It was our first official war, and we very nearly lost it. Today it is remembered chiefly for giving birth to the poem that became our national anthem. It wasn’t the most important war even then: Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, which occurred the same year, was far more significant. But there are some resonances that remain even today:
- After the Battle of Lake Erie, Oliver Perry sent a note to William Henry Harrison with the words: “We have met the enemy, and he is ours.” When Walt Kelly parodied that to “We have met the enemy, and he is us,” people actually knew the reference.
- Speaking of which, William Henry Harrison’s career was made by the war. Whatever the tragicomedy of his thirty-day presidency in 1841, thirty years previously, Harrison was a military hero second to George Washington and Andrew Jackson.
- Speaking of which, while Harrison was conquering the Midwest, tossing out the British and breaking the power of the Indian tribes, Jackson was doing much the same in the Deep South. The Battle of New Orleans was a thundering defeat of the same British military that would crush Napoleon at Waterloo later that same summer (the British commander at New Orleans, Packenham, who died in the battle, had served under Wellington in Spain).
It’s our first official war, and its our first forgotten war. Maybe over the nest three years we’ll remember it a little.