1812 and all that

HickeyF12When you get down to it, a lot of wars deserve the moniker “the forgotten war.” Of late, and in the U.S., it most often shows up in association with the Korean War.

But think of all the others, assuming you’ve heard of them in the first place. The War of Jenkins’ Ear. The Dutch Revolt. The Anglo-Zanzibar War, all thirty-eight minutes of it.

More to the point, think of the War of 1812. Fought from Quebec to the Illinois Country, from Spanish Florida to eastern Maine, the War of 1812 was to most people either (1) that war where the British put down their tea cups long enough to torch the White House (if you’re American) or (2) an unwelcome distraction from dealing with Napoleon Bonaparte (if you’re British). Such is the war’s obscurity that it’s appearances in pop culture consist of a few poems and “The Battle of New Orleans, ” a novelty song that was the Number One Billboard hit of the year 1959 (if you’re American). By the way, the highlight of the song is the moment when Andrew Jackson uses an alligator as a cannon.

Here at UI Press, we believe its time to learn more about this epic chapter in America’s history. The best way to achieve that goal is to buy Donald R. Hickey’s classic The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Awarded a Best Book citation by the American Military Institute, and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, The War of 1812 paints a full picture of all you could want to know: the Great Lakes sea battles, the shaky Anglo-Native American alliance, Dolley Madison’s heroism, even the fortunes made by smart or lucky privateers.

Don’t feel you can commit to Hickey’s flowing, poetic 480 pages? No problem. UIP also offers the eminently readable, even-fits-in-a-small-bathroom The War of 1812: A Short History. All the highlights. All the essential information. All the clear-eyed analysis. But, in manageable blocks of prose guaranteed to make you forget you’re even reading a history book.

Need an example? Let’s go to tape. After burning Washington in retribution for American troops setting fire to York (present-day Toronto), the British turned to attack Baltimore. On September 13, 1814, British ships began to shell Fort McHenry, at the mouth of Baltimore Harbor.

The bombardment of Fort McHenry was witnessed by Francis Scott Key, who was on board a truce ship under the guns of the main British fleet eight or nine miles away at the mouth of the Patapsco. Key had gone to the British fleet to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes, a civilian the British had seized. By the time that Key arrived, the British had already decided to release Beanes, but the Americans were not permitted to leave until the assault on Fort McHenry was over.

Key paced all night watching the bombardment of the fort from afar. When he saw the British squadron returning downriver on the morning of September 14, he knew the fort had survived. This was confirmed shortly thereafter when he saw (probably through a spyglass) the fort’s huge flag (which was thirty by forty-two feet) run up to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” Key was so moved that he wrote a song that could be sung to the tune of a British drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Initially entitled “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” it was later re-titled “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (“The bombs bursting in air” were British mortar shells that exploded over the fort, and “the rockets’ red glare” were Congreve rockets fired at the fort.) Key’s tune became a hit, and in 1931 Congress proclaimed it the national anthem.

As for the huge Fort McHenry flag, it remained in the family of Major George Armistead, the commander of the fort during the bombardment, for the rest of the century. The family periodically cut off patches to give away as souvenirs but donated the flag to the Smithsonian Institution in the twentieth century. Thus, a campaign in the Chesapeake that had been marked by the burning of the public buildings in Washington and the ignominious surrender of Alexandria ended with the successful defense of Baltimore, and in the process produced two powerful symbols, a song and a flag, that resonated through the nation’s history.

What a pleasant excerpt. That’s an entire section of the book. Really. Great, isn’t it? It’s simple. Give Donald R. Hickey the equivalent of one hundred exhaustively-researched, beautifully written blog posts, and he’ll give you The War of 1812.