Rupert Cornwell: Yankees fail to recall the night the British really were coming

Out of America: The 200th anniversary of the war that decided the future of a continent passes unremarked

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Travel four miles east from the imperial heart of Washington DC and you will find the modest town of Bladensburg. With its strip malls and fast food emporia, it is at first glance standard-issue Anywhere USA.

But turn right, off the main drag, into the quiet of Fort Lincoln Cemetery, and you stumble across a couple of markers commemorating a moment that might have decided this country's fate.

These days, hardly anybody here seems to remember the Battle of Bladensburg, even though it was one of the few military engagements attended in person by a sitting US president. It took place on 24 August 1814, pitting some some 6,500 inexperienced American militiamen and a few hundred marines against a 4,500-strong British expeditionary force that, with Napoleon safely exiled to Elba (or so it seemed at the time), had been sent to teach the vexatious and expansionist ex-colony a lesson it wouldn't forget.

What followed has been described as "the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms". The British routed the militia, pitching them into a flight that would later be dubbed "the Bladensburg races". For his part, having witnessed a disaster that left the American capital defenceless, President James Madison took refuge across the Potomac in Virginia.

Madison's wife, Dolly, however, was made of sterner stuff. As much of the population abandoned the city, she stayed to save as many White House valuables as possible from the impending assault, including a portrait of George Washington, as sainted even then as he is now. That night, the British marched into the city, setting fire to the White House, the Capitol and other public buildings, before leaving 24 hours later. And that conflagration, dear reader, just about sums up most people's awareness of what is now known as the "War of 1812" – as important in some respects as the War of Independence three decades before, but today largely forgotten.

Last week was the 200th anniversary of the start of the conflict. But it was a low-key affair, to put it mildly. There have been no official commemorations, while the one public reminder of the date came from an improbable source, George W Bush.

Tradition dictates that former presidents return to the White House for a ceremony to unveil their official portrait for display in the building, and the other day it was the turn of No 43. After noting that the picture gallery now began and ended with a George, he turned to Michelle Obama and pointed to his freshly painted portrait. "Now, Michelle," he said, summoning the heroic shade of her distant predecessor, Dolly Madison, "if anything happens, there's your man."

It's easy to understand why the 1812-1814 war between Britain and the US barely resonates in either country now. Its origins were complex: American resentment of the press-ganging of British-born sailors, Britain's anger at how the US continued to trade with the French and its suspicion that the Americans wanted to grab sparsely populated Canada, or British North America as it was then known.

For us, it was a sideshow to the main event against Napoleon. For the Americans, it finished in a draw – and they are famously bored by draws. When the Treaty of Ghent formally ended hostilities in December 1814, the US still existed; indeed, within three years Madison's successor, James Monroe, had moved back into a refurbished White House. As for the British, they were about to become top dog in Europe, and kept Canada. The war, it could easily be said, had been much ado about nothing.

But things could have turned out very differently. Had the US won and annexed Canada, world history might well have been rewritten, while an American defeat could have halted the new country's westward expansion, and conceivably led to its fracturing. As it is, the war's legacy is immense. For one thing, it made the name of Andrew Jackson, who would become one of the most formidable presidents. True to form in this curious conflict, his victory at New Orleans in January 1815 came after the Ghent treaty was signed (though not yet ratified).

But it was the best US moment of the war and inspired a pop classic, Johnny Horton's 1959 hit "The Battle of New Orleans". You know the words, "In 1814 we took a little trip/Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip/ We took a little bacon and we took a little beans / And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans ..."

Then there's that other song, the one you hear at every sporting event here. If you thought the American national anthem was inspired by the War of Independence, you'd be wrong. It was the resistance in the Battle of Baltimore, three weeks after the Bladensburg calamity, not the revolutionary heroics of 1776, that moved the lawyer and poet Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner".

And for two other parties, the War of 1812 was a very big deal indeed. As always, the long-term losers were America's Indians. In return for their support, the British had promised an independent Indian state in the upper Midwest, but that evaporated with a military stalemate that left the native peoples more vulnerable than ever.

The real winners were the Canadians. Much of the fighting took place along the northern US border – indeed, just as the British sacked the White House, the previous year American forces had laid York (now Toronto) to waste. If anything defines Canada's sense of identity and pride, it is the successful repulsion of the 1812 invader, at least as much as ice hockey or the nation's universal health care. Defeat back then, and there wouldn't be a Canada today. Small wonder that, north of the 49th parallel at least, this bicentennial is not forgotten at all.

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