Tuesday, June 19, 2012

War of 1812 bicentennial

Monday, June 18th, marked the bicentennial of one of the country's most ill-advised adventures, the War of 1812.

Now, there's certainly no doubt that the United States was provoked. The British, being the premier maritime power of the day, had few compunctions about acting as it pleased, with little concern over the sensibilities of weaker powers. The Chesapeake-Leopard affair was egregious by any standards, for example.

And the Americans were in a tough spot. Europe was embroiled in war, going into the second decade of the generation-long French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars and it was having a very negative effect on American trade. Both side resorted to economic warfare and America bore the brunt of it.

On the other hand, the American response to the crisis was, to say the least, wrong-headed. On the one hand, Thomas Jefferson tired some economic warfare of his own, with the Non-Intercourse Act, that merely worsened the situation for Americans. Meanwhile he tried a foolish naval policy of emphasizing coastal gunboats instead of proper naval vessels. Like many attempts to get defense on the cheap. the gunboats proved worse than useless when the war came. Their crews made their main contribution to the war effort as foot soldiers and artillerymen in some land battles and by providing experienced crew men on the lakes and aboard the few proper naval vessels there were.

That the United States ended up being able to claim something like a draw by the end of the war was largely due to the professionalism of the United States Navy, the vast extent of the war zone and the fact that Britain was distracted by the much more important European fighting.

Aside from the classic ship duels of the opening phase of the naval war, the War of 1812 hasn't gotten much attention in wargames, although it wouldn't be fair to say it's been ignored. This 200th anniversary year has brought  a new euro-style wargame called 1812 that I haven't actually seen yet, but seems to be well received. There's the classic Columbia Games block wargame War of 1812 that still holds up well after all these years and there's an expansion to Worthington's Napoleon's War series called America's War that depicts four of the main land battles from the conflict. There are also War of 1812 scenarios in most of the Age of Sail wargames such as Close Action and Serpents of the Sea.

The war, itself, wasn't an  intense affair, especially compared to the contemporary Napoleonic wars. The land battles were mere skirmishes and the naval battles small encounters. The US Navy had some nasty surprises for the Royal Navy, but the overall balance of power between the two sides at sea meant that the outcome of that part of the war was never in doubt. The US Army, once again, learned that there's no substitute for training -- and certainly not militia -- but the lesson was promptly unlearned after the war and the country would continue to rely on militiamen for the rest of the century.

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