James Gill: How the Brits feel about the War of 1812

While last week saw the annual re-enactment of Old Hickory’s famous victory over the British in 1815, the historical view in London’s House of Commons was somewhat different.

There, Bob Russell rose to laud “British success in the North American War of 1812-14.”

That was truly a remarkable war. Not only does Russell have it ending in the year before what we regard as its conclusive battle, but both sides figure they won. Overall, that is. The British will not deny they took a shellacking at the Battle of New Orleans.

The defeat must have been all the more galling when it turned out that the war had been declared over with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve in 1814. But that news had not reached these shores by Jan. 8, when Andrew Jackson’s makeshift force mowed down Edward Pakenham’s invaders. The British had already ratified the treaty in December, but the U.S. Senate did not follow suit until February, so perhaps the war wasn’t over at that. You can see why the British would prefer to think it was and thus gloss over what happened to Pakenham’s army.

In fact, the British don’t know beans about the entire war, which is why Russell spoke up. He wants schoolchildren to learn about the war because he thinks it was “as important to this country as the victories at Trafalgar 1805 and Waterloo 1815.”

British forces did indeed fare better in Canada and elsewhere than they did in Chalmette, enjoying one of their finest hours, Russell suggested, when they managed to occupy Washington.

Now would be a good time to add the war to the curriculum, he said, because “this August is the 200th anniversary of when the White House was burnt down by the East Essex Regiment.” That set Russell’s fellow Members of Parliament chortling, which seemed a little impolite, given that Limey politicians are so keen to claim a “special relationship” with the United States.

Education Minister Michael Gove seemed to hint at that relationship when he responded that “the war of 1812-14 was a cousins’ war” while praising the valor of the Essex soldiers. He did not yield to Russell’s plea that it should take its place in history class, however.

If it did, the Battle of New Orleans would have to rate a mention, although British schoolchildren are unlikely to thrill at the tale we love to hear about the vastly outnumbered ragtag force that routed veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, with Pakenham himself among the dead.

Although there is some confusion over when the war that began in 1812 ended, there is no doubt about the terms under which it did. All captured territories were ceded back, so it might be regarded as a waste of time. Why Russell thinks it so important is not clear to me, possibly because I went to school in England — Essex, as it happens — where the war was never mentioned, let alone explained.

That would be most odd if, as Russell claims, the British won it. It couldn’t have been out of desire to hush up Pakenham’s defeat, because the Battle of New Orleans was the only one in that war everyone had heard of. That was thanks to Lonnie Donegan who hit the British charts with a version of the American song about it, which begins, “in 1814 we took a little trip.” Perhaps the British can be forgiven for not knowing hostilities continued into 1815.

What they do learn is that Napoleon got whooped in 1814 and exiled to Elba. Nobody tells them that the British were therefore able to dispatch more troops to America.

Napoleon was presumably delighted by events in Louisiana and was soon planning another crack at the British himself. He escaped and returned to a hero’s welcome in France, but his comeback was short-lived. After troops commanded by Pakenham’s brother-in-law, the Duke of Wellington, defeated the French army at Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled again, this time to the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena.

There he may have entertained thoughts of escaping to America — one account has a supporter planning to spirit him away in a submarine — but there is no reason to think he even considered refuge in the house that is now a bar bearing his name on Chartres Street in the French Quarter. Never mind. The British were mad enough at New Orleans already.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.