War of 1812 Expert Delivers History Lecture at Pentagon
By John Valceanu
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jul. 18, 2012 A Pentagon audience yesterday learned about the impact and legacy of the War of 1812 on the United States from a historian specializing in the conflict.
Christopher T. George, author of “Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay” and editor of the Journal of the War of 1812, spoke about the war’s early stages to a packed room in the Pentagon Conference Center. The event was part of a speaker series coordinated by the Historical Office within the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
More than 100 people, including military service members from U.S. and allied nations, along with Defense Department civilians and guests, listened as George delivered a lecture titled “The War of 1812: First Campaigns on Land and Sea.”
Speaking with a British accent resulting from a childhood spent in England before emigrating to the U.S. as a boy, George described the defeats suffered on land by American troops against their British and Native American foes, as well as the stunning successes of U.S. naval forces against the British navy, which was then the dominant naval force in the world.
Though time limitations prevented him from going into great detail, George sketched some of the more important events and leaders of that conflict, including U.S. Brig. Gen. William Hull surrendering Fort Detroit to British Maj. Gen. Sir Isaac Brock and Brock’s later death during the Battle of Queenston Heights in what is now the province of Ontario, Canada.
British Navy Adm. Sir George Cockburn, whose troops burned Washington, D.C., and attacked Havre de Grace, Md., was another figure about which the historian talked, as well as U.S. 2nd Lt. John O’Neill, a hero of Havre de Grace who single-handedly manned what came to be known as the “Potato Battery” against the ransacking British.
But George didn’t just discuss U.S. and British military figures. He also talked about Tecumseh, a Native American leader of the Shawnee, who fought alongside the British against the Americans in the hope of creating an American Indian confederacy and stopping the westward expansion of European Americans, and about President James Madison and the impact his lack of military knowledge had on the war. In concluding his presentation, the historian noted that the war was an important milestone in the development of the United States.
“It was desperately hard work, but it was part of the growing up process for the new American nation,” he said. “It allowed American forces to stand toe to toe with a major nation, to gain a new respect in the world, for Americans to think of themselves at last as a nation, rather than a collection of states.”
Speaking with American Forces Press Service after the lecture, George expounded on that theme. “Previously, the nation saw itself as being just separate states in a federalized system, but here they managed to have a national identity,” he said. “The U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy had stood up to perhaps the preeminent military might in the world, and they managed to hold their own against the British without French help, which of course they had in the Revolution. So it was a whole new ball game, in a way.”
During the interview, George said he disagreed with those who use the term “the second war of American independence” to describe the conflict, as he said the British were clearly not interested in recapturing their colonies. “The major British intent was to protect Canada,” he said. “By the end of the war, the U.S. Army and Navy had proved themselves and although it wasn’t an American victory overall, they had done themselves good credit.”
Though the war was essentially a stalemate, George says he sees it as “a big part of America’s expansion across the continent” and credits it with producing some important national symbols, such as the USS Constitution’s nickname, “Old Ironsides,” the Star Spangled Banner and the motto “Don’t give up the fight!”
“It’s sometimes said that the Americans think they’ve won the War of 1812, the Canadians know they won the War of 1812 and the British have forgotten all about it,” he said. “There’s something for each side to like about the war, some success that each of those three sides had.”
The biggest losers of the conflict, George pointed out, were the Native Americans. The possibility of realizing the dream of a nation of their own died along with Tecumseh and the dissolution of his confederacy.