In 2004, on a visit to Washington, DC with my best friend who had never had the occasion to visit our Nation's capitol, we witnessed the amazing work underway to conserve the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key's poem which became our national anthem. The flag which flew over Baltimore's Fort McHenry was raised on September 14, 1814 to celebrate an important victory over the British during the War of 1812. It took a decade of painstaking and meticulous work when the flag was moved to a specially constructed conservation lab museum. Visitors like us, in 2004, observed the process through a fifty foot long glass wall. A movable bridge (gantry) created a working surface for the conservation team, above the flag. The lab was equipped with its own heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems to ensure steady temperature and humidity and to keep the air free of any damaging contaminants. It was an amazing endeavor to witness!
In 2011, I returned to Washington, this time with our wonderful, long-time, Girl Scout Troop on their 'graduation' trip planned for over two years.
By this time, the 'Star Spangled Banner' was moved to its permanent location and could be viewed in all its renewed glory. Little did I know at this time, that two of the young women, Samantha Allshouse and Kayla Theriault, would become the force driving to restore honor to the men from the small village of East Deering (now Portland)who served in the War of 1812 and the Revolution. Sam and Kayla's wonderful project continues to be the inspiration for my own continued effort to learn more about the history of Portland and to attempt to unearth the stories of these early pioneers and patriots.
I realized that my knowledge of the War of 1812, let alone my understanding, could barely fill a thimble. Frankly, I remember very little from my history classes in high school, other than the reference to the date, that the national anthem came from Key's, and maybe a reference to Andrew Jackson or the burning of the White House. I could go off on a tangent and tell you about how I, if given the opportunity, would design a more experiential approach to teaching American history, but that is for another day and venue.
I have heard the War of 1812 described as 'fool-hardy, forgotten, unnecessary, misunderstood, accomplished little, too costly in money, property and lives, contentious, created regional and political divisiveness, replete with mixed loyalties, encouraged smuggling, Mr. Madison's War, the 2nd War for Independence, and the war that almost lost the Union'. Hubris of a very young Nation?
While there were genuine issues for the government, and particularly the coastal ports and towns from the Carolina's to Maine. When the Treaty of Ghent ended the conflict on December 24, 1814, but was not finally ratified until 1815, the final document never formally addressed the two major issues that propelled American into the war with the British monarchy: the impressment of American seamen and the interference with trade. Although for the most part, the situation returned to its 'status quo ante bellum' state. Once war with France ended, Britain no longer needed to impress Americans to fill their muster for their Royal Navy, and they wanted to preserve their ability to trade for American goods. In the other theaters of the War, no territory was gained, American troops removed the threat of the 1st Nations alliance with Britain, Canada was spared and remained a British colony, and America retained its ownership of the Great Lakes. I realize that this may seem an over simplification in a conflict which was anything but. The War of 1812 was complicated and messy, as I believe all wars are.
No doubt poor leadership in Washington and in the field drove up the cost of this war. The battle casualties were comparatively light: 2,260 killed and 4,505 wounded. The number of non-battle deaths---mostly from disease---about 17,000. The army executed an additional 295 men, mainly for repeated desertion, and the navy executed a few men as well. Some men who had served on privateers, also died in the war, primarily from disease in British prisons. There were a few civilian casualties as well---mostly of Indian raids in the West. In all, the number of American deaths attributable to the war was probably about 20,000.
The War of 1812: A Short History
by Donald R. Hickey
About two months ago, I received William Blake's military records and began the process of gathering the necessary data and, hopefully, locate a living relative to conclude the process of petitioning the Veterans Administration for a replacement memorial to honor his service in the War of 1812. Fortunately and gratefully, Col. Thomas W. Frank, MD sent me an e mail acknowledging his relationship to William via William's brother James Blake and his wife, Sarah Frank Blake. Although Tom is stationed in Germany at present, he graciously wrote a letter giving me permission to act on his behalf to petition for the stone. I'm hopeful that we might receive word within the month and plan a dedication for the fall. William Blake will be the eighth Veteran to be so honored since beginning the project to reclaim the East Deering/Grand Trunk Cemetery.
At this same time, I realized I wanted to know more about this conflict and understand why it impacted the lives of these men and their families. In 2013, Portland held a beautifully celebrated anniversary of the Battle between the HMS Boxer and the USS Enterprise where the two young commanders had been killed. A delegation and descendants of Commander Samuel Blyth came from England and the American Captain William Burrows was also well represented by Navy personnel. This was a very poignant experience for all who attended; it certainly impressed me and made me want to fill up the thimble with more than a semblance of understanding.
Over the course of the last two months, I've accumulated several articles and essays about the War of 1812 and three books. I mention these as good reads for those who might be interested and want to pursue their own investigation. Actually, here a photos of the books. There are many others to be sure.
David Hanna's book is very readable, well documented and compelling. Of particular interest to me in the light of the more recent Portland celebration was his detail given to the funeral of the two Captains. He speaks about the extraordinary respect shown to the two young Captains of the Boxer and Enterprise by the citizens of Portland when their bodies were solemnly carried to the Eastern Cemetery and laid side-by-side. Hanna gives us a glimpse into the lives of each young man and the choices they each made which ultimately brought them together in battle and in death.
The joint funeral of William Burrows and Samuel Blyth on September 9, 1813, stands as a testament to the resonance that the battle had for the people of Portland. There was something about the deaths of these two young commanders that touched people deeply. Longfellow's poem of many decades later illustrated how even a six year-old boy was somehow able to grasp the gravity and melancholy of the event:
I remember the sea-fight far away
How it thundered o'er the tide!
And the dead sea-captains as they lay
In the graves o'erlooking the tranquil bay
Where they in battle died.
And the sound of that mournful song
Goes through me with a thrill:
'A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."
The War of 1812 had adverse effects on the South where a number of Black slaves ran away and joined the British forces, promised protection and resettlement. Promises were broken and slavery in the South became even more entrenched and cruel until the next great conflict; the Civil War. A good outcome after the War of 1812 for both the United States and Britain was the resolution not to engage in Slave Trade ever again.
Native American Tribes did not fare any better. Promises made by Britain to establish an Indian protected barrier to prevent Americans from further expansion in the West failed miserably. More promises broken! The War of 1812 gave impetus to the policy of 'Manifest Destiny.'
New England which after the Revolutionary War had enjoyed neutrality in shipping and free trade, became a pawn between the British and the French during the war between the two European powers. This led to first the Embargo of 1807 and then the Non-Intercourse Act of 1810 leading to a stagnation of shipping and trade, and certainly contributed to smuggling that took place all during the war.
American vessels were harassed or taken, American seamen impressed into service on English ships- of- war. On March 25, 1813, this article as published in the Eastern Argus (Portland, Maine) Volume X, Issue 497, page 3.
Before going further, I want to share some of the political cartoons of the day which reflect the mixed feelings, and in many instances, the ant-war sentiment regarding the conflict, that some believe, could have cost the American Ship of State to capsize and potentially, undue, what was accomplished barely 40 years before, in the War for Independence. The great American experiment would have failed.
Lastly, I'd like to conclude this rather long prelude with the historical narrative published from the Full text of the Massachusetts Records of the Volunteer Militia called out by the Governor of Massachusetts to suppress a threatened invasion during the War of 1812.
There is more to be said in another post to follow!