if you can, never French troops (like Monty’s rule in Africa: Always fight Mussolini’s guys, not Rommel’s Germans).
Even when French armies lost, they fought very hard and very well. In fact, you’ll notice that most of the time, when French armies of that time did lose, it was to a tag-team of two or three big powers swarming them—very, very rarely to any other single European power.
We’ve made a real effort in the Anglo world to forget the French of that time because they were scary—much scarier than the Germans were in the next century, because you couldn’t just blow them off as “evil.” All that “liberty, equality, brotherhood” stuff may seem obvious now, but it sure as Hell wasn’t obvious if you were a typical lice-ridden serf in Central Europe. The first time those poor bastards had ever heard that they were even human was when the French arrived and told them so. So once you got below the landlord class in Italy or Germany, the arrival of the revolutionary French armies was the best thing that had ever happened. Hard to get your head around this if you’re an Anglo, but the sad truth is that the bad guys won at Trafalgar and Waterloo, a gang of hereditary vampires like Mister Burns in one of those sideways admiral hats.
By the time the US got up on its hind legs and barked over the fence in 1812, the Brits had been fighting these French super-soldiers for a long time, using the Channel and their Navy to keep the French off their shores, meanwhile building little “Martello Towers” every few yards along the coastline to repel the expected landings. Fear of a French invasion, plus combat practice, had sharpened up the British Army consid’ruble—not enough to make them equal to the Grande Armee, but more than enough to crush most of the “militia” they’d face in America.
Even so, the Brits got more than their share of surprises in this war, and the only reason they even pulled out a draw had nothing to do with them. It was Napoleon’s insane idea of invading Russia, then retreating from Moscow at the beginning of a Russian winter, that finally freed up the main British forces to cross the Atlantic and start whacking the upstarts. That’s a typically weird side of this war, the fact that the decisive moment happened on the other side of the world, on the frozen bank of the Beresina River.
1812 was a war full of sudden reversals (another feature in common with Korea) and weird comedy. Imagine a war where “States’ Rights” is a buzzword in New England, not the South; where a whole state, little Rhode Island, opts out of the whole war and proudly gets rich selling supplies to the enemy; where proud American citizen-soldiers run so fast that the battle to defend D.C. gets to be known as “the Bladensburg Races” but at the same time American warships do what nobody’s ever done, beating bigger British vessels in single combat. It featured the second most ludicrous attempted American invasion of Canada—and it only comes in second because for sheer ludicrosity, nothing could beat the “invasion” of Ontario by a handful of Irish Fenians in 1866.
And listen, my Canuck friends, you might want to remember that little episode before you get too pert. Yup, a couple hundred Irishmen got off the train at the border, formed up and kicked the shit out of the Canadian militia who had gathered to defend their homeland from the Papist hordes. As fast as we might’ve run from British Marines at Bladensburg, you poor fools ran even faster, and from a handful of illiterate Micks who’d come north third-class on a train. Take that, ya arrogant worms.
That’s the really great thing about this unappreciated little war: it rains on everybody’s parade, farts through the chorus of everybody’s anthem. Nobody comes out of it looking good—especially the myths people love the most, like the supposedly invincible Royal Navy, or our whole glorious “citizen-soldier” tradition.
It was a fiasco--and one thing you see when you compare well managed wars with fiascos, is that the fiascos make for way, way better war stories. Just take the two Iraq Wars: the 1991 version was a masterpiece, with lopsided casualties as bad as Omdurman—and no good stories came out of it at all. Bush’s sequel was worse than Godfather III, but whoa, what a lot of great urban-combat stories it gave us. We’ll be mining those for years.
Over the next two weeks, I’ll open up the various sub-fiascos of this war one by one, like one of those Xmas calendars where you pop open a little picture every day. As Ahnold would say, “it’zzz gott every-zink!” including the very worst showing by American forces in history. And the great thing about this war is, you don’t even know which battle I’m talking about when I say “worst,” because there’s at least two candidates.
So tune in tomorrow to see which one I pick.