Thoughts on PBS’s The War of 1812

As we approach the bicentennial of the beginning of the War of 1812, I thought I would share my thoughts on the PBS documentary The War of 1812. PBS has helped produce several remarkable documentaries, including Ken Burns’ The Civil War and Baseball as well as The War That Made America, dealing with the French and Indian War. The War of 1812 discusses this largely forgotten, but important conflict in much the same way that The War That Made America covered the Seven Years’ War, with stunning graphics and reenactments.
This film provided great context on the years leading up to the conflict, including the chief reasons for war, freedom of the seas and impressment, which Britain seized American sailors and forced them into the Royal Navy. This was due to Britain losing thousands of sailors while fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, both to battle and desertion. It also discussed the role of Native Americans prior to war, with a diverse cast of historians and experts providing several points of view.
As the years of conflict are chronicled, several personalities are presented, both high up in the armies of both sides, as well as the common soldiers. Viewers are introduced to Tecumseh, Isaac Brock, Sir George Prevost, Canada’s Governor-General, James Madison, Shadrach Byfield (a British soldier), William Hull, Henry Dearborn, Winfield Scott, and Andrew Jackson, among others.
The failures of the American army are quite clear. Plagued by inadequate, aging leadership, as well as militia that refused to cross the Canadian border, both invasions of Canada in 1812 and 1813 failed miserably. There were several firsts in this war, some that have not happened since. An American fort on American soil was captured and occupied by a foreign power (Revolutionary War and Civil War not being considered). An American city was surrendered (Detroit) to a foreign power, which was not counting the Revolution. The nation’s capital was captured and burned.
Two themes are important throughout the documentary. Canada coming into its own as unique from America and Native Americans losing both their territory and influence over North American war. It seems that Canada owes its eventual nationhood to the bumbling of American leadership during the war, as the invasions should have succeeded, as Canada was lightly defended and the invading armies usually outnumbered their enemy.
For Native Americans, Tecumseh represented the last significant stand for their people. He proved important before and during the war, as while a victory, the Battle of Tippecanoe was not as one-sided as American legend makes it out to be. Further, he provided important allies to the British war effort, getting along quite well with Brock.
James Madison is shown to be an interesting character and not of strong presence, while his wife Dolly was shown as a strong figure. In addition to Native Americans, the roles of women and African Americans is treated well.
In terms of artistry, the documentary weaves good reenactment scenes, animated maps, stunning effects with paintings and images, and gripping first-hand account narrations to make the war come alive to viewers. The internal political disputes over the war within the United States was treated well, showing that America’s position was rather fragile.
Overall, I urge everyone to watch the documentary, which you can do here. You can also buy the DVD and accompanying book, and check your local listings to see when it will show. The War of 1812 gets two thumbs up from me for great artistry combined with good history.
If you want to learn more about the conflict, I recommend Donald Hickey’s The War of 1812:  A Forgotten Conflict, which is out in a new bicentennial edition. I also recommend Hickey’s Don’t Give Up the Ship!:  Myths of the War of 1812, which presents the war in a question and answer format.
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One thought on “Thoughts on PBS’s The War of 1812

  1. As the years of conflict are chronicled, several personalities are presented, both high up in the armies of both sides, as well as the common soldiers. Viewers are introduced to Tecumseh, Isaac Brock, Sir George Prevost, Canada’s Governor-General, James Madison, Shadrach Byfield (a British soldier), William Hull, Henry Dearborn, Winfield Scott, and Andrew Jackson, among others.

    Nice informational article.
    Thanks

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