Saturday, May 26, 2012

DVD Documentary: The War of 1812

June 1812 marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, a largely forgotten war in Britain and America, but not so in Canada. In Canada, we have two national heroes from the war; Sir Isaac Brock, the brave soldier who died during the Battle of Queenston Heights, and Laura Secord, the intrepid heroine who warned the British of an impending attack thus helping them to secure a victory in the Battle of Beaver Dams.

The War of 1812 provides viewers with a good overview of this conflict, drawing on experts and historical documents, and personal accounts.

The documentary opens with  background information as to why America declared war on a much stronger military nation. The war involved American colonists fighting against the largest naval power in the world at that time, Great Britain, as well as Canadian colonists and Native warriors. It was a war that should not have happened.

In the early 1800's the world was at war in Europe, Britain against France. Napoleon Bonaparte was intent upon conquering Europe and the only way Britain could stop him was to stop the French army from receiving supplies. Britain attempted to do this by blocking supply ships on the high seas. America remained neutral in the war but paid a price for this stance.

Britain was stopping ships on the high seas. All neutral ships trading with France had to stop in Britain and pay a duty. If they did not obey this decree, they were considered enemy ships. The Royal Navy stopped many ships on the high seas many of which were American. And from these ships Britain took money and men. Britain impressed over 6000 men in the early years of the 19th century. These men were forced to serve on British ships. As the years went by, the Americans became more and more outraged and resentment seethed. This resent built up to such a point that the Republicans began to agitate for a declaration of war.

Shawnee warrior Tecumseh became involved in the war because of the American policy of stealing Indian lands. One by one, Indian tribes were signing treaties with the Americans and losing their lands. In particular, Governor William Harrison of the Indiana Territory, was responsible for the Indians losing much of their land. Tecumseh had seen the Indians pushed back from the sea to the lakes and he wanted this to stop.

Tecumseh formed a confederacy of Native tribes who would oppose Harrison and the Americans. He would not allow the American expansion into Indian lands to go unopposed. While Tecumseh was away gathering support, Harrison decided to attack Tecumseh's headquarters in Prophetstown near the Tippecanoe River. However, the Natives attacked the Americans and only retreated when their supplies of ammunition ran low. Harrison proclaimed this a great victory but the battle served to turn the Natives even more against the Americans.

The Americans were outraged at finding British supplies in the Prophetstown, which they had burned to the ground. The result was that a Declaration of War was issued against Great Britain in June of 1812. Britain did not want another war; the troubles at home were deep and many. Canadians knew an invasion by America was likely. Many Americans believed that the colonists in Canada would welcome an invasion. Many others, especially those who lived on the Eastern seaboard, such as in New England were outraged.

The American plan was to attack and invade Canada in three places; at Detroit, at Niagara and at Montreal. There were several problems with this. First there were no roads to these areas and travel was by water - controlled by the British. Secondly, while the Americans were poorly prepared, the British-Canadians were not. The British soldiers were veterans and professional soldiers while the Americans used primarily militia who were untrained and untried.
Portrayal of the death of Isaac Brock
The three invasions were disasters with the Americans losing at Detroit and Queenston while the Montreal invasion never happened. The invaders returned home. Canada however, lost it's best soldier, General Isaac Brock in the Battle of Queenston Heights.

Nevertheless, the war continued on with battles that seemed to contain one blunder after the other on both sides. The Battle of Stoney Creek in 1813 was representative of how much of the war was fought. Two American Generals got lost in the forest. A third American General led a charge against his own troops. The Americans lost the battle but retained the field, while the British were victorious but retreated!

Britain needed to retain control of the Great Lakes as this was the only way to supply the colony. After the naval battle of September 10th, 1813, the Americans controlled Lake Erie. This allowed them a second chance to try to capture the heart of eastern Canada, a chance which was again botched. Two important battles, at Crysler Farm and Chateauguay, which the Americans lost and quickly forgot, are still remembered by Canadians. These battles are remembered because this was the first time that the three founding nations of the Canada, French, English and Native came together to defend their country.

1814 was the most violent year of the war. During the spring of 1814, the Town of York (Toronto) and the Town of Newark (Niagara on the Lake) were burnt to the ground by the American troops. The British returned the favour along the Niagara river, burning Buffalo and other towns. The Battle of Lundy's Lane occurred that summer and was the bloodiest, fiercest battle of the war.

In 1814, the British finally captured Napoleon and the war with France was over. This meant that Great Britain was now free to send the full force of its navy against the Americans. This might mean a serious loss of territory for the Americans. Not only that but raids by the British in the southern United States had freed over 4000 slaves. British troops marched on Washington and in a move that was certainly retaliatory, burned the White House. America could no longer afford to finance the war. And Britain was paying American farmers to supply the British army in Canada. So President Madison sent a delegation to Europe to negotiate a peace treaty.

Although the British initially asked for a large Indian state surrounding the Great Lakes, losses at the Battle of Baltimore and Fort McHenry meant that they eventually dropped this request. The terrible British loss at the Battle of New Orleans, which was fought AFTER the peace treaty of Ghent was signed, gave the American's the misguided notion that they had somehow won the war. Many equated Jackson's victory with the arrival of peace. This propaganda has lived on in America for years and is probably the greatest myth of the war. In reality, although Canada gained some territory, the boundaries between the United States and Canada remained the same. The principal losers were the First Nations, who lost their land forever, to American expansionism.

The War of 1812 draws on re-enactment footage to tell the remarkable story of a war filled with mishaps, incompetent military commanders, botched battles. myths and misinformation. The documentary draws upon many experts from America, Canada, and England: Rick Hill, Historian and Artist, Grand River Territory; Andrew Lambert Historian, Kings College London; Donald Fixico Native American Historian, Arizona State University; Rene Chartrand, Former Senior Curator, Canada's National Historic Sites; Donald E. Graves, Historian; Patrick Wilder, Historian, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; Diana Graves, Canadian Author, John Sugden, Tecumseh Biographer; and Ron Dale, Superintendent, Niagara National Historic Sites, Canada.

Overall, The War of 1812, directed by Diana Garey and Lawrence Hott,  provides an informative, balanced presentation of this little known and long forgotten conflict. The documentary might have focused more on the causes of the war and why President Madison chose to go to war against a colony of Great Britain. The documentary was also "light" on British historical experts.

What I found most interesting was how the First Nations experts explained the war from their perspective. There is no doubt they felt very betrayed by the British who promised them help in reclaiming land lost by American expansionism.

The use of re-enactments was useful in telling the story of the war and portraying the various battles. The documentary is filled with much interesting trivia such as what happened to the painting of George Washington in the White House prior to the burning, the use of Tecumseh as a hero by the American military, and how freed black slaves were accepted into the British army. Although this documentary is almost two hours in length, it is well worth the time for history buffs and anyone wishing to know more about this little known, but very important event in Canadian and North American history.

For an introduction to the War of 1812 and its causes, check out the War of 1812 website ( This website has links to just about everything you might want to know about the war including battles, weapons, regiments, treaties, biographies, video and sound clips and re-enactments.

The entire PBS documentary can be watched below:

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