June 18, 2012
Two hundred years ago today, the United States declared war on the United Kingdom, initiating a conflict sometimes known as “the second American Revolution.” Though there were many causes of the war, one of the main points of conflict between the two countries was the impressment of thousands of American sailors into the British Navy, which was already fighting a long war against Napoleon. The War of 1812 was fought primarily around the northern, southern, and eastern borders of the United States, both on land and sea. The war included a number of spectacularly successful maritime victories for the relatively new U.S. Navy, including the destruction of several British ships by the technologically advanced and expertly-commanded frigates that had been added to the fleet in the late eighteenth century.
Depictions of these battles, such as the painting above, were widely reproduced and circulated by printers as companion pieces to written accounts. Though most of the images were produced in Britain, they were popular in both the United Kingdom and the United States, with the former embracing them as memorials of a national tragedy and the latter as evidence of national strength and cause for celebration.
Pocock’s painting, donated to the library by Eli Lilly in 1966, and many prints from the same era, such as the one above, are among the treasures of the Clements Library collections. They provide not only a breathtaking glimpse into the past, but a record of the public fascination with wartime events–and a record of the beginnings of an image-based news culture. The citizens of both countries were no longer satisfied with second-hand accounts of the war, but demanded a window into the action, which Pocock and other artists like him were eager to provide. Additionally, the sharing of media between the two countries was characteristic of the era of peace and economic cooperation that followed the war.