War of 1812
To many Americans, the War of 1812 is a forgotten war. Perhaps it is because the war is far overshadowed by the War for Independence and the perspective, from the Twenty-first Century, is that they happened almost at the same time back in the far distant shadows of history. Perhaps it is because the major anniversaries of the war coincide with the anniversaries of that terrible, defining conflict, the American Civil War. Perhaps it is because so few of our ancestors participated in the war most of us have little genetic memory of its events.
It is strange and somewhat ironic that the war should be so unmemorable for many uniquely American icons were born of the conflict: the National Anthem, originally a poem written by a lawyer witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore; the frigate USS Constitution earning her nickname "Old Ironsides" when enemy cannonballs bounced off her timbered hull; "Don't Give Up the Ship," that motto of perseverance, the final encouragement to the crew of the USS Chesapeake by the dying Captain James Lawrence; and even a popular song in the 1960's by Johnny Horton which recalled the Battle of New Orleans all memorialize the War of 1812.
Two nations, formerly related as mother country and colony, now separate, faced conflicting needs. By 1812, England and France had been engaged in a death struggle for nearly twenty years. While Napoleon controlled most of Europe, England's Royal Navy dominated the waters around the continent. War in Europe meant economic opportunities for American merchants who hoped to sell their products in both camps. But, England did not want their former colonies selling vital war materials – wheat, fish, naval stores, or anything else – to the French, and the French did not want the newly independent country selling those same goods to England. American merchants were caught in the middle as the two foes alternately imposed then relaxed restrictions on neutral trade. After the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the Royal Navy, unrestrained by the counterbalance of French or Spanish fleets, increased the stopping and searching of American vessels for contraband. And, protected by the guns of their warships, British boarding parties frequently removed, or impressed, sailors they believed were deserters or British citizens. Many Americans, some estimates as high as 8000, unwillingly served in the ships of the Royal Navy, American protests notwithstanding.