A realistic history of the LDS church.

Chapter 3 - The War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars

Chapter 3 – The War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars

ACT ONE – Historical Context

Chapter 3 – The War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars


  1. Napoleon Bonaparte was a young Frenchman who grew up disgusted by the British Empire. He began his military career serving as a French legionnaire, and he eventually led his own army at the age of 26. He quickly rose to lead the French military with his unique and previously untried battle tactics. He was arguably a genius and was clearly one of the most effective tacticians of early artillery and gun firing lines. His tactics and strategies are even studied today, just for the sheer ingenuity of them. (Morelock, 2015)
  2. The British army and Napoleon’s French forces were engaged in heavy fighting all throughout the early 1800s. Napoleon rose to his point of ultimate power in 1807 and then began a slow decline of bad decisions and losses after that. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and his ultimate push to Moscow ended in complete disaster for his troops. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died from starvation and exposure to the harsh Russian winter. Add this major loss to the British forces on the other side of the French Empire that were slowly beating down Napoleon’s elite ground and naval forces, and you have the end of the Napoleonic wars concluding around 1814-1815. (Biography.com Editors, 2016)
  3. The transatlantic War of 1812 broke out between the young United States and Great Britain.  Like any historical topic, the catalyst and exact causes of this war, as well as the start and end date, seem a bit opaque. There are very few things that are black and white with this war, but we can pinpoint a few main pressures that helped begin the War of 1812, namely: American expansionism, trade embargoes, and British impressment of sailors.
  4. On the point of American expansionism, America was at the height of the industrial revolution during the early 1800s. Agrarian life was being pushed to the outskirts of large cities in lieu of factory work and densely populated living conditions. The industrial revolution created a demand for land as the population and economy were exploding, making resources in large urban areas somewhat scarce. One way the American population tried to ameliorate this problem was by invading British-Canadian colonies in an effort to absorb their land and resources, an age old solution to an age-old problem. Whenever a given population expands beyond the resources it has to support the population, it must expand to new areas to consume new resources, a phenomenon not specific to humans alone. Every population of species either expands and grows, or it contracts and dies. All species live in a constant state of flux, and we see it play out with war and politics in the human race. With this American expansion into Canadian territories, the British-Canadians couldn’t just sit idly by and watch their land get seized by Americans. This land grab was one major international pressure that led to the War of 1812.
  5. The next pressure worth discussing are the trade embargoes put in place by Britain. Throughout history, America has made a habit of war profiteering. During many wars around the globe, America has been happy to sit back and sell arms and resources to whichever side of a war gives the highest bid, even occasionally supplying both sides of a conflict. Both world wars are great examples of this, as are many other conflicts with American involvement. Almost every major conflict that America has been involved in was nothing more than its support of one side in a conflict somewhere in the world; the Napoleonic wars were no different.
  6. The British naval force was the greatest in the world, bar none. The only competing navy that had any sort of realistic chance against the British Navy was the French Navy, and it was locked in constant conflict with the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. During this time, the young United States saw an opportunity make a profit from the war, while at the same time undercutting the United Kingdom, their enemies from the previous Revolutionary War.
  7. This opportunity led the Americans to sell arms and resources to the French empire to try to subvert the control Britain was still trying to enforce on the United States. In reaction to this, Britain set up a blockade and seized American ships and the goods the ships had on board. They also set up embargoes for any ship that did make it to France, basically establishing a de facto tax on American goods sold to France. Even with this going on, and one in every three ships being seized by the United Kingdom, America was making an obscene amount of money. This caused a huge explosion in the economy, and that further fueled the first pressure we discussed, namely American expansionism into the North and Western territories.
  8. The third pressure worth discussing was the impressment of American sailors by British naval forces. Often times, a British ship would approach an American ship and halt its progress, forcing the British soldiers to board the ship. They would perform this practice of impressment to search for any defecting British sailors who no longer wanted to be part of the Queen’s navy and had assumed the role of the American sailor. Often times, any American sailor with a British accent was considered a defector and impressed back into the British Navy. Eventually, what this amounted to was the British captains claiming that various sailors they wanted were defectors so they could conscript them into the British Navy to bolster its numbers; whether those sailors were actually British or American didn’t seem to matter much to the British captains.
  9. After boarding the American ships and impressing whoever they wanted into the British Navy, the British sailors would go back to their own ship with a few new sailors from the American ship and send that American ship on its way. This was a process called impressment, and it served to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, initiating the War of 1812 when the British boarded a ship called the USS Chesapeake and killed a few Americans during a scuffle on deck. (James, 1827)
  10. Thus, the biggest war during Joseph Smith’s lifetime had begun. This book is focused on the Book of Mormon, so we can’t spend too much time on the details of the Napoleonic War or the War of 1812. The reason they are being introduced to us now is for speculation about the possible impact these wars may have had on the young Joseph Smith.
  11. The War of 1812 commenced between the United States and the United Kingdom. Of course, Britain was still amidst the war with Napoleon, so they couldn’t commit many resources to the war in America. The British-Canadian colonies became engaged in war with the Americans all along the Canadian border, including multiple naval battles in the Great Lakes and the open waters of the Atlantic.
  12. Beyond these battles, both land and sea, the British forged alliances with many groups of Native Americans to put pressure on the western border and bolster the British Army on the Canadian-American border. Among these battles, the unmatched British Navy attacked multiple port cities and forts or set up naval blockades to try to starve the American-French trade lines. During the battle of Tippecanoe, Tecumseh, one of the Native American generals allied with the British, was shot and killed in battle, marking a huge win for the American troops. This point will come up in ACT II of the book, so keep Tecumseh in mind.
  13. Needless to say, America was in chaos from this constant fighting with British and Native American forces, but, in a sense, it was very lucky for the United States that Britain was so occupied with Napoleon because, had Britain not been so distracted, the War of 1812 may have turned in Britain’s favor. We can substantiate this reasoning when considering the latter part of the War of 1812.
  14. By late 1814 the Napoleonic wars were coming to a grinding halt. Napoleon was basically defeated, and Britain could begin to focus on other endeavors, such as the raging war in America. They began throwing an immense amount of resources at the pesky war that had cropped up in America. Ship after ship with fresh troops began arriving in American ports, contending with American ships or unloading the next wave of British soldiers to join the fight.
  15. Eventually, with enough persistence, Britain overcame American resistance. In August of 1814, British forces were able to push all the way to Washington D.C., take over the government buildings there, force everybody to flee, and they then proceeded to set many buildings in the city ablaze. The Capitol Building and the White House burned once the British ground forces took over Washington D.C.
  16. Let’s consider this for a moment. In the intervening years between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, never had any enemy forces gained a foothold on American soil. There had been skirmishes with British forces, but those were mostly on the water, and they just served as harbingers leading to the tipping point that became the War of 1812. Never, after this war was over, has there been an invading army with boots on American soil.
  17. This war was truly the most horrible thing that any person could imagine as a new American citizen who had been liberated from British control only a generation and a half before. America had won its Revolutionary War of Independence with Britain only 31 years before this. There were still plenty of people alive at that time who were Revolutionary War veterans, having fought the redcoats half a lifetime before. Talk about a horrible case of deja vu when British soldiers took over Washington D.C. I think it would serve us well to use our favorite tool of historical empathy that we’ve employed a couple of times up to this point.
  18. It must have been a common topic of discussion. The actual invasion and toppling of major government buildings in Washington D.C. must have shaken all American citizens to their very core. If Americans had ever felt secure with the American militia guarding them, that false sense of security instantly evaporated as soon as British boots set foot on the doorstep of the White House.
  19. In order to properly use historical empathy, let’s conduct a more current thought experiment. Think of how Americans and the rest of the world would react if Washington D.C. were taken over today. It would not be by Britain, of course, because they’re currently our allies, but maybe it would be by a country that is less than a NATO ally right now, like China, or even possibly Russia. If those invading forces were able to take over Washington D.C., average Americans nowadays would completely lose their minds. The entire country would be thrown into anarchy. Every day citizens would flee major cities for fear of attack. Those with the ability to do so would flee to any available sanctuary, and there would be thousands of people right behind them, all trying to get away from densely populated areas. Many Americans would become citizen soldiers if Washington D.C. fell, ready to use their massive personal armories to eradicate the Chinese or Russian threat. Personally, I can’t imagine a worse world, and it pains me to try to empathize with anybody living somewhere in the world who has to deal with similar strife due to war or political unrest.
  20. It’s hard to imagine what the world would be like if Washington D.C. were taken over by an invading army. It’s even harder to try to understand what the average American citizen would be saying or doing in reaction to such horrible news, but this was a reality to Joseph Smith and to every other American citizen like him in 1814.
  21. Joseph Smith Sr., Joseph’s father, was a mere five years old when the Declaration Independence was signed, kicking off the Revolutionary War with Britain. Everybody from the local baker or blacksmith to Joseph Smith Sr.’s relatives and older siblings would have been talking about the great war that was underway against the oppressive British government, a narrative which would be hauntingly similar 33 years later for young Joseph Smith Jr. during the War of 1812 with Britain.
  22. When the British forces were able to take over Washington D.C. in 1814, young Joseph Smith would have been a mere eight years old, and every baker, blacksmith, neighbor, and relative would have been talking about the takeover and the long-term implications of such a catastrophe. Joseph Smith would have been hearing the same fearful speculations and contemplations his father was hearing 33 years before during the Revolutionary War, a sad coincidence and unfortunate reiteration of American and British conflict.
  23. Even with using historical empathy and trying to imagine what it would have been like to stand in Joseph Smith’s shoes, we can scarcely conceptualize what it must have been like for young Joseph to hear what people were saying about this new development in American politics. We can only attempt to put ourselves there and to understand that this must have had a very unsettling effect on Joseph during a very impressionable period in his growth.
  24. The stories of heroes in the war may have had some impression on young Joseph Smith.   People were talking about the defeating losses and great victories of the War of 1812, and we can read those passionate summaries in books written during that time such as The Late War Between Great Britain and the United States of 1812 to 1815, by Gilbert Hunt. Stories of various generals and commanders were circulating through newspapers, books, and by word of mouth throughout many communities. Some people such as Commander William Burrows, General William Henry Harrison, and General Andrew Jackson were gaining a fair amount of notoriety for their many victories against the British and Native American forces.
  25. When it came to General William Harrison, he would use his role in the battle of Tippecanoe and the death of Tecumseh as a platform for his presidential election of 1841, as would General Andrew Jackson for his role in the heroic defense of New Orleans to win himself points in his presidential election of 1829. Andrew Jackson is an interesting character and holds more significance to our focus because of his ties with Freemasonry.
  26. Just as in recent presidential elections, John Quincy Adams took the opportunity to slam his opponent, Andrew Jackson, during the 1828 presidential race for being a Freemason. The Freemasons were often associated with violence and the darkened back-alley business deals we now associate with the modern-day mafia, and Adams was happy to bring the public’s attention to Jackson’s Masonic ties during the presidential race.
  27. It’s hard for us to understand the public opinion of Freemasonry during the late 1820s, but they were seen as an organization of secret combinations, murderous and influential; even today, some of the stigmas remain of Masonry’s old political ties. In 1827, something happened that was seen as a canary in the coal mine for the negative influences and actions of Masonry. In early 1827, a man named William Morgan published an exposé of Masonry titled Illustrations of Masonry by One of the Fraternity. He had been inducted into a New York Masonic lodge and went on a mission to expose the Masons with their secret handshakes, ceremonial clothing with aprons, and various secret rituals performed in the Masonic Temples.
  28. After his exposé was published, Morgan was arrested, and his bail was reportedly paid, possibly by someone affiliated with Masonry, after which Morgan went missing, never to be heard from again. The public believed that the Freemasons were displeased with Morgan’s book and murdered him in response.
  29. From this time forward, any negative stigma the Masons carried was brought into the public sphere and discussed openly by newspapers and the common people who were afraid of a shadow government run by a violent mafia or secret combination of some sort. This gave John Quincy Adams a fair amount of ammunition against Jackson and his affiliation with Masonry during the presidential race. While this may seem off topic, it will be important in later chapters. It is important to note, however, that anti-Masonic opinions hold influence in the historical context Joseph Smith was experiencing when the Book of Mormon was published.
  30. In order to properly understand the Smith family, and Joseph specifically, we need to attempt to understand the historical context in which he lived. Many theories have arisen about the type of person Joseph Smith was, as well as his mental capacities. Often people will claim that he was merely an uneducated agrarian boy with a propensity towards religion and theology; while others may go as far as asserting an evil genius personality taking insidiously calculated measures to further his own goals.
  31. It’s very challenging, and not in the realm of typical historical study, to try to analyze a historical personality or assign motives behind historical occurrences. We are stunningly ill-equipped to do so with Joseph Smith, but it does help us understand him more when we consider the world in which he was living. Joseph wasn’t disconnected from civilized life, as is sometimes portrayed; rather, he was surrounded by fellow agrarian neighbors who engaged in the same practices as he did. When Joseph or a couple of his neighbors read a newspaper article detailing the newest developments with the War of 1812, the political race between competing political parties, or even announcements for religious revivals that would be held locally, Joseph’s friends and neighbors passed the word along, and the topics were discussed among the members of Joseph’s local community.
  32. To assert that Joseph was unaware of current events during his formative years as a young man is to disconnect him from the world he inhabited, which does a great disservice to anybody who tries to understand the real Joseph Smith. We are engaged in an honest quest to understand who Joseph Smith really was, and where the Book of Mormon came from, and we must view Joseph Smith through the eyes of historical reality to truly understand the Book of Mormon and the genesis of Joseph’s Church of Christ on April 6, 1830.


Biography.com Editors. (2016). Napoleon Biography. Retrieved July 19, 2016, from http://www.biography.com/people/napoleon-9420291

James, W. (1827). The Naval History of Great Britain: from the Declaration of War by France in 1793 to the Accession of George IV. (Richard Bentley & Sons, Ed.) (2nd ed.). London: William Clowes & Sons, Limited. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/navalhistoryofg01jame

Morelock, J. D. (2015). “Napoleonic” Warfare – Its Strategy and Tactics. Retrieved July 19, 2016, from http://www.armchairgeneral.com/napoleonic-warfare-its-strategy-and-tactics.htm

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