War of 1812 looked at differently in U.S. despite outcome

Jordan Chittley
Daily Buzz

Neither side can agree on who won, but Canadians are more interested in bicentennial celebrations

Two hundred years ago Monday, the U.S. Congress officially declared the country to be at war with Canada/the British and thus began a fight that involved the burning of the White House and paved the way to Confederation in 1867. At least that's how we see it today.

The Harper government has decided it's so important for people to learn about this war, which began in 1806 and lasted about a decade, they are spending more than $28 million on bicentennial celebrations. The money is being spent on a special silver coin, a new national monument, funding for historical re-enactments, upgrades to historic sites, museum exhibits and mobile app among other things.

[Related: Conservatives draw fire for War of 1812 spending ]

But the importance of the war, in which no one actually won, is a little different in the U.S.

"Canadians, whose forebears helped repulse several U.S. invasions in 1812, regard the war...as a crucible of national identity," writes Rick Hampson of USA Today. "Americans, on the other hand, are familiar with the 1959 hit song The Battle of New Orleans and have a vague image of Dolley Madison fleeing the White House ahead of torch-brandishing Royal Marines with a portrait of George Washington under her arm."

A recent poll shows 17 per cent of Canadians feel the war was the most important war in forming our nation's identity, but only three per cent of Americans feel that way.

Maybe, every time they sing the national anthem before a football game,  97 per cent forget Francis Scott Key wrote the words to it while watching the British shell Fort Mchenry in Baltimore Harbor.

[Related: War of 1812 flag being restored ]

"The War of 1812 has no compelling narrative that appeals to the average American," Jerald Podair, a history professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, told the Los Angeles Times. "It's just a hodgepodge of buildings burning, bombs bursting in air and paintings being saved from the invaders, all for a vaguely defined purpose."

But maybe it's so easy for both sides to forget because no one won. No boundaries or polices even changed.

"Canadians are sure they won the War of 1812, Americans are pretty sure, and the British never heard of it," said Jim Hill of the Niagara Parks Commission to USA Today. Apparently, the British sent their B team because they were preoccupied with a war in Europe against Napoleon.

This lack of enthusiasm 200 years ago didn't stop Prince Charles from attending a War of 1812 ceremony at Fort York in Toronto (it burned down during the war) alongside Prime Minister Stephen Harper last month.

Another reason why it's easy to forget is because it's hard to remember why we fought a war. Hampson, from a U.S. perspective, says it's unclear if it was fought to stop Britain's seizing of U.S. sailors or to end trade restrictions or to seize Canada.

A problem with one of the re-enactments in the Niagara region is that Canadians will actually be playing American soldiers.

"For the weekend, I'll have to be a turncoat," said John Sek, an English-born Canadian who will play a U.S. Army gunnery captain in the Battle of Queenston Heights, to USA Today. "There isn't the same interest in the war on (the U.S. side)."

The war, which began because the U.S. didn't realize the Brits had accepted their demands, actually ended two weeks after a peace treaty was signed in Europe. Word takes a long time to get to soldiers, when it travels by sea.

But no matter the lack of an outcome or the current disinterest from across the border, the war from 200 years ago left us with some great stories. Laura Secord, best known now for chocolate and ice cream, reportedly walked 20 miles to warn the British commander of an impending American attack. The Canadian colony prevented the Americans from advancing and it's a reason why we fly the maple leaf and not the stars and stripes today. Plus we burned down the White House while occupying the capital of Washington, D.C.

(CBC photo of War of 1812 student re-enactment at Fort Malden in Ontario)