The War of 1812
October 13, 2011
When he gave it to me Grandpa Charlie told me that the old musket once saw action in the Battle of Crysler’s Farm. Apparently my great-great-great-grandfather sent his hired man to serve in his stead when the militia call went out. The gun came back, but the unnamed hired man was killed in the fighting. This may be an apocryphal tale, but the gun looks like the ones in the film.
Last night I watched both halves of the History Channel take on the War of 1812. It’s hard to believe that this 2004 film documents the same war I remember from Canadian history and family tradition. The film does not mention Tecumseh, or Isaac Brock, for example. The fall of Detroit, a brilliant deception by Tecumseh, they attributed to cowardice and incompetence on the part of its defenders. The subjects of Queenston Heights and Crysler’s Farm did not come up.
The narrator does mention casually that York was burned by American raiders, explaining that Britain used that peccadillo as justification for an all-out assault on Washington and the burning of the White House. He also mention the sacking of villages in the area and the rape of surviving women by British soldiers. I’d never heard that one before. But the film’s main energy is devoted to the burning of Washington, the defense of Baltimore and the Battle of New Orleans. These segments are myth-makers, with James Madison and Andrew Jackson the prime beneficiaries.
I guess the most egregious fault in the film is the complete absence of aboriginal characters. Indians did the bulk of the fighting for the British in hope that under British rule they would be protected from the genocidal practices of the expanding American states. In this propaganda film for American consumers, I can understand the exalted presence of black warriors defending their homeland, but the failure to identify Tecumseh as the only competent military leader on either side in the early part of the war is just bad history.
So what was the point of wheeling out this expensive piece of American revisionism at this time? The film makes much of the destruction of Washington, the camera working lovingly over an artfully-burned miniature of the White House, showing this as the absolute low point in the fortunes of the young nation.
It turns out that God was indeed on the American side, with a sudden, cataclysmic storm and later a tornado decimating the British forces for this profanation of the New Jerusalem which the poorly-led militia had failed to defend.
Then it was up to James Madison and his first lady to drag their countrymen up by their bootstraps. And so they did, with Madison quickly reconvening his cabinet and governing from the only public building still standing, the Washington post office.
Smarting from the Washington defeat, merchants and citizen militia defended the commercial centre, Baltimore, from the British fleet by sinking their own merchant ships to block the entrance to the harbour. The self-sacrifice and heroism of the wealthy merchants and the free black men, farmers, privateers, and everyone in between, combined in this massive, concerted effort to save what they had achieved from certain destruction.
And there were flags, two of them in turn triumphantly waving from the fort as the British ships hoisted anchor and sailed away after a night of bombardment. Francis Scott Key wrote his heroic poem. Someone fitted it to the tune of a British drinking song, and the rousing Star Spangled Banner was born.
A nation which would be strong enshrines its greatest defeats in memory to inspire its citizens never to allow them to happen again. So this telling of the loss of Detroit, the sacking of Washington, must reverberate in the minds of Americans and inspire them to make sacrifices and work together to make their nation once again great. That’s what nationalist propaganda is all about.
But this film offers little to Canadians apart from providing the backstory of an excellent national anthem. If we wish to understand our own historical roots, clearly we need a telling of the Canadian version, as The War of 1812 shows we certainly can’t rely on American sources for this one.
If Stephen Harper wants to spend $25 million to make Canadians more aware of this important part of our history, it’s O.K. by me. As long as he doesn’t spend most of it on a painting of Tony Clement in a heroic pose.