The War of 1812 (un)Remembered

War of 1812 Reenactors
War of 1812 Reenactors - Creative Commons (Sean Hackbarth)

Clayton Nans is a War of 1812 reenactor.

And if that didn’t get your attention, well, this retired Marine officer wouldn’t be too surprised. As Nans told the New York Times for a story that ran last Friday, “I know people who can go their whole life and will be just as happy not to know about any War of 1812.” Considering that the rest of the Union was out shopping for cheap flat screens and probably didn’t notice this article about the least noticed war in American history, I’m guessing he’s right.

But even for a war that has garnered as little attention as this one, it’s perhaps surprising and dismaying to learn that

…for three years in a row, governors of New York have vetoed legislation to set up a statewide bicentennial commission to plan events for the anniversary of the war, which has long been overshadowed by the more celebrated Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Gov. David A. Paterson, who vetoed the measure in 2009 and 2010, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who vetoed it in September, said New York’s tight finances meant the state could not afford to mount its own effort.

In a veto message, Mr. Paterson emphasized that he fully supported remembering the conflict and mused about the importance of honoring soldiers for their sacrifice. Mr. Cuomo was terser: he wrote that “although cultural and historical tourism is an important industry,” his administration believed the commission would cost the state $1.4 million, an unacceptable sum.

The Battle of Plattsburgh
The Battle of Plattsburgh - Wikimedia

For context, the Times article points out that the state of Maryland has earmarked about $25 million, and the Canadian government is spending $28 million. Small wonder that Keith Herkalo, president of the Battle of Plattsburgh Association (that battle being a rare American triumph in the war, an 1814 encounter on land and Lake Champlain that stopped a British advance from the north) is crossing state lines and applying for a grant from the Marylanders. As he told the Times reporter, “It’s frankly kind of embarrassing. Wouldn’t we, collectively, as a state, want to tout our heritage? And the answer is, haplessly, no.”

“Wouldn’t we… want to tout our heritage?” I tend to think that the answer is understandably no. Since, setting aside the fiscal issues involved, I doubt that there are too many historians who would find this heritage “tout”-able.

And that’s true for either side. Consider the historical essays contributed to the website of this year’s PBS documentary on the war. If any historian has a heritage here to “tout,” it would be a Canadian like Victor Suthren, who observes that inhabitants of both French-speaking “Lower” Canada (now Quebec) and English-speaking “Upper” Canada (now Ontario) ultimately decided to set aside their differences with the British Empire and contributed much to defeating the American invasion. Most interestingly, many of those in Upper Canada were recent American migrants who found their loyalties and identity shaped by the war:

The sufferings of Canadian civilians at the hands of American troops, and the legacy of burnt and looted communities along the frontier gave the people of Upper Canada a strong sense, not so much of who they were, but certainly who they were not. And it had been American bayonets and torches that had brought that realization.

At the same time, Suthren adds, they had little sense of exultation at the expense of or lingering hostility towards their neighbors/former countrymen to the south. These Canadians (like those in the Maritimes, who shared their New England cousins’ antipathy for the war) didn’t take long to “re-knit ties of kinship, trade and friendship that the war had, in most eyes, needlessly sundered.” And Canadians of the “First Nations” like the Iroquois (for whom this was a civil war) and the Shawnee could only look back at the War of 1812 with bitterness:

Having been instrumental in the successful defense of Canada, the warriors and their families lost their dream of an Indian homeland, and continued their decline into marginalization and poverty. Theirs is the most tragic story of all in the War of 1812.

(See also Donald Fixico’s essay on “Native Nations” and the war.)

Meanwhile, Donald Hickey has a point that, for Americans, the war — “probably our most obscure conflict” — was more significant than we realize, partly because it boosted the political careers of four future presidents (Monroe, JQ Adams, Jackson, and Harrison) and partly because bits of it hinted at the potential of the American military when properly trained, organized, and equipped.

But even Hickey has to admit that the war’s perceived significance is inescapably diminished by the Americans’ manifold failures (start with having the White House burned to the ground and go from there) and their cause’s startling unpopularity:

The prosecution of the war was marred by considerable bungling and mismanagement.  This was partly due to the nature of the republic.  The nation was too young and immature – and its government too feeble and inexperienced – to prosecute a major war efficiently.  Politics also played a part.  Federalists vigorously opposed the conflict, and so too did some Republicans.  Even those who supported the war feuded among themselves and never displayed the sort of patriotic enthusiasm that has been so evident in other American wars.  The advocates of war appeared to support the conflict more with their heads than their hearts, and more with their hearts than their purses.  As a result, efforts to raise men and money lagged far behind need.

Map of the Niagara Frontier
An 1869 map of the Niagara campaign (Queenston is in the top-center) — Archives of Ontario

In the first months of the war, this combination of bungling and unpopularity was exemplified by events in the region of Lake Erie, where the ineptitude of American commanders was matched by the ambivalence of their troops. After a July invasion ended badly (the commanding general, William Hull, not only antagonized the Canadian civilian population but was forced to surrender Fort Detroit without a shot), a second was attempted at the other end of the lake in October. A wealthy New York politician-turned-militia general, Stephen Van Rensselaer, sought to take his forces across the Niagara River at Queenston. While some of his soldiers managed to take the heights (they were commanded by a young officer named Winfield Scott, later to become the most important general in the antebellum U.S. Army), hundreds of New Yorkers refused to cross the river to reinforce their comrades and others already across the river hid. Next, the adjutant general of the U.S. Army, Alexander Smyth, after having refused even to meet with Van Rensselaer before the battle, to reinforce him at it, or to defend him publicly after it, attempted his own invasion. It failed when militia (this time including many from Pennsylvania) again refused to cross the border into Canada. Finally, the overall U.S. commander for the region, Henry Dearborn, marched over 6000 troops from Plattsburgh to the border. Yet again, the militia refused to obey orders and cross the border, leading Dearborn to give up and turn back.

So no, I’m not sure that Mr. Herkalo or other New Yorkers really “want to tout [their] heritage” from this war.

That doesn’t mean there should be no commemoration, of course. Just that public history isn’t the same thing as celebrating “heritage.” (Or, as Governor Cuomo put it, the “important industry” of “cultural or historical tourism…”) Ideally, the state of New York would find a few million dollars to help its citizens (and visitors) better understand this neglected, complicated story of a war in which what it meant to be American was very much in flux, and any victory was an ambivalent one.

And to the extent that this type of public history is funded, it could be highly valuable. First, because what it ultimately celebrates will not be military triumphs, but what has become famous as “the world’s longest undefended border.” Second, because learning how to commemorate a profoundly unpopular, inglorious conflict like the War of 1812 might teach us some lessons about how to commemorate the most recent chapters in American military history.

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