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Blame the Brits

Historians to examine state’s role, impact of War of 1812

Sunday, October 14, 2012
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The Battle of Lake Champlain, part of the Battle of Plattsburgh, portrayed in this 1816 engraving by B. Tanner, was fought in September of 1814 and was a complete American victory just before the end of the War of 1812. (image: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
The Battle of Lake Champlain, part of the Battle of Plattsburgh, portrayed in this 1816 engraving by B. Tanner, was fought in September of 1814 and was a complete American victory just before the end of the War of 1812. (image: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

It’s often called “Mr. Madison’s War,” in derision, as well as “America’s forgotten war” and “America’s second war for independence.” The Canadians refer to it as the “war of U.S. aggression,” and both sides would have you believe they won it.

To really appreciate the War of 1812, you have to scratch beneath the surface and look beyond the conflict’s indecisive conclusion. If that sounds compelling, then the Mabee Farm in Rotterdam Junction is the place to be this Saturday as five different historians offer presentations that should help New Yorkers better understand a conflict largely fought within their state boundaries, or just across them.

The War of 1812 Seminar will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday and run through 4 p.m. at the Mabee Farm’s George E. Franchere Education Center. Produced by the Schenectady County Historical Society and sponsored by the New York Council for the Humanities, the event is free and open to the public.

“A vast majority of what happened during the War of 1812 happened in northern New York and in the surrounding waterways,” said Keith Herkalo, the city clerk of Plattsburgh, author and expert on the War of 1812.

War of 1812 Seminar

WHERE: Franchere Center, Mabee Farm, 1100 Main St., Rotterdam Junction

WHEN: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: 374-0263, ext. 4, www.schenectadyhistory.net

“There’s no denying the U.S. tried to invade Canada, and from the Canadian point of view as I understand it, the war really helped them create their own identity. The term Canadian used to refer to the French only, but after the war that changed. The British that were up there and all the Americans that had moved up during the American Revolution or following it were all now Canadians.”

Creating an identity

As for the U.S. side, the conflict also went a long way toward helping the nation create a new identity.

“What the War of 1812 did was to put this country on firm ground,” said Albany’s Tom Shanahan, who, along with Herkalo, will be one of the five lecturers on Saturday. “It earned us the respect of all the other countries in the world. Some people have wondered why Napoleon was willing to give away the Louisiana Territory for the bargain price of three cents an acre just a few years earlier. Well, there’s a suspicion among many historians that after he was done dealing with Britain, Napoleon was just going to come back and take it.

“The war changed that,” continued Shanahan. “The Battle of Lake Erie was the first time that the British fleet, anywhere, had ever surrendered to the enemy, and at Plattsburgh it happened again. Britain had ruled the waves, so those losses were shocking. It really gave the U.S. and its military respect all around the world.”

Shanahan’s presentation, scheduled for 2 p.m., is “1812: Uncle Sam’s First War,” referring to Troy’s Sam Wilson, who as “Uncle Sam” became the official poster boy for U.S. military forces. Herkalo will speak at 11 a.m. and deal with the subject of “Pike’s Cantonment,” a key aspect of the war up in the Plattsburgh area.

Albany’s Bob Arnold will kick off the day’s activities at 10 a.m. with a talk titled, “1812: New York’s War, New York’s Impetus,” while also scheduled to speak are Susan Gibson of Sackett’s Harbor, “1812 American Military Uniforms: Looks and Logistics,” at 1 p.m., and Matthew Kirk of Hartgen Archeological Associates Inc., “Archaeology and the Second Battle of Sackett’s Harbor: Why the Militia Deserves Its Due,” at 3 p.m.

Arnold, an adjunct history professor at the College of Saint Rose and Excelsior College, said the war changed forever the way people look at North America.

“We thought that just going up there and grabbing Canada was going to be like plucking some low-hanging fruit,” he said. “They were going to eventually become our northern states, and it would be no contest. Well, their defense was quite vigorous and much better than our poor offense.”

While many Americans today aren’t that familiar with the war’s major battles, such as Plattsburgh, Sackett’s Harbor and Queenston Heights, there was plenty of hard fighting and the conflict did create a few military heroes on both sides.

“Isaac Brock, a British officer on the Canadian side, immediately comes to mind,” said Arnold, “and on the American side there were Winfield Scott, Commodore [Oliver Hazard] Perry at Lake Erie and Thomas McDonough on Lake Champlain. We had some good commanders, but we also had some dreadful ones. A lot of them were leftovers from the American Revolution, and some were political generals who left their commands in the North and instead went to Washington because they were worried about their political careers.”

Beyond New York

Not all of the fighting was done in New York state. There was Fort McHenry and the Battle of Baltimore, where Francis Scott Key wrote our national anthem, and there was the Battle of New Orleans, which made Andrew Jackson a hero but actually occurred after the Treaty of Ghent had ended the war.

“The war reaffirmed our national identity, and it marked the birth of our national literature and art,” said Arnold. “It also ushered in the industrial revolution in this country. We hadn’t had much of a manufacturing base at all until after the war.”

And what was the War of 1812 fought over?

“In some ways it was a war of aggression on our part, but it was also most definitely about the British policy of impressment,” said Shanahan, an Albany lobbyist who is in the process of creating a number of short video documentaries on the War of 1812. “According to records, they had impressed over 6,500 American sailors, which was about the size of the American army at that time. That was the major cause of the war.”

Undue neglect

And why is it often overlooked, taking a back seat to the American Revolution and the Civil War?

“Well, I don’t think it should be at all,” said Herkalo, who recently published a book, “The Battles at Plattsburgh,” to help commemorate the War of 1812’s bicentennial. “I think the battle here is one of the most stunning moments in our country’s history, and Winston Churchill called it the most important battle of the war.”

If the British had carried Plattsburgh and won the war, according to Herkalo, the U.S. south of New York City probably would have still remained intact. In New England, however, the Hartford Convention in 1814 was already talking secession from the young union.

“They could have very well ended up a British territory,” said Herkalo. “The British already controlled Maine, the Hartford Convention was going on, they didn’t like the war and they were mostly interested in resuming trade. I don’t think the British had the stomach for anything more than that. They were broke, its economy was in shambles. But we very easily could have lost New England, and speaking hypothetically, one can assume that northern New York, at least, would have been included in a re-drawn Canadian map.”

 
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