The War of 1812 bicentennials passed with little fanfare in our corner of the Midwest, although it was a partly a contest for dominion over this region. The U.S. declared war against Great Britain that June, and it raged into the winter of 1815. It was no lark, and brought our fledgling republic to the verge of extinction.
American commanders anticipated danger at Fort Dearborn (Chicago), and ordered the evacuation of 148 soldiers, women and children that first August. But 500 British-allied Potawatomi braves ambushed them along the trail.
They killed 86, including two women and all 12 children. After downing one especially valiant defender, they cut out his heart and ate it, to absorb his courage. The Potawatomi marched their captives back to Fort Dearborn, which they burned to the ground on the following day.
Some of the ambushed Americans survived the battle, but not their captivity. Others were eventually ransomed. Whether it’s fair to call the battle a massacre or not, the Potawatomi attack helped galvanize white public opinion against pluralistic coexistence with Native American societies.
In the long run, winning the Battle of Fort Dearborn may have been the worst thing that could have happened to the Potawatomi. They were eventually dispossessed and expelled from their ancestral lands by white settlers who were unwilling to chance massacre of their loved ones every time a charismatic figure like Tecumseh or Tenskwatawa came along to appeal to Native American resentment.
In the meantime, British commanders induced some hasty frontier American surrenders elsewhere by playing “good cop, bad cop” regarding their Native American allies’ tendency toward massacre of their captives. But U.S. forces under William Henry Harrison deprived the British terror strategy of some of its bite when they hunted Tecumseh down in Canada and killed him at the Battle of the Thames in October 1813.
British Occupation of Washington
Native Americans weren’t the only ones burning U.S. facilities to the ground during the War of 1812, of course. British commander Robert Ross set the torch to Washington, including the White House. The British drove James Madison and his military commanders out of Washington, into what is now Montgomery County, Maryland.
The invaders occupied Washington before a King-sized storm damaged their fleet, extinguished their fires, and spun off a tornado that pitched two of their cannon into the air and tumbled them down Constitution Avenue. The British were haughty and stubborn people but they could take a hint, and abandoned our capitol 26 hours after their arrival.
Baltimore put up a much stiffer defense than Washington. Militia commander Samuel Smith, 62, assembled a force of 13,000 patriots and positioned them in a line of strong fortifications. When Ross attacked, Americans killed him, along with 300 of his fellow invaders. The British then called off their land attack, and called their war ships up near the coast to bombard Fort McHenry, which was all that kept the invaders off Baltimore’s docks.
The bombardment continued all day, and then all night. The fabled British fleet pounded Baltimore like an anvil: rockets, bombs, “a firelit clang,” as historian Bruce Catton wrote, “of broken metal against masonry.” And yet, when morning dawned, despite heavy smoke, Francis Scott Key could see that our flag was still there.
The Opportunism of Domestic Enemies
The valor in Baltimore was countered by a nauseating stench of Federalist treason to the north, where the Massachusetts legislature had called a wartime convention of New England states to undermine President Madison. Vermont and New Hampshire rejected the call but Rhode Island and Connecticut, to their shame, accepted.
Some New England fire-breathers were already advocating secession. If the British didn’t defeat the U.S. on the battlefield, they were confident they could persuade the New England states to secede from the war-torn republic.
The Federalists deliberated in secret at their convention, passed long-winded resolutions and demanded a series of Constitutional amendments, but American public opinion had turned against them. It was inexcusable that the Federalists had leveraged the wartime crisis as a partisan opportunity, and the American people were finished with them. When the party dissolved shortly thereafter, most Americans considered it good riddance to bad rubbish.
Over 200 years later, the Baltimore Ravens football team traveled to London to play a game. The American athletes stood respectfully for their hosts’ national anthem, “God Save the Queen.” But when their own “Star-Spangled Banner” was played, these men of Baltimore knelt in protest.
One broadcaster, a recently retired Ravens player, went onto the field to kneel in solidarity with the younger millionaires against our country. Their protest is based on a claim of disproportionate American police violence against Black men. It is factually false. It has been statistically disproved. But in postmodern Leftist culture, it is enough to self-congratulate and to make fact-free claims of moral high ground. The more emphatic their protest, the truer their accusation.
I hear the clanging of broken metal against masonry again. There will always be bombardment and conspiracy. Yet after Tecumseh and Robert Ross, after ESPN and Nike and Colin Kaepernick, after Ray Lewis and Eric Reid, our flag is still there.
Long may it wave over a land of free and brave Americans.