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Bad, Very Bad and War of 1812 Bad

[My column in the Sunday magazine.]

The columnist George Will recently wrote that the Republicans were routed in the November elections because of "war leadership even worse than during the War of 1812." Mr. Will's words carry great weight, because he is among our leading conservative thinkers and was on record opposing both the Iraq war and the War of 1812 from the beginning.

But let's be frank: Most of us don't know anything about the War of 1812 other than the approximate date and the fact that one of the two sides was probably the United States of America (because why else would we have heard of it?). Let me divulge details of this conflict, so that the next time the War of 1812 comes up at a party, you'll be so knowledgeable that the other partygoers will refer to you as the War of 1812 Expert, which will, in turn, make you the object of feverish sexual fantasies.

Our opponent, or perhaps "enemy" is the technical term, was Great Britain. Perversely, the War of 1812 also took place in 1813, 1814 and early 1815, and thus should really be called the "War of 1812ish."

The war was arguably unnecessary. At the very least, it was an optional war, a war of choice -- if you can imagine such a thing. We'd fought the enemy before, and won, but somehow got the notion that we needed to fight the enemy again. The British were hardly blameless -- they had a nasty habit of kidnapping our sailors -- but the "war hawks" in America greatly exaggerated the threat posed by the enemy.

The fools.

How bad was our war management? Well, until recently there were three levels of wartime incompetence: Bad, Very Bad and War of 1812 Bad. Contemplate the fact that, in August 1814, the very refined first lady of the United States was forced to flee the White House and spend the night on the lam, hauled by carriage on dark country roads and finally deposited in a tavern to be hectored by fellow refugees from Washington.

Dolley Madison was, in truth, a hero, having stuck it out at the White House to the last possible moment (and having saved the famous portrait of a grim, humorless George Washington). Not so brilliant was the performance of the general assigned to protect the capital, William Winder, who had a gift for dithering around and running away. Historian Henry Adams wrote, "When he might have prepared defences, he acted as scout; when he might have fought, he still scouted; when he retreated, he retreated in the wrong direction; when he fought, he thought only of retreat; and whether scouting, retreating, or fighting, he never betrayed an idea."

Our leaders lacked a winnable strategy. Worse, they failed to anticipate what might go wrong. (The mind reels.) As British ships sailed up the Chesapeake Bay, someone warned the commander of the Army,

John Armstrong Jr., that the Brits might sack Washington. "No, no! Baltimore is the place, sir; that is of so much more consequence," Armstrong responded. He never bothered to erect a single battery to protect the capital, not even a sign saying "Keep Out" or "Bad Dog."

We fought the war without enough troops. (!) We relied mostly on militiamen, which is to say, farmers with hunting rifles. A British officer described them as "country-people, who would have been much more appropriately employed in attending to their agricultural occupations than in standing with muskets in their hands."

His forces smashed, Winder retreated past the capital, deep into Montgomery County, and would have kept going to the Pacific if his men had not been exhausted.

President James Madison, more suited to desk work (he helped write a little thing we call the Constitution), did his best to gallop around the front lines to avert catastrophe, but he finally fled to the country, while the British marched into Washington, ate all the food on his dining room table, drank his wine and burned down his house. That wasn't the rocket's red glare that lighted up the sky; that was his furniture on fire.

"Before midnight the flames of three great conflagrations made the whole country light," Adams wrote, "and from the distant hills of Maryland and Virginia the flying President and Cabinet caught glimpses of the ruin their incompetence had caused."

That's rock bottom. That's what we mean by War of 1812 Bad. And maybe in a few years, historians will be able to tell us if there's a new standard.

By Joel Achenbach  |  December 3, 2006; 11:58 AM ET
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