12:03 p.m. December 15, 2012

The War Nerd’s Twelve Days of 1812, Day Two: War, Because We Wanted To

(Previously: Day One: Badass French and Loudmouth Canucks)

Today I was going to talk about the Battle of Bladensburg, the worst performance ever by American troops. But, given that yesterday was the day that 20 little children were massacred at a school in CT, it doesn’t seem like the best timing to be doing military slapstick.

Might be better to talk about how the war started in the first place. A lot of people have emailed me saying they have no idea what the war was about, and I’ve been telling them, “Yup, that’s right—neither did anybody back in 1812.”

The usual reasons just aren’t very convincing. There’s the one about British navy ships boarding American vessels and grabbing anybody who even looked English: “You there wi’ the bad teef, you’re wiv us, me lad”—that kind of thing.

And it’s true that the Royal Navy, always hungry for more sailors, was sweeping the oceans for deserters who’d signed on with other ships. Guys did tend to leave the Navy by any means necessary, including suicide, because being a Tar was, in the considered opinion of most experts, worse than being in Hell. Some say “worse,” some say “just as bad, hard to say” but there’s general agreement that it wasn’t a good career choice.

The RN, like most military organizations of the time, was big on tough love, only without the love. For some weird reason, a lot of the sick corporal punishments the RN did have turned into cute little phrases, folk-song stuff: “keel-haul,” “run the gauntlet” and such. Well, not all of them. Some are a little more blunt: “flogging to death,” “hanging,” “cat-o-nine-tails.” The RN didn’t get around to banning the cat, their favorite teaching device, until the 1880s, and even then Parliament was laughing at the idea: “Why, we may as well pamper the ranks with wine and women!”—until one of the Irish dissidents in Parnell’s group had somebody actually bring a cat-o-nine-tails, a well-used one, right into the House of Commons. The fat pink toffs who’d been laughing at it felt this thing in their soft little hands, gulped a few times, and banned it on the spot.

But back in 1812, the cat was still going strong. Sailors were the lowest of the low, and in 1797, just 15 years before the war started, there were huge mutinies by fleets at Spithead and the Nore. Some of those boys had been hearing the whispers about “equality” and other treasonous French notions, and suddenly realized that maybe a breakfast of mealworm biscuits and a punch in the face wasn’t good enough for them any more.

The mutinies were quashed by bribes and hangings, but the RN was still considered the worst job in the world, even lower than soldiering. So the preferred method of “recruiting and maintaining staff,” as my ex-boss would say, was to sail up to any ship you met on the ocean and herd anybody you could plausibly claim onto HMS Whatever.

American ship owners didn’t like this, and it probably had something to do with irritating the US into a declaration of war (they still did that quaint old stuff in them days). But no way was it enough to explain why we went to war, any more than the other reasons you hear.

It’s not like those reasons are fake. They’re true; they just don’t really explain why we picked up the option on what was a very optional war.

First, there was the 1807 Embargo Britain imposed on Continental Europe. That was a disaster for the planters in the South and the smaller farmers on the Western frontier. Coming four years after the Louisiana Purchase, the embargo meant that a lot of pioneer farming districts had no markets for their crops just when they were getting started and needed to make some sales. American merchants were annoyed that the Brits were blockading trade with Napoleonic Europe.

The West was also seriously pissed with Britain for negotiating with the tribes of the Mississippi Valley. This was the last war where the tribes were important enough to matter, and Britain had been manipulating them for a long time, first against the French and now against the Americans. The tribes had plenty of reason to resent the white Americans who were pushing into their lands; they saw it as an us-or-them conflict, a war of extermination—and they were right. The Brits, now that they’d been pushed out of the U.S., could play helpful foreign ally to the tribes and offer them more practical help from Canada. They were experts in using the tribes as a counterweight, and as war looked more and more likely, they agitated harder along the edge of the western settlements.

There were massacres by both sides along the frontier, and the white settlers saw the Brits as the hidden hand behind them. You get lots of editorial cartoons of fat redcoats paying Injuns for American scalps and such.

All those usual reasons are real enough, but not really big enough to account for the war fever either. The people really running America in 1812 were all on the eastern seaboard, and they barely even pretended to care about scalped settlers or impressed sailors.

So why go to war with a great power when you know it’s in a bad mood? And Britain was in a very, very bad mood in the early 19th century, scared out of its wits by France, creeping democracy, disrespectful servants, and the whole revolutionary trend.

Mostly because the US was in a good mood--too good for its own good. We had a big birthrate—rich families were bigger than poor families in those days, partly because more of their kids made it to adulthood—and that made for a lot of young, ambitious “gentlemen” who wanted to add “officer” to their resumes, and “wartime officer” at that.

We went to war because we (meaning, as the academics would say, “a handful of wealthy white males, bla bla bla”) wanted to. The happiest memories anybody had were the stories—not always totally factual, naturally—of how we kicked British ass in Washington’s day. Most of the elite still had a vaguely pro-French feeling, thanks to the French saving our ass in the Revolution, and not in the mood to excuse all the Royal Navy’s high-handed behavior. America knew it was much bigger and stronger than it had been in 1780, and wanted everybody to know it. Nothing like a war to make an impression.

Most of all, it was the Chesepeake Incident of 1807 that sent America into a pro-war frenzy. Chesepeake was an American Navy frigate that had picked up four Royal Navy deserters. That was standard practice; you grabbed every man you could, because they usually ran off as soon as there was a chance, and nobody wanted photo ID.

Well, a big Royal Navy ship, the Leopard, heard about these four sailors and decided to search the American ship. They announced this by sailing up to the Chesepeake, firing a broadside at it, and boarding it. They found the four deserters, took them away, and ended up hanging on of them, a poor cockney who I always imagine must’ve looked like Eric Idle, that high whining voice right up to the moment he swung: “Oi nevuh did! “Ooooh, Look a’ the violence inherent in the—aaaawwwrk!”

And all through this, the American captain, James Barron, had done nothing. Nothing makes folks madder than the men they’ve put in charge of the guns not being willing to open fire. I remember reading about the U.S.S. Pueblo, one of our spy ships captured by North Korea in 1968. Their ammo was stored below decks, and they didn’t fire a shot. Even though I was reading about it 20 years later, I was furious. And the Chesepeake wasn’t some miserable geek-loaded spy ship, it was a 38-gun frigate. For a ship like that to lie back and let the redcoats fire on her, board her, and steal her crew, was more than a young, gesture-happy country like the US could handle. Most of the newspapers called for war right now, but Jefferson opted for embargo and diplomacy.

Now this is when Britain’s bad mood—scared and aggressive all at once, like, say, GWB in 2003—collides bigtime with America’s good mood—the strutting adolescent country, getting bigger and stronger by the year, eager to beat up the neighborhood bully and impress the girls.

Because, instead of apologizing in a nice Hugh Grant voice: “Oh was that your frigate? Terribly sorry, bit distracted these days what with that Napoleon problem”—the Brits said basically, “Yeah, we raped your ship and hanged your sailor and we’ll do it again the next time we catch one of our seagoin’ serfs moonlighting with you.”

Not a good move, but like I say, you have to remember how scared Britain was at the start of the 19th century. I had to read a Jane Austen novel in high school—apparently they were novels before they were chick flicks—and the teacher said Austen never once mentions France or the war, even though she was writing during the Napoleonic wars. She said this was evidence of Austen’s “total absorption in her own world, the bucolic world of middle-class life.” I sat there sulking in the back corner thinking, “Bullshit. She was scared.”

So America had been walking around itching for a chance to show the Brits that we weren’t all as wimpy as the captain of the Chesepeake. Besides, there was a more practical goal: Canada. When they looked north, the elite in Philadelphia and Washington could see the British holding Canada with a skeleton force of fifth-rate troops—all the decent soldiers had been shipped to Europe to fight the French. Canada meant big money in furs, and some decent cold-weather farming land in Ontario. Besides, the way these people thought, you can never have enough land. Washington, for instance, was one of the biggest land barons in American history. Land hunger was a big drive with colonials.

Lastly, the factor you won’t see mentioned in any of the standard list: War envy. You see this a lot when a war goes big: everybody wants to get in on it. Later, they usually want to get out, but it’s too late then. War meant much more to most upper-class Americans in 1812 than it does now. Decent families were supposed to produce officers, and officers wanted battle creds. Everybody in Europe was getting them; they’d been at it for 20 years, in fact. It was just plain time for another war. The Brits were overextended and impolite; Canada was there for the taking, or looked to be; and a whole new generation of Americans who’d had to listen to dad’s and granddad’s stories about Lexington and Saratoga wanted some material of their own, to bore their grandkids with, the way God intended.

That’s why, when you look for the immediate provocation that led up to the declaration of war in 1812, you won’t find one. Nothing as big as the 1807 Chesepeake Incident happened. As far as the young hotheads, the officer class, were concerned, we’d already collected more than enough provocation. And besides, as kids love to tell themselves, “We can take those guys.” Which wasn’t exactly true, but more on that later.

(Next: Day Three: Bladensburg -- Too Much Geography, Too Many Cooks)