Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Here comes War of 1812

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BALTIMORE -- Out of the murk of history and the trough of government funding, here comes the War of 1812 again, 200 years old and as ambiguous as ever on both sides of the Canada-U.S. frontier.

"The festivities reach a crescendo!" trumpets the Maryland Bicentennial Commission, as if three years of bombarding, cannonading, spearing, shooting, scalping, burning, sinking, drowning, pillaging, invading, retreating, ambushing, marching, fleeing, starving, freezing, and occupying had been a holiday for all concerned.

Undeterred by the carnage -- after all, the war didn't kill that many guys, compared to, like, Gettysburg or Hitler or whatever -- we are going to have "a star-spangled tribute to the defence of America" down here, a display at the U.S. Naval Academy of "the British flag captured at Fort York (Toronto)," plus "a week-long maritime event to kick off the bicentennial celebration.

In other words, there are going to be a lot of people in pantaloons hoisting mainsails and firing muskets before this thing is put away for another century.

The War of 1812 -- and 1813 and 1814 and a little bit of 1815 -- was the last major conflict before the invention of photography transformed soldiers from caricatures into the corpses of real mothers' sons.

It was waged in an era when dysentery felled more fighters than grapeshot, and it has been woefully misremembered, if not totally forgotten, by almost everyone on both sides, except for us Canadians who are strong and free today, thanks to the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, the 49th and 89th British Regiments of Foot, and an emigrant from Massachusetts named Laura Secord.

"Celebrate our Victory in the War of 1812," boomed the Conservative party platform for the most recent Canadian federal election. "Commemorate 'The Fight for Canada.' Sponsor hundreds of events and re-enactments across the country. Honour the contributions of First Nations to the Canadian victory."

"In Canada, they have their myths, too," says a film director in Baltimore, "and one of their myths is that they won the war."

This much is indisputable: The War of 1812 preserved the imperial fact in North America, gave the United States its national anthem, destroyed the Indian nations of the mid-continent and sent President James Madison running for his life from the White House to the Maryland suburbs and right past my house. It was America's first war of choice but, obviously, not the last.

An exhibit at a famous fort in Baltimore Harbor neatly summarizes the belligerent's incentive: "War might bring the tempting prize of British Canada!"

The New World sideshow to the Napoleonic struggles in Europe began with American complaints about British haughtiness on the high seas. A cabal of Tea Party-type war hawks in Congress pressed their ardour for revenge. Madison acquiesced and signed off on numerous plans, all of them ridiculous, to cut off Montreal from Kingston, liberate the very same Loyalists who had fled the United States a generation earlier, and seize Casino Windsor.

The ensuing conflict dragged in settlers and First Nations and militiamen and fencibles and mercenaries from Tippecanoe to Queenstown Heights. It left muddy Hogtown and malarial Washington in ashes and ended with a glorious American victory in the Battle of New Orleans that came after the peace treaty, which reverted to the status quo ante bellum anyway, already had been signed.

"It excites astonishment that we should have been able for one campaign to have fought Great Britain single-handed," crowed an American negotiator at the treaty conference in Ghent.

A book I have called The Burning of Washington calls the incineration of the Capitol and the capital "a defining moment in the coming-of-age of the United States." This is like saying that the best thing that ever happened to you in high school was getting your lights punched out for talking to the quarterback's girlfriend.

"Never again would America fight as the underdog!" we learn here at Fort McHenry, whose defenders withstood one of the fiercest cannonades in history -- "the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air" -- and inspired a lawyer named Francis Scott Key to write a poem that, set to an old English drinking tune, was being sung by crowds in the Charm City streets before a week had passed.

When Baltimore refused to fall to the same flotilla whose men had put the White House and the Capitol to the torch two weeks before, the British sailed away, having played .500 ball on the road trip. Canada and America have been at peace with each other ever since, not counting the Fenian raids and the pig that was shot in a boundary dispute on San Juan Island in 1859.

"Without the people of the town of Baltimore, there would be no United States of America!" boasts Maryland Governor (and former Baltimore mayor) Martin O'Malley.

In Baltimore last Monday, I attended the one-hour premiere of a two-hour documentary -- entitled, provocatively, The War of 1812 -- that will be broadcast next week on public television stations in both our conjugal countries. Polished, pretty, politically correct and paid for by agencies and trusts and individuals on both sides of the Napolitano Line, the film steers straight down the middle of a foggy, foggy road.

The well-heeled American audience I sat with clearly was cheering for Upper Canada and the Indians, murmuring approvingly when a First Nations historian explained away his tribe's practice of slaughtering unarmed prisoners by saying, "Why fight the same enemy twice?" They nodded liberally when director Larry Hott noted -- without needing to mention George W. Bush -- that the conflict "brought up a lot of questions about the way a democratic country conducts war."

And everyone chuckled at Thomas Jefferson's declaration in 1812 that the conquest of Canada would be "merely a matter of marching."

"I'm glad he said that," Canadian historian Donald Graves declares in the documentary, "because Canadian and British historians have been dining out on that quote ever since."

(What Jefferson really said was: "The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us the experience for the attack on Halifax, the next and final expulsion of England from the American continent.")

Or, as Francis Scott Key declared in The Star-Spangled Banner, "Conquer we must, when our cause it is just."

During my visit to the birthplace of the anthem last week, a woman named Pat was working the cash register at the Fort McHenry gift shop.

"Who won the War of 1812, Pat?" I asked her.

"I have no idea," she said, "but it must have been us."


Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2011 J1

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