The other war with a big anniversary this year

Events surroounding the 150th anniversary of the Civil War are in danger of eclipsing the anniversary of another American military action: the War of 1812.


Two hundred years ago, the newly minted American nation went back to war with the British to re-assert its independance.

A small exhibition at Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum on Penn’s Landing is trying to rectify that.

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At the Independence Seaport museum, visitors face two full-sized cannons pointed at a British warship.

The cannons are fiberglass, the ship is a painted tapestry, and the explosion is a recording. But this exhibit represents the fact that the war was begun at sea. The British were kidnapping American sailors and forcing their to work for the Royal Navy. The British needed help fighting Napoleon, and they did not recognize American citizenship.

“Some mottos that were put forth during the war is, ‘Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights,'” said curator Craig Bruns. “I love that: sailor’s rights. It brings attention to these sailors who were common workers at sea. They were poorly paid, and they had a hard life.”

Artifacts in the exhibition include of the accounting ledgers from Stephen Girard, the Philadelphia banker who almost single-handed funded the war; privateer licenses issued by President James Madison,  and stories about was heroes, from ship commanders to sailors in the hull.

The War of 1812 might be one of the least popular wars. Its goals were complicated (it’s often said the American felt “insulted”), its results were ambiguous (the kidnapping of sailors was not even addressed in the peace treaty), and it exposed the Native Americans to brutal displacement from Westerward expansion.

One of the victories of the war, albeit an abstract one, was the establishment of a national character.

“We were just a bunch of states under a federation, but still you were a Pennsylvanian, you were a Virginian,” said Bruns. “There wasn’t this American idea. You were just from these states.”

The War of 1812 was the first time the states rallied around a significant common cause since the Revolutionary War. The Star Spangled Banner was written during the War of 1812, although it took another 120 years for it to be adopted as the National Anthem.

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