Kentuckians have always been deeply involved in America’s wars, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq certainly included. Beginning in World War I, but particularly during World War II, the commonwealth became the center of several strategically located armed forces bases.
And, of course, in the Civil War, Kentucky was of great strategic importance to the Union and the Confederacy, as well as a crucial source of men and resources.
In the wake of the ongoing 150th commemorative years of the Civil War, it might be easy to forget the role of Kentucky in what has sometimes been called “The Second War of Independence,” or the War of 1812.
There were foreign issues aplenty for the fledgling United States in the early nineteenth century. Wars between Great Britain and France and their allies from 1793 to 1801 and 1803 to 1815 placed the United States in a precarious position. Trade with either side placed Americans in jeopardy. American seamen were impressed into the British Navy. From the last days of the administration of President Thomas Jefferson into that of his fellow Virginian James Madison, the United States tried to remain neutral.
Kentuckians not only desired the ability to trade with anyone that would pay the highest price, but also wanted an end to the threat of Indian depredations of the frontier north of the Ohio River. New Orleans was Kentucky’s most convenient outlet to the world of trade before the advent of the steamboat.
The tensions leading to war accompanied the rise of unquestionably Kentucky’s greatest and best-known United States representative and senator, Henry Clay. After serving in the Kentucky legislature, Clay served an unexpired term in the U.S. Senate before winning a term in the U.S. House of Representatives, being elected speaker in 1811. From this position he became a leader of the “War Hawks,” a group of younger members who pushed for war with Great Britain. Clay supported a declaration of war that Congress approved on June 18, 1812. Ironically, unknown to President Madison and Congress, Britain had just revoked its repressive maritime policy toward the United States.
Americans expected the war to be brief and victorious. However, a series of disasters soon led to Kentuckians being placed in jeopardy. Poorly planned invasions of Canada did not quickly suppress the British and their allies.
As part of an invasion force of Canada under the command of General William Henry Harrison, an army of nearly 1,300 Kentuckians led by Brigadier General James Winchester, a Tennessean, unwisely pushed to a town on the River Raisin and were defeated by British General Henry Proctor and his Native American allies. Five hundred Kentuckians were captured, more than 400 killed, of these between 40 and 65 wounded were massacred by Indians when the British force withdrew. Thereafter, “Remember the Raisin!” became the rallying cry for Kentuckians in an increasingly brutal war.
Gov. Isaac Shelby responded to the continuing war by raising another large Kentucky force. This time another disaster followed an apparent victory. “Dudley’s Defeat,” came when an overly confident Kentucky force ran into a larger British and Indian force, and suffered horrendous losses and another Indian slaughter of 40 wounded Kentuckians.
Shelby then personally led a force of 3,500 mounted volunteers northward to join Harrison. Meanwhile, Oliver Hazard Perry’s naval victory on Lake Erie cut off British supply lines. General Proctor and his Indian allies under the command of Tecumseh retreated along the Thames River. On Oct. 5, 1813, in the Battle of the Thames, the Americans won a complete victory. Richard Mentor Johnson, who led a cavalry regiment of Kentuckians, received credit (at least by popular legend) for the killing of Tecumseh.
Kentuckians were elated and sure that further Native American challenges were now lessened. The hottest part of the war shifted to the east coast. In grade school and beyond we Americans have always lamented the burning of Washington, D.C., what little there was of it except for the White House and an uncompleted Capitol building. However, we were not told that this was retaliation for Americans burning the Town of York, the site of present-day Toronto. In the south General Andrew Jackson and his forces hounded Native American tribes into surrender and then pushed toward New Orleans.
The war that began after the British government had given in to some American demands officially ended, ironically, before the most famous engagement of the war. The Treaty of Ghent, with Henry Clay one of the American representatives, was signed on Dec. 24, 1814. Because word of the peace treaty had to come across the wide Atlantic Ocean by ship for ratification by Congress, the message did not reach Washington for several weeks.
Again, Kentuckians were in the thick of the battle, but not without some controversy. When many of the Kentuckians arrived in New Orleans without weapons or provisions, Jackson is said to have angrily retorted: “I have never seen a Kentuckian without a gun and a pack of cards and a bottle of whiskey in my life.”
Nevertheless, on Jan. 8, 1815, over 1,000 Kentuckians played a central role in the decisive defeat of British regulars in the Battle of New Orleans.
Nearly 26,000 Kentuckians served in some capacity in the War of 1812. According to “A New History of Kentucky” (page 94), “Of the 1,876 Americans killed during the War of 1812, approximately 1,200 (64 percent) were Kentuckians, despite the fact that the state was never invaded.” Of course, owing to the times, many more men on both sides died form disease.
Though there is still some debate among historians about the war (after all, this is how we make a living), there is a general agreement that the war was avoidable if there had been better diplomacy at work.
The War of 1812 ended with American identity firmly entrenched with a few military victories over the British and their Indian allies. Francis Scott Key’s penning of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Baltimore harbor added to the solidification of an American mythos. With the death of Tecumseh and defeat of his allies, the northwest now came under complete American control. Tragically, Native Americans were further marginalized in American life. Canadians of French and English derivations coalesced into what would become a confederation in 1867. We Americans should remember that Canadians are also a proud people and consider the War of 1812 to be one of the hallmarks of their nationhood.
On Oct. 10, 2011, PBS/KET ran one of the best documentaries I have even seen, a TV special on the War of 1812 that asks all the right questions and gave insights into the war from the American, Canadian, British, African-American slave, and Native American perspectives. If you have not seen this magnificent two-hour special, look for it again in the coming months. It should be shown to all Kentucky students, elementary, high school, and college students as a needed corrective to most of our traditional views of the war.
William E. Ellis is a Kentucky author.