The History Channel showed tonight a documentary entitled First Invasion: The War of 1812. Being something of an enthusiast on the subject of America’s forgotten war, I tuned in, curious how they would distill the war, its causes and its effects, into two hours.
I needn’t have bothered.
The cause of the war? Impressment.
What happened when war began? The United States, ill-equipped to fight a war against Britain, invaded Canada and burned York in 1813.
We’re now twenty minutes into the program. We’ve seen a guy who looks nothing like James Madison take his glasses off a few times. We’ve seen some low-budget period costuming. We’ve seen some really bad dubbing. We’ve heard Edward Herrmann talk sonorously ad nauseum. There’s another hour forty left to go.
Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote in his seminal work on the subject, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, “The seaboard of a country is one of its frontiers…. [T]he occupation of the Cheasapeake and the destruction of Washington gave a sharp lesson of the dangers incurred through the noblest water-ways, if their approaches be undefended….” The program, as hinted at by the title First Invasion, focuses on two events, the British campaign against Maryland in August and September 1814 and the campaign against New Orleans at New Year’s 1815, and hints, though does not state outright, that the lack of an American Navy left the shore approaches unguarded and thus open to British depredations. The burning of Washington, the attack upon Baltimore, the attempt by the British to seize New Orleans and gain control of the Mississippi, these events go toward a storyline about the United States facing invasion, asserting its independence, and standing fast against British attempts to control the young nation’s destiny.
That’s not a bad narrative to follow, but it leaves a lot out of the picture. Yes, it’s mentioned briefly that the British burning of Washington was a retaliatory act for the American burning of York the year previous, but otherwise the American campaign against Canada is wholly ignored. Just as important, the defense of Lakes Erie and Champlain by the American Navy, thus preventing a British invasion of upstate New York and the New England states, is left out of the History Channel storyline. We may not think today of the Lake Erie coast as a seaboard, and the events of the War of 1812 fall outside the scope of Mahan’s work, but they receive full treatment in President Teddy Roosevelt’s work, The Naval War of 1812, which makes clear that, had Perry failed on the Great Lakes or the defenses on Lake Champlain fallen, that these would have been disastrous for the United States’ independence. The burning of Washington and the destruction of the Capitol and the White House have an emotional pull and a drama of their own, but Oliver Hazard Perry’s defeat of the British on Lake Erie was just as important (and just as dramatic) to securing America’s independence as Jackson’s defeat of the British before New Orleans, yet someone watching the documentary would have had no idea that Perry had to abandon his own flagship and transfer his flag to secure his victory over the British fleet, an event as wrought with drama as Dolley Madison’s flight from the Presidential Mansion with a Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington as the British Army bore down upon the city.
I taped the program, on the off chance I might want to watch it again. Clearly, the History Channel thinks the program is worth repeated viewings; they flogged the DVD during the commercial breaks. There’s no reason to watch the program again, though, because it wasn’t that good to begin with. Maybe for some viewers there’s something here they didn’t know. For this viewer, I could have spent those two hours doing something productive and come out ahead.