In October 1812, over 900 American troops surrendered to the British after the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Queenston Heights. Most of these P.O.W.s were exchanged immediately, but the British singled out 23 specific men among them and refused to return them, claiming they were actually British citizens. Against the vociferous protests of the American government, the British shipped the “Queenston 23” to England, intending that they would be tried for treason and, if found guilty, executed. In response, President Madison ordered 23 British P.O.W.s to be held as hostages to answer for anything that happened to the Queenston 23. As the situation escalated, ultimately hundreds of men, Americans and Britons, on both sides of the Atlantic were taken hostage, some remaining in captivity for nearly the entirety of the war. But why were these particular prisoners so important? It has to do with the different views that Britain and America had about what it meant to be a citizen—and ultimately, the meaning of the entire war itself.
In this episode, Dr. Sean Munger takes you deep into a little-known episode of the War of 1812, but one that has profound implications for understanding the war as a whole. In the course of this episode you’ll learn exactly how sore the British were over losing the American Revolution, why it was particularly dangerous to one’s liberty to speak with an Irish accent, how young war hero Winfield Scott’s attendance at a White House reception proved especially fateful, and why the last battle of the War of 1812 was fought not on the battlefield, but in a British courtroom a decade later. This is a highly unusual look at America’s second war for independence, and highlights how ultimately the early struggles between the United States and Britain were really about identity: who “counted” as a citizen, and why that question was of such vital importance.
Additional Materials About This Episode
(Above) Winfield Scott, as he appeared during the War of 1812. He was considerably more handsome at that time than he would become when he ran for President in 1852, or at the beginning of the Civil War, by which time he was America’s most beloved soldier.
While Charles Andrews, author of The Prisoners’ Memoirs, was not one of the Queenston 23, his book chronicles the story of many American prisoners of war during the War of 1812, and especially the riot that occurred at Dartmoor Prison after the end of the war. The book is available in its entirety on Archive.org; here is the link to it,
(Above) Mentioned in the episode, here is a video clip of the triumphant return of former American hostages held in Iran between November 1979 and January 1981. The return of the Queenston 23 (who were down to 20 by the time they were released) was nothing like this.