Friday, July 25, 2014

Racism and the War of 1812

Those of you who have been following my career (What! You haven't been following my career? What's wrong with you?) are aware that I have become strangely obsessed over the past few years with the Anglo-American War of 1812.

I have a hard time explaining to people why this is so. It has something to do with being an American with Canadian forbears, most of whom refused to fight in that conflict, but instead went on happily and profitably trading with the Enemy. Why were we fighting? In the modern day it's hard to find an American who thinks there was a good reason for us to attack and murder the Canadians, even the native First Nations Canadians, who could be very ornery and cruel when annoyed. "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights" is a nice slogan, but going to war is beyond ugly.

I like that war, first of all because it's long over, and the passions that ignited it long dead, and secondly because it was a cesspit of irony. I like irony. Wherever you look in the historical records of that conflict you see surprising events that subtly undermine the patriotic narrative that both sides teach in school.

The latest book about the war that I've been able to get my hands on is The Documentary History of the Campaign Upon the Niagara Frontier In the Year 1813, Part IV, Collected and Edited for the Lundy's Lane Historical Society by Lieut.-Col. E. Cruickshank, F. R. S. C., 1907. Yes! Virtually a primary source! Mostly it's made up of letters back and forth between military officers about strategy, tactics, and their immediate concerns. And the first thing I learned from it was that Captain Oliver Hazard Perry, great war hero, a distant cousin of mine, tried to quit his station on Lake Erie before the famous battle where he whipped the British fleet ("We have met the enemy, and he is ours").

Why did he want to quit? Because he felt he had been insulted by Commodore Isaac Chauncey, his superior officer. When Perry asked for reinforcements for his lake fleet, Chauncey sent him a number of Black seamen and men who were officially in the army rather than the navy. Perry complained, and Chauncey wrote him the following: "…I have yet to learn that the colour of the skin, or cut and trimming of the coat can affect a man's qualifications or usefulness and I have nearly 50 blacks on board of this ship and many of them are among my best men, and those people you call soldiers have been to sea from 2 to 10 years, and I presume you will find them as good and useful as any men on board your vessel, at least if I can judge by comparison, for those that we have on board of this ship are attentive and obedient, and, as far as I can judge, many of them excellent seamen." Perry found his remarks personally insulting for some reason.

Fortunately for Perry and his country, the Secretary of the Navy talked him out of such a career-killing move. He went on to clear out the entire British Lake Erie fleet, after which he went home to New England, covered with glory. Next week I will attempt to sort out for you the rights of the feud between Lt. Col. Cyrenius Chapin and Brigadier Gen. George McClure, and the story of the burning of Buffalo. Hang by your thumbs.

Kate Gallison

1 comment:

  1. He looks just like a guy I used to date at Sewanee Military Academy! tjs