Pity the War of 1812. Its bicentennial is at hand and events are planned for all over North America, from Canada and the Great Lakes to the Mid-Atlantic and the South. But good luck finding someone who can explain in 10 words or less what the war was about.
Some historians see the war as a last gasp by England to control its former colonies, and it's sometimes called the Second War of Independence. At the time, Americans viewed the war "as an opportunity for us to throw off Britain once and for all," said Troy Bickham, author of a new book out in June called "The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire and the War of 1812."
But in Canada, the War of 1812 is seen as an attempted land grab by the U.S. The U.S. invaded Canada and at one point controlled Toronto, but the British, seeking control of the Great Lakes, won Detroit and other important ports.
The War of 1812 was also complicated by what Bickham calls "parallel wars." The British were fighting the Napoleonic Wars in Europe at the time, while the U.S. battled Native Americans allied with Britain for control of frontier territories from Michigan to Alabama.
Amid the muddle, a few important episodes stand out, from decisive battles to the burning of the White House. Some events are being commemorated with programs, exhibits and military re-enactments, from now through the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans, in 2015. Other key moments from the war involve important artifacts or historic sites that can be seen any time. Here are some details.
THE FLAG: The War of 1812 inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner" after soldiers at Fort McHenry in Baltimore raised an American flag to mark a victory over the British on Sept. 14, 1814. The fort is now a National Park site. The original manuscript for the song will be part of a War of 1812 exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St., in Baltimore, opening June 10.
Also in Baltimore, a June 13-19 "Star-Spangled Sailabration" will include a parade of 40 tall ships and naval vessels, an airshow featuring the Blue Angels and other festivities. The flotilla is one of several organized by Operation Sail, Inc., which has partnered with the U.S. Navy to mark the War of 1812 bicentennial, with additional tall ship events scheduled for May 23-30 in New York City, June 1-12 in Norfolk, Va., June 30-July 5 in Boston and July 6-8 in New London, Conn. The OpSail and Navy commemorations started in New Orleans in April.
In Washington, D.C., you can see the flag that inspired the national anthem, tattered with age and on display in a darkened room to help preserve it, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. At the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, paintings of key figures from the war will be part of a show called "1812: A Nation Emerges," opening June 15.
THE WHITE HOUSE: When the British burned down the White House on Aug. 24, 1814, First Lady Dolley Madison famously refused to leave until the portrait of George Washington was saved. The painting, by Gilbert Stuart, hangs in the White House today, and there seem to be no lingering hard feelings against England. As President Obama joked during a recent visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron: "It's now been 200 years since the British came here to the White House under somewhat different circumstances. They made quite an impression. They really lit the place up! But we moved on."
USS CONSTITUTION: Britain had 600 ships while the U.S. had just 17, including the USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides, which Bickham says was the most important ship in our fleet. You can visit the ship in Charleston, Mass., just outside of Boston.
ALABAMA: One of the biggest U.S. victories of the war took place in Horseshoe Bend, now a National Park site in Alabama, about 100 miles southwest of Atlanta, . Here Andrew Jackson led the slaughter of the Creek Red Sticks tribe, ending a longstanding conflict with the natives and securing 23 million acres of territory for the U.S.
NEW ORLEANS: Jackson also led the final American victory of the war at the Battle of New Orleans, which took place on the Chalmette Battlefield, now part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. Jackson's triumphs in Alabama and New Orleans made him a national hero and he was eventually elected U.S. president.
GREAT LAKES: Many of the war's important battles were fought as Britain sought control of Great Lakes territories and states including parts of Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania.
Fort Dearborn, located where Chicago is now, was destroyed during the war. Fort Mackinac on Michigan's Mackinac Island in Lake Huron, which was captured by the British early in the war, is still standing and is hosting a variety of programs for the bicentennial.
The Americans retook Michigan after the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813 off the coast of Ohio, and a re-enactment is planned on the water next year. The reconstructed flagship Niagara, which was commanded by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry during the battle, is based in Erie, Pa., though it sails to other ports during the summer; a schedule can be found at . Northwest Pennsylvania also just launched the Perry 200 Commemoration with flag-raisings at 150 sites in the region; 30 events are planned over the next 18 months,.
Ohio is home to a 352-foot monument, Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial, which towers over Lake Erie on South Bass Island in Put-in-Bay. Events there include education programs, May 22-24, a "Re-Declaration of War," June 18, and a birthday party for Perry, Aug. 18-19. Fort Meigs, in nearby Perrysburg, Ohio, is a War of 1812 battlefield with a reconstructed fort; it marks the 199th anniversary of a siege from the war May 26-27.
On Lake Ontario in New York, important locations connected to the War of 1812 include Sackets Harbor, N.Y., where a major U.S. naval base fended off a British attack in 1813, and Old Fort Niagara, which was a base for the U.S. invasion of Canada but was captured by the British in 1813. A ceremony marking the bicentennial of the declaration of war is scheduled for Fort Niagara June 16.
LAKE CHAMPLAIN: The British also sought to control Lake Champlain, but they were thwarted by an unexpected American victory in Plattsburgh, N.Y., in September 1814. The town is scheduling re-enactments, lectures and other events starting later this year.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: The website lists many events and historic sites connected to the War of 1812. Canada is also hosting major commemorations of the bicentennial, including a War of 1812 Heritage Trail, , and ongoing living history programs at Fort Malden, in Amherstburg, Ontario, 20 miles from Detroit.