The Civil War of 1812

The War of 1812 is one of the least-remembered, least-documented wars in American history.  In preparation for celebrating its bicentennial less than one year from now, I plan to read Alan Taylor’s The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels and Indian Allies.  In the meantime, I was reflecting on how it may have affected the lives of my ancestors.

The Burning of Washington in 1814

Perhaps the most well-remembered fact about that War of 1812 is that it produced the “Star-Spangled Banner.”  The words Francis Scott Key wrote after watching the American defenders hold off the British at Fort McHenry are still sung at sporting events and special celebrations across our nation.  Andrew Jackson’s defeat of the British at New Orleans in 1815 is remembered as a high point of America military prowess in the nineteenth century and a key moment in Jackson’s career.  We recall with shame the burning of our national capital–including the President’s residence and the Capitol building–in 1814.

The War of 1812 was a multi-faceted conflict.  There were naval battles on Lake Erie, a blockade of the Atlantic Coast, invasions of Canada, and land battles all over the United States–from Baltimore to Missouri to New Orleans.  Some of the Native Americans fought for the British, some for the Americans; although in reality many fought for themselves.

The theater of war that had the most impact on my family was the on-going battle between Americans and Native Americans in the Northwest Territory (the modern-day states of Indiana, Ohio and Michigan, particularly).


Tecumseh, a military leader among the Shawnee, dreamed of a confederation of Indians.  His and other tribes were stirring up trouble in the Northwest Territory even before the War of 1812 officially began.

Tecumseh spoke for all the Native Americans when he wrote to William Henry Harrison in 1811:  “The white people have no right to take the land from the Indians, because they had it first;  it is theirs…All red men have equal rights to the unoccupied land.  The right of occupancy…belongs to the first who sits down on his blanket or skins which he has thrown upon the ground; and till he leaves it no other has rights.”


At least two of my ancestors were involved in the War of 1812:

First, my four-times-great grandfather John Shaw was involved in the War of 1812 from the very beginning.  In the years leading up to the war, he was an assistant Indian Agent in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

In the last year or two he was at the Indian Agency in Fort Wayne, Shaw was told to keep an eye on Tecumseh and the other Native Americans who were stirring up trouble.  On March 10, 1812, he wrote to Secretary of War William Eustis and General Harrison:

It appears that the hostile disposition of the Indians confederated under the Shawanoe Prophet [i.e., the brother of Tecumseh], that so recently manifested itself in the conflict on the Wabash [i.e., the Battle of Tippecanoe], is not yet changed, by every thing that I am able to learn they are secretly plotting to strike an effective blow on our frontier, and it is said that they have been this winter invited by the British Agent at Fort Malden, to pay him a visit; and I believe it is a fact that a considerable number of them, have recently gone to that place, with a view of procuring ammunition and it appears also that by some means the Indians have understood that the different Posts on the frontier, is intended shortly to be reinforced, I have this day understood, from a source, that merits credibility, that there is now Speeches circulating by the Indians, north of this place, advising the different Tribes to aid in preventing the views of the Government from being carried into effect, by waylaying, and cutting off the Troops as they advance, and then to take possession of such Forts as they believe to be the least capable of resistance…

William Henry Harrison personally asked Shaw to fight in the War of 1812.  Because he was a Quaker, John declined to fight, but offered his services as a physician instead.  He was an assistant surgeon during the war at Fort Wayne and Fort Greenville.

Fort Wayne

At one point during the war, Shaw may have been put in charge of some Native Americans who were friendly to the American cause, to ensure they didn’t defect to the British.  His experience with Native Americans and his close relationship with Harrison made him an ideal person to fulfill such a task.

My other ancestor who likely served in the war was my four-times-great grandfather, Abraham Kinsey.  A county history written in 1906 reported that he fought in the final year of the war (presumably 1815).  At that time, he was 28 years old.

Although I have found no details about Abraham’s service, I did find a report of his brother-in-law’s involvement:

Jacob Wolf served in the war of 1812 as a teamster, hauling supplies for the army between Dayton and Fort Wayne, furnishing his own team of four horses, being protected by only one body guard on his dangerous drives. While a teamster, on his arrival at Fort Wayne with supplies, the officers would mess with him, and he would have to make chocolate for the mess, so fond were they of it. He served three years in the army as teamster, when one night after reaching Fort Wayne, his horses were stolen and his army career was ended. He was honorably discharged and his wife received his pension after his death.

Perhaps Abraham assisted his brother-in-law in hauling supplies during the war.  Abraham and Jacob both lived in Montgomery County, Ohio, near Dayton, so it is reasonable they would have participated together.

Beyond the impact that the War of 1812 had on John Shaw and Abraham Kinsey and their families, it certainly changed the lives of all my ancestors who were living in the Northwest Territory during those years.  Having armies of British soldiers, Native Americans and American militia marching around skirmishing, scrounging for food, and destroying property must have altered the course of their lives.  If nothing else, the anxiety and uncertainty of knowing that at anytime a frontier war could erupt in their backyard would have been very real for people who had lived through the time of the Revolution–many of them as children.

My four-times-great grandfather Robert Hill had moved to Indiana from North Carolina, one of the areas most affected by the Revolution.  Another four-times-great grandfather, Jonas Harris, was living in Ohio after leaving Virginia, a state that had been hit hard during the Revolution.  Both of these men would have grown up hearing stories of the Revolution.  Both may have wondered what the War of 1812 would bring.

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5 Responses to The Civil War of 1812

  1. bronxboy55 says:

    At the risk of repeating myself, I think history books would be much more captivating for students if they included personal stories, such as the ones you tell in this blog. It’s also interesting to read the varying accounts of a conflict like the War of 1812. As a student in the US, I learned the American side of it. As a resident of Canada, I’ve noticed that my son’s history books tell a different story. For example, I remember learning that the British had burned the White House and other buildings in Washington. Canadian students are taught that the Americans burned federal buildings here. At some point, it begins to sound like two children arguing in the back seat of the car. But obviously with much more serious results. And the Natives, it seems, were always caught in the middle.

    • It is interesting to hear different viewpoints on historical events. I’ve always thought that the more we can listen to all the different viewpoints, the more complete a picture we get of what actually happened. Everybody has bias, but if you listen enough, you can start to cancel out some of the biases. If you rely on only one account, it’s hard to siphon out the bias.

      This seems particularly true with the Native Americans. We’re so used to hearing about their history from an American (and even “governmental”) point of view, that we forget that there might be other perspectives. I’m very curious what John Shaw’s attitude was toward the Natives. He seems to have had a soft heart toward them (as will be seen in other blog posts), but also a realistic perspective (as is seen in the letter quoted in this post).

      Untangling all the perspectives is for me part of what makes the doing of history interesting.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. mirroredImages says:

    there was a war in 1812? 🙂

    and you know, tho we don’t have the threat of a war breaking out in our backyard between armed human combatants, we do have our dog out there rustling the bushes and making some noise on a regular basis. i think we may have some idea what it’s like to live in chaos.

    interesting post. i like how you wove together the historical with the more personal family accounts. where should we move to avoid the effects of these ongoing wars in the middle east?

    • I’m afraid there’s no escaping wars it seems. But we can try to avoid having them in our backyard (except for the one between our dog, the squirrels, the raccoons and whatever other wildlife wanders through).

      Thanks for the compliment…weaving the historical with the personal does seem to make the historical more interesting (I just hope it doesn’t make the personal more dull!)

  3. Marla Fair says:

    Great post. I wanted to make contact as I work in the home of John Johnston, the Federal Indian Agent under whom John Shaw worked at Fort Wayne. You can see our site at In the last ten years I have transcribed over 200 of the Johnston letters and some have references to Mr. Shaw. I thought maybe could help each other with our research, If you are interested, please email me at

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