Where Is the War of 1812 Bicentennial Celebration?

In the years leading up to July 4, 1976 in the United States, you could not escape American Revolution Bicentennial fever and celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. There were parties, celebrations, ships, special coins, speeches, Bicentennial Minutes every night on television, and much more. But there is very little this year to mark the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, which officially started 200 years ago today when the U.S. declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812. Basically, we had a bicentennial and all I got was a website.

Several years ago I worked with some young people from England and I was surprised to learn that they had never heard of the War of 1812. It is probably true that today most Americans know very little about the war, which makes it understandable that there is little about the bicentennial of a war that accomplished little. Even with some rewriting of history it is difficult to make the War of 1812 about lofty principles such as we do with other American Wars like the Revolution (freedom), the Civil War (freedom), and World War II (defeating Hitler). The 1976 Bicentennial events, in many ways, were not celebrating war but celebrating ideas. The date corresponded not to a war but to the signing of a document about equality — even though we continue to work on expanding what “equality” means.

By contrast, the War of 1812 was largely about sea rights, land rights, and the seizing of American sailors. The war involved a lot of complicated issues, such as U.S. expansion into Native American lands, that are worth exploring but beyond the scope of a short blog post. At the end of the war when the U.S. and England signed the Treaty of Ghent on February 17, 1815, many questions were still left open. Neither side won the war, but many Americans saw it as a victory that they had held their own against the powerful British Empire.

The war did have some lasting musical influences. A battle at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry gave Americans its national anthem “The Star Spangled Banner,” which we wrote about in a previous Chimesfreedom post. Another War of 1812 battle inspired a pop hit in the 1950s when Johnny Horton sang about the war’s most famous fight in the song “Battle of New Orleans.” The humorous take on the battle in the song is reflected in The Ed Sullivan Show performance below of the song that was number one on both the country and pop charts in 1959.

We fired our guns and the British kept a’comin;
There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago;
We fired once more and they began to runnin’ on,
Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

The actual Battle of New Orleans was a big victory for the U.S. over the British, but it happened after the war had officially ended. One outcome of the battle is that it helped launch the political career of future president Andrew Jackson, referred to by his nickname “Old Hickory” in the song.

Regarding the song, Jimmy Driftwood (1907-1998), an Arkansas school principal, wrote “The Battle of New Orleans” in 1936 as a way to get his students interested in history. Driftwood, who was born James Corbitt Morris, initially recorded “The Battle of New Orleans” but radio stations would not play it because the original version had “hell” and “damn” in the lyrics. For example, in Horton’s cleaned-up version, he sings, “We held our fire ’til we see’d their faces well./ Then we opened up with squirrel guns and really gave ’em … well.”

Driftwood wrote several hits throughout his career, including “Tennessee Stud.” For the music to “Battle of New Orleans,” he used an old American fiddle tune called “The Eighth of January,” which is the date of the famous battle. Here is a lively rendition of that tune:

Johnny Horton (1925-1960), who had the biggest hit with “Battle of New Orleans” in 1959, was a country and rockabilly singer who had other historical hits with songs such as “North to Alaska.” He also married Hank Williams’s widow Billie Jean Jones, and the couple had two daughters.

If you want a video with a little more history than Horton’s song, check out this short summary of the war:

Finally, while there is little U.S. national celebration of the War of 1812 Bicentennial, that does not mean the event is being ignored. For example, Ohio, whose own history was affected by the war, has several events over the next few years. Meanwhile, Maryland issued War of 1812 license plates and plans for a three-year commemoration. Also, Canadians recognize the war as playing an important role in their country’s national identity. But wherever you are, have a safe and happy bicentennial!

Painting of Battle of New Orleans by Edward Percy Moran (public domain) via.

Why do you think most people are ignoring the 1812 Bicentennial? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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