COMMENTARY | On June 18, 1812, the U.S. declared war on Great Britain, largely the result of American sailors being forced into the service of England’s navy. This week, USA Today claimed “America shrugs” with regard to the conflict’s bicentennial. But we don’t ignore the conflict as the paper implied. Americans should celebrate the conflict as it represents our greatest fight, a young nation fighting Britain to a draw.
USA Today and the Washington Post claim Americans don’t care about the War of 1812, which is not the case. Americans do celebrate the conflict vigorously. Great events have gone on, and more are planned for this year. With some help from Hollywood, even more Americans would care about one of its greatest wars.
I became introduced to how much Americans care when a co-worker at the defense contract firm I worked at invited me and my wife to a re-enactment of the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. She and her husband were living history re-enactors whose group put on quite a show for the large crowds in attendance.
While teaching the War of 1812 history class at my college, I’ve taken students to New Orleans in early January for the lengthy four days of demonstrations, re-enactments and commemorations, which are so well attended that you have to wait hours to catch a bus to the battlegrounds because of the crowds coming to see America’s greatest military victory.
We forget that America’s war with the Creek Nation, allies of the British and Shawnee chief Tecumseh, is part of that conflict. And in Central Alabama on weekends, you can tour the site of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, which led to the greatest number of Native American casualties in a fight with the U.S., and get live demonstrations from re-enactors. At the end of March, representatives from the Creek Nation join in for a weekend of activities.
And anyone who has been to Boston knows the Freedom Trail ends at the USS Constitution. Dubbed “Old Ironsides,” its defeat of British frigates and capture of several other ships contributed to the British taking the shocking step of forbidding their ships to engage the Americans in single combat.
Now comes word the U.S. will conduct more re-enactments. One such example is to replay America’s failed invasion of Canada at the Battle of Queenston Heights, which led to the unfortunate death of Sir Isaac Brock.
There are also several excellent books on the War of 1812 that are among the best history books I’ve ever read. They include Donald Hickey’s “Don’t Give Up The Ship” and Ian W. Toll’s “Six Frigates,” about our amazing ships that fought the French (the Undeclared Wars), the Barbary Pirates (Tripoli and Algeria) and the British. Col. John Elting’s “Amateurs to Arms” is not only informative, but downright entertaining to read, given the author’s sarcastic style.
But America could do more. The place that has done the least to help celebrate our history has been Hollywood. Other than the movie “The Buccaneer” (also remade), which is more of a pirate movie than a War of 1812 movie, and the love story at sea “Captain Caution” about a privateer and the made-for-TV movie “Tecumseh, the Last Warrior,” the film industry has largely dropped the ball.
How can we have a movie (“Master and Commander”) about a British ship in the Napoleonic Wars (based on a set of novels by the incomparable Patrick O’Brian) but nothing about Old Ironsides or the dashing Stephen Decatur? America twice did what no country ever had done once: Capture a British squadron (at Lake Erie and again at Lake Champlain). What of the fight that inspired our Star Spangled Banner? Hollywood shrugs.
Read one of great books about the War of 1812, take the family to see a historic site from the war on the 20th anniversary special or watch the History Channel special. Maybe then, the film industry may get the message of how important this conflict is to us.