The War of 1812: Who Cares?

March 21st, 2014
By John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits
It’s been a long, very cold winter, the kind that leads to despair. It’s most evident for me as I start to plan for summer exhibits. This is the bicentennial of the War of 1812 – and 1814 was a significant year in that war  – and we should do an exhibit, but why? Aside from the song “The Battle of New Orleans,” most people don’t remember the War of 1812 or express an interest in learning about it. Maybe we should just open a sports bar in the museum instead.
No, the days are longer, the weather is promised to be warmer, and I will be positive. Here are a few reasons to care about or be interested in the War of 1812:
At the time, it was called The Second War of Independence.
The American Revolution had been won less than 30 years before, and Great Britain still had strong influence in North America. Among other violations, they had been seizing American sailors from merchant ships to serve in Great Britain’s navy, and many felt this war was an important test for independence.
There was the possibility of expanding our territory.
While perhaps not a motivation for going to war, there was the feeling that parts of Canada along our border would welcome being freed from British rule and joining the United States. (This turned out not to be the case.)
It was a big test of the Second Amendment and the militia system.
The Founding Fathers were opposed to having a permanent army and planned on using well-trained and well-regulated volunteer militias for national defense. The War of 1812 proved them to be neither trained nor regulated, although they improved as the conflict wore on.
An 1810 manual for drilling militia units.
New York State was geographically involved in the war.
While the American Revolution and Civil War were, for the most part, fought somewhere else, most of New Yorkwas in the thick of things. The northern half of the state shared water or land borders with Canada. Battles were fought along the Niagara frontier, at Sackett’s Harbor and Plattsburgh, and New York Cityand the Hudson River were strategically important.
Niagara River, with Fort George (Canada) on left, Fort Niagara (US) on right
The challenge, as with all exhibits, is to convey this to and engage with visitors. (An additional challenge is the rarity of artifacts from the war.) If most of the visitors read most of the exhibit panels, and about half of them think or say, “Huh, I didn’t know that! That’s interesting,” we call that a good day at the office. 


Geneva and the War of 1812 will open Friday June 6. 

One response to “The War of 1812: Who Cares?”

  1. Peter Evans says:

    Your comment that Rev War and Civil War were principally fought somewhere else? More the a third of all Rev War Battles were fought in New York State…more than any other place.
    Regards, Peter Evans, Wayne County Historian

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