Four Ways to Look at a War

The Wall Street Journal

June 20, 2012



Americans and Canadians tell two very different stories about the War of 1812. For Americans, it’s all about Dolly Madison saving the White House artwork and Francis Scott Key giving us our national anthem. For Canadians, it’s the seminal event that forged a national identity before they were even a nation.

[canadawar] Canadian War MuseumA grave marker for an American soldier of the War of 1812.

A new exhibit at the Canadian War Museum marking the conflict’s bicentennial explains that there were actually four distinct combatants: the Americans, the Canadians, the British and the Indians. The museum does an excellent—and evenhanded—job of defining the experiences of all four groups. This history is told through 130 artifacts—paintings, grave markers, uniforms, weapons and prizes of war—from the museum’s own collection, as well as some important pieces on loan from a number of British, Canadian and U.S. institutions, all augmented by informative panels and dioramas.

The exhibit opens with an ornate American grave marker and a panel that reminds visitors that some 35,000 men, women and children were killed during this often-forgotten conflict. Visitors then enter a rotunda that presents a brief overview of what the war meant for all four groups. Off of this hub are four exhibit halls that hold most of the artifacts and present a more detailed accounting of what was at stake for each.

For the Americans, the War of 1812 is often called “the second American Revolution.” That’s because, more than a quarter-century after Yorktown, Britain, desperate for able-bodied seamen to send against Napoleon, was still regularly boarding American ships. Among the objects on display is an American household water pitcher, on loan from the Smithsonian, with an inscription that reads, “Free trade & sailor’s rights.”


Canadian War Museum
Through Jan. 6, 2013

On June 18, 1812, President James Madison had had enough and declared war on Britain. In July, American Army commander William Hull captured Sandwich (today Windsor, Ontario), across from Detroit. A month later, the Canadians, led by Maj. Gen. Sir Isaac Brock, not only took back Sandwich but captured Detroit. And that’s how the war would go for the next 2½ years—brief cross-border incursions (mostly by the Americans) that resulted in modest territorial gains but no real progress toward the greater American goal of capturing Quebec City and cutting off British supply lines from the sea.

Two of the most impressive objects in the American wing are a carved wooden lion taken as a war prize from the legislative assembly in York (now Toronto), a building the Americans burned to the ground in April 1813. Of course, the British did some burning of their own. Shown here is a piece of charred wood found during a 1950s restoration of the White House overseen by then-Rep. Gerald Ford.

For the British, the war was mostly an annoying distraction from the more-important Napoleonic Wars. Today, Nelson and Wellington are far better remembered than Sir George Prévost, military commander-in-chief of Canada. Britain, too, understood that as long as it held onto Quebec City and the maritime provinces, its hold on Canada was secure.

The museum has an original of the June 1812 expulsion order telling all Americans to leave Quebec City, as well as a Quebec City Militia officer’s uniform. But the most impressive display is a 1915 commemorative print of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. Turn around, and visitors see an actual copy of the treaty, on loan from the U.S. National Archives.

Indian alliances were also important to the British. The exhibit features several so-called loyalty medals, given to Indian chiefs in thanks for their support. One of these, on loan from the Tilston Memorial Collection of Canadian Military Medals, is about 6 inches across and was minted in 1783 with a likeness of King George III.

The Canadian gallery focuses on two of the most prominent figures from the war, Sir Isaac Brock and Laura Secord, the hero and heroine of Upper Canada, the colonial name for most of modern-day Ontario. Just a few months after Brock took Detroit, he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Queenston Heights. An 1896 David Kelly print of the battle is historically inaccurate, but Brock’s tunic, on display here, is the genuine article. If you look just under the lapel, you can see the hole made by the bullet that killed him.

Secord is more famous today for the chain of chocolate shops named after her than for what she did in June 1813. Having overheard American officers planning an attack on a British outpost near Queenston, she slipped past American sentries and trekked 32 kilometers (20 miles) to warn the British. Three days later, the British and a band of Mohawk and Anishnaabe warriors ambushed American forces at the Battle of Beaver Dams.

There are also two charred books, the only surviving tomes from the Niagara Library, which the Americans burned in December 1813, as well as Owen Staples’s 1914 oil painting “View of the Town of York,” depicting the American sacking of York.

For the Indians, the War of 1812 was the beginning of the end. Two important Indian leaders were brothers Tecumseh and Tenkwatawa, who convinced tribes to form a united front against the Americans. They allied with the British, and Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of Thames. After that, the alliance broke apart and the Americans, as they expanded west, were able to pick off the tribes one by one. So the destiny of the American Indian was forged not in Montana and Arizona, but in Upper Canada.

The Indian gallery features a Rembrandt Peale portrait (c. 1813) of future U.S. President William Henry Harrison, who defeated Tecumseh at Thames, as well as a buckskin jacket worn by Hillis Hadjo, leader of the Red Sticks (Batons Rouge), who were defeated by another future U.S. president, Andrew Jackson, at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814.

The stories and the artifacts mesh nicely, making this exhibit of an oft-forgotten war most memorable.

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