The War of 1812 airs Monday, Oct. 10 at 9 p.m. on WNED… PBS
“The War of 1812” airs on PBS stations nationwide on Monday, October 10, 2011 at 9 p.m. ET
(check local listings).
**Forgotten conflict?October 07, 2011 Kenneth Kidd **
Laura Secord meets British Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon to warn of an impending American attack in The War of 1812.
National Archives of Canada, Estate of Lorne K. Smith
Lawrence Hott and Diane Garey were working on a documentary about Niagara Falls when they got the call. Would they be interested in following that up with another film, this one in time for the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812?
Neither half of the American couple, partners in business as well as life, knew much of anything about the war, save that it gave birth to the U.S. national anthem and Washington had been burned to the ground.
“It was just kind of surprising that, as a student and documentary filmmaker, I hadn’t been confronted with this war very much,” says Garey.
As it happens, this meshed with the film’s original working title, The Forgotten War.
But that moniker wasn’t about to last. Americans may not know much about the War of 1812, but in Canada it’s still remembered as a glorious victory over the invading Yanks.
Nor was it a small point that the documentary, which kicks off festivities on both sides of the border, was being commissioned by WNED, Buffalo’s PBS station, whose membership is 65 per cent Canadian.
The resulting War of 1812, which airs Monday night, is a riveting account of a struggle that pitted Canadian, Indian and British forces against American expansionism, effectively forging the destiny of an entire continent and giving the Canadian colonies a sense of identity that would lead to Confederation.
The Americans have already spent years planning massive celebrations, building replica warships and the like. But the smaller Canadian efforts only got a belated boost last month, when Ottawa put up $11.5 million for bicentennial commemorations over the next four years. The cross-border disparity is odd.
It was, after all, the war in which Thomas Jefferson famously uttered the words that historians have been dining out on ever since:
“The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us experience for the attack on Nova Scotia the next, and the final expulsion of England from the American continent. Canada wants to enter the Union.”
The Americans would fail miserably in this, an outcome even then-President James Madison seems to have feared if not anticipated. When the U.S. Congress presented him with its declaration of war, Madison turned ghostly white.
At the time, Britain was in the midst of a titanic struggle with Napoleon, one the British viewed as nothing less than the defence of civilization, and one in which neutrality was suspect. Conflict with U.S. interests was perhaps inevitable and it took two, related forms.
The first was the Royal Navy’s blockade of Napoleonic France, which prevented American trade ships from reaching any port controlled by the French. The second was impressment, the Royal Navy’s practice of physically removing seamen deemed to be British from American vessels, then pressing them into service on Royal Navy ships.
This alone likely wouldn’t have brought war. But in the United States, the real war hawks mostly saw those irritants as an opportunity to make territorial gains — driving the Indians out of what would become Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, and conquering Upper and Lower Canada.
It was, in other words, a war of choice, pursued for domestic reasons, though not without internal division.
The New England states, with close commercial ties to both Britain and Nova Scotia, were so opposed to the war that Massachusetts even appointed its own diplomat to seek a separate peace.
“That would be like Oklahoma deciding to go and negotiate a separate peace with Iraq or Afghanistan,” says Garey. “It’s unthinkable right now.”
It was a war for which the U.S. was woefully unprepared and its military ineptitude led to a string of embarrassing defeats. Nor were the Americans short of delusions, since they believed colonists north of the border would embrace them as liberators, rather than vigorously fight them off.
At the Battle of Chateauguay near Montreal, for instance, 1,400 Canadian militiamen — French Canadians alongside Irish, Scots and German settlers — drove back an invading force twice as large.
But if the war was largely a U.S. failure, some benefits did accrue to the Americans.
The death of the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh, during the Battle of the Thames in southwestern Ontario, effectively ended any threat of an Indian confederacy standing in the way of westward expansion.
The War of 1812 also convinced the Americans that they desperately needed a full, professional army. “We knew we had to do better,” says Hott. “We knew the militia didn’t cut it.”
Perhaps as importantly, the Americans also gained a sense of unity that had eluded them since independence, complete with a new national symbol in the form of Uncle Sam.
Then again, American viewers might be surprised to learn “The Star-Spangled Banner” is set to the tune of a British drinking song, or that Washington was razed by the British in retaliation for the American burning and pillaging of York (now Toronto) and Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake).
And then there’s Laura Secord, a name most Canadians know as a chain of candy stores. Fewer likely know Laura Secord was the Canadian heroine who walked at least 20 kilometres through tangled forest until she stumbled into an Indian camp, whence she was escorted to British Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon, bearing news of an impending American attack.
“It’s like going to a Shakespeare play and hearing line after line that has been quoted in other contexts,” says Garey.
“There’s a lot that comes out of this war that is in our culture, both Canadian and American, but we aren’t aware that, at source, this is the War of 1812.”
The War of 1812 airs Monday, Oct. 10 at 9 p.m. on WNED.