At least, that’s how it seems in the US– I can’t speak for Canada or Britain. Here in the States we’ve hardly heard a peep about a critical event in our history, which shaped us almost as much as the Revolution.
I am referring, of course, to the War of 1812.
Being the history fanatic that I am, I find this omission frustrating. The war, which lasted until December, 1814, is almost forgotten nowadays, although it has been referred to as the Second War for American Independence. Had we lost it, the United States as we know it probably would not exist. But there has hardly been any public mention of the bicentennial, and only a few, small remembrances of individual battles and events (in Canada it may be a different story– the war was an important factor in the development of a Canadian national identity).
I do, however, understand why we Americans are reluctant to remember the war. It’s embarrassing.
Basically, the war, launched on a mixture of genuine grievances against Great Britain and an imperialist lust to conquer Canada, was plagued with failure and disaster. Our attempts to invade Canada (at least four separate efforts) all failed in welters of mismanagement and stupidity. We enjoyed some successes against the Royal Navy in individual actions at sea, but eventually the British locked a blockade on the American coast and largely bottled up our navy. Toward the end of the war we finally began to field effective armies, but they weren’t there to stop the British from burning Washington DC in August 1814. The war ended in a stalemate and a peace treaty that addressed none of the original American grievances.
Reading this history as an American, my basic instinct is to cringe and cover my eyes. Not only were our forefathers infected with naked imperial ambition– even Thomas Jefferson thought taking Canada was a great idea– they were incompetently nakedly imperially ambitious (yes, I need three adverbs– it’s that bad). The American grievances were about British interference in neutral trade and their impressment of American citizens into the Royal Navy and were real enough, but they were used as an excuse for the United States to go conquering other people, most of whom refused to be conquered.
Ironically, despite the final stalemate, the disasters and the failure to take Canada, the war produced a surge of nationalistic feeling in the US. In a classic example of selective memory, Americans focused on their successes (especially the much ballyhooed Battle of New Orleans, which happened after the peace treaty was signed), and the fact that we had, for the second time in our history, stood off the greatest empire on Earth. In time, though, the war faded from our consciousness, except when we wanted to remember our early naval victories or Andrew Jackson.
Personally, I think some remembrance would be appropriate, if nothing else to remind ourselves of the costs of greed and arrogance, and to admit our past wrongs. More than likely there will be a remembrance of the burning of Washington and the bombardment of Fort McHenry, to which we owe “The Star Spangled Banner”, easily the most musically difficult national anthem in the world. But, aside from that, it looks as if the whole business is going to be passed over in silence. Sigh.
As a writer, though, I find this another period loaded with riches– overlapping the Napoleonic Wars, the Regency, and the start of the Industrial Revolution (at the war’s end the Americans were close to launching Demologos, the world’s first steam-powered warship. There’s an alternate history story for you). Jane Austen lived and wrote in this period, although, oddly enough, she barely mentions the war against Napoleon in her novels, and the American war, not at all. There are all sorts of fascinating details and events. For example, the British had a fortress in Dartmoor which served as a prisoner of war camp for both American and French POWs. The history of the place reads rather like ‘Jane Austen meets Stalag 17‘. There was the American guerrilla war against British commerce at sea, the tragedy of Tecumseh and the loss of the last chance for a Native American confederacy in the Midwest, the American victories on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain (which forestalled British counter-invasions from Canada), and the resurgence of piracy in the Caribbean (a consequence of the extended war between Britain and France). It is a marvel to me that no one has made a movie of the cruise of the USS Essex in the Pacific under David Porter, one of the epics of American naval history.
Other authors, such as C. S. Forester, Bernard Cornwell and Patrick O’Brian, have mined this period well for material. I have at least a few story ideas, starting with the Demologos, a tale about the Dartmoor prison, and a novel about a pressed American seaman in the Royal Navy. This last idea could be really interesting, as Americans are known to have been involved as seamen in many battles against Napoleon prior to 1812– for example, there were at least twenty-two Americans aboard the HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. This created some problems, obviously, when the United States declared war on Britain, which could be a great source of tension.
But these ideas, at this point in time, are part of that mass of story concepts I have in the back of my head which I may or may not ever have an opportunity to write. I’ve got a solid set of projects already in progress, so it’s an open question if any of these historical stories will see the light of day. If anyone else feels inspired to tackle the ideas I mentioned, have at it.
As far as the bicentennial is concerned, I suppose we’ll each have to remember the war in our own ways. For me, there’s always Johnny Horton.**
(**To be fair, Johnny’s history is wildly inaccurate– but I love marching Legos. And, no, I’m not terribly consistent….)