The Slaves’ Gamble a look at African Americans in the War of 1812

Cross-posted to Civil War History

While a little outside the chronological range covered by this blog, I thought I would share exciting news about a new book that seeks to alter our impression of antebellum slavery through the lens of the War of 1812.

9780230342088

Smith, Gene Allen. The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 272pp. $27.00.

Gene Allen Smith, historian at Texas Christian University, has written an interesting examination of how slaves viewed and used the conflict for their own opportunities. He showed that the war saw all sides using African Americans to aid their causes, while blacks saw the war as their chance to assert themselves, whether for seeking equality, in the case of free blacks, or freedom for slaves. Further, the war was a turning point in American race relations, as Smith noted that slavery was in a tenuous situation on war’s eve.

He noted that the war drastically altered this path of decline and that it further halted any potential progress towards freedom or equality, as blacks who joined British forces, seeking to better their lot in life, returned with invading forces, leading enemy troops into American communities. The consequence of this was a greater distrust among whites of arming slaves and enrolling blacks in militia units to augment white manpower, which continued into the Civil War, where African Americans served in segregated regiments with white officers. One of the other major problems resulting from the war was the expansion of available land for plantation agriculture, and plantation-based slavery.(3-4)

Smith begins his study by examining the story of black participation in North American wars. What is great about this chapter is the examination of the cross-cultural interactions, echoing Richard White’s remarkable work The Middle Ground. He concluded that the contributions of blacks to military conflicts during the colonial and revolutionary periods redefined the relationships between blacks and whites in North America.(31)

As he examined the role of blacks during the War of 1812, he weaved in the stories of black participants across the various theaters, providing a new and exciting understanding of the war that is as important to the larger field of study on the war as Donald Hickey. Smith concluded that blacks found became aware that their contributions to the war were minimized in post-war America. Further, white Americans began to react fearfully to black insurrection possibilities and worked to prevent the arming of blacks. Also, northern states began enacting laws outlawing blacks residing in them. Slavery became more entrenched in the South, as new areas were available for cotton production. Thus the war served as the last opportunity for blacks to attempt to fight for their place in society until the Civil War.(210-214)

The book is well researched, relying on sources from such scholars as Richard White, Gary Nash, Ian Steele, Stagg, and Don Hickey. In addition to strong secondary sources, Smith utilized several great primary sources that considered black participation, as well as interactions with Native Americans.

A good monograph that examines the difficult situation faced by blacks as they attempted to choose a side in the War of 1812 to further their position, Smith’s The Slaves’ Gamble is a great book for scholars interested in African American history, military history, the War of 1812, and is a good book for those interested in the Civil War, as it illustrates quite well how the forces that led to that great struggle came into being by America’s “second war for independence”.

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.

NEW PBS DOCUMENTARY “THE WAR OF 1812” EXPLORES THE TRUTH AND MYTHMAKING OF HISTORY

— Television Program Presents American, Canadian, British and Native Perspectives, Leading the Way of Bicentennial Activities, Airs October 10 —

WASHINGTON, D.C. and BUFFALO, NY — Nearly two centuries after it was fought, the two-and-a-half year conflict that forged the destiny of a continent comes to public television in a comprehensive film history.  “The War of 1812” airs on PBS stations nationwide on Monday, October 10, 2011 at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).  From 1812 to 1815, Americans battled against the British, Canadian colonists, and Native warriors; the outcomes shaped the geography and the identity of North America.  This two-hour HD documentary uses stunning re-enactments, evocative animation, and the incisive commentary of key experts to reveal little-known sides of an important war — one that some only recognize for the “Star-Spangled Banner.”  The broadcast is accompanied by a companion book and website, as well as comprehensive bi-national educational resources.

Across the United States and Canada, communities are planning events to commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812.  “We have proudly created ‘The War of 1812’ for both nations,” said Donald K. Boswell, president and CEO of WNED, the producing station of the program. Broadcasting from Buffalo, New York, WNED has significant viewership in Southern Ontario.  “This timely examination of a shared history allows us to celebrate our past together, and renew the bond of our present and future as national neighbors.  With this production, WNED also continues a tradition of showcasing cultural and historical treasures of our bi-national region to the PBS audience.”  WNED is one of fourteen public broadcasting stations that share a border with Canada, extending the national broadcast of “The War of 1812” throughout the United States into many Canadian communities.

“WETA is pleased to join WNED in bringing this important project to all viewers,” noted Sharon Percy Rockefeller, president and CEO of WETA, the flagship public broadcasting stations in the nation’s capital and a partner in the project.  “It is an excellent example of the intellectual integrity and cultural merit for which public broadcasting stands.”

The War of 1812 is a celebrated event by Canadians, forgotten by many Americans and British, and dealt a resounding blow to most of the Native nations involved.  The film is in many ways an examination of how the mythical versions of history are formed — how the glories of war become enshrined in memory, how failures are quickly forgotten, and how inconvenient truths are ignored forever, while we often change history to justify and celebrate our national cultures and heritage.

“The War of 1812” explores the events leading up to the conflict, the multifold causes of the war, and the questions that emerged about the way a new democracy should conduct war.  It was a surprisingly wide war.  Dozens of battles were fought on land in Canada and in the northern, western, southern and eastern parts of the United States — in the present-day states of Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, New York, Maryland, Louisiana, and Alabama.  There were crucial naval battles on Lakes Erie and Champlain, and a wide-ranging maritime struggle with many episodes off Virginia, Massachusetts, Nova Scotia, Cuba, Ireland, the Azores, the Canaries, British Guyana, and Brazil.  The U.S. proved surprisingly successful against the great British navy, but the War of 1812 also saw American armies surrender en masse and the American capital burned.

Great characters emerge in the film, including Tecumseh of the Shawnee nation, who attempted to form a confederation of Native nations, and died in battle; his adversary, William Henry Harrison, Governor of the Indiana Territory, whose debatable success at Tippecanoe, Indiana eventually helped him become President of the United States; James Madison, Father of the U.S. Constitution, a brilliant thinker and writer who was not a great President; and such storied Canadian figures as Canadian Governor-General George Prévost, who led the largest army ever to invade the Continental United States; Laura Secord, a Canadian woman who walked many miles to warn the British of an impending American attack; and Major General Isaac Brock, a brave and audacious British general who captured a large American army at Detroit without a fight.  The film also recounts dramatic human stories of ordinary citizens, the political alliances of the various Native Americans nations, and the African-American
slaves who reached for their freedom by fighting for the British.

“The War of 1812” recollects defining moments that are more familiar: the burning of Washington, D.C., and First Lady Dolley Madison’s rescue of a portrait of George Washington from the White House; Andrew Jackson’s total victory at the Battle of New Orleans; and the birth of the American national anthem, penned by Francis Scott Key during the Battle of Baltimore at Fort McHenry.  Yet “The War of 1812” pierces the heroic mythology that has grown up around the war to reveal a brutal, spiteful conflict dominated by fiascos and blunders.

The war shaped North America in the most literal way possible: had one or two battles or decisions gone a different way, a map of the continent today might look entirely different.  The U.S. could well have included parts of Canada — but was also on the verge of losing much of the Midwest.  The New England states, meanwhile, were poised on the brink of secession just months before a peace treaty was signed.  However, the U.S. and Canada ultimately each gained a sense of nationalism from the conflict, while the result tolled the end of Native American dreams of a separate nation.

Interviews with twenty-six leading authorities on the War of 1812 — American, British, Canadian and Native historians — present important accounts and research, including from the following individuals:

·       Donald R. Hickey, professor of history at Wayne State College, Wayne, Nebraska.~ He is the author of~Don’t Give Up the Ship!: Myths of the War of 1812~and~The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict.

·       Peter Twist, the Canadian director of Military Heritage, a historical military uniform and arms supply company.~ He has served as consultant on numerous film and theater projects, and is an expert on the military history of the War of 1812.

·       Donald Fixico, a Shawnee Native American, is the Distinguished Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University, and author of~Treaties with American Indians: An Encyclopedia of Rights, Conflicts and Sovereignty~and~Rethinking American Indian History.

·       Sir Christopher Gerald Prevost, great-great-great-grandson to George Prévost, Governor-in-Chief of British North America during the War of 1812.~ He is co-author of~The Incredible War of 1812: A Military History.~

A complete list of those interviewed is available in the project’s electronic press kit.

The film’s companion book, The War of 1812: A Guide to Battlefields and Historic Sites, by John Grant and Ray Jones, is illustrated with more than 120 color photographs and archival paintings.  Each chapter focuses on one of several distinct theaters of the war, allowing the reader to follow the course of events and their importance to the war as a whole.  Jones is the author of more than 40 books, including several highly successful companion books for PBS, among them Legendary Lighthouses.  Grant is the executive producer of “The War of 1812” and chief content officer for WNED Buffalo/Toronto; he has also produced for PBS “Window to the Sea”, “The Marines” and “Chautauqua: An American Narrative.”

The project is also accompanied by a rich bi-national education and outreach component.  It includes Educator’s Guides with lesson plans, activities, and a host of educational-based resources designed for the United States and Canada, classroom posters, and several instructional events.  Expansive educational resources will also be found on the full companion website to the television documentary at pbs.org.  The full site will launch in early September with features such as a battlefield map and guide, web-only video features, scholar essays, and links to key 1812 sites on both sides of the border.

For more information about “The War of 1812,” including details on how to purchase the DVD and companion book, visit www.pbs.org/war-of-1812.  An electronic press kit, including downloadable photos for promotional use, is available at pressroom.pbs.org.

“The War of 1812” is a production of WNED-TV, Buffalo/Toronto and Florentine Films/Hott Productions Inc.,~in association with WETA Washington, D.C.  The executive producers are John Grant and David Rotterman for WNED, and Dalton Delan and Karen Kenton for WETA.  Produced by Lawrence Hott and Diane Garey of Florentine Films/Hott Productions Inc.  Directed by Lawrence Hott.  Written by Ken Chowder.  Narrated by Joe Mantegna.  Principal Cinematography by Stephen McCarthy.  Production Design by Peter Twist.  “The War of 1812” has been made possible by a major grant from The National Endowment for the Humanities: Because democracy demands wisdom*.~ With funding provided by The Wilson Foundation, Warren and Barbara Goldring, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting: a private corporation funded by the American people, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations: Dedicated to strengthening America’s future through education, Phil Lind and The Annenberg Foundation.~ With additional support
from The Baird Foundation, the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission and Jackman Foundation. *Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

WNED-TV is a leading producer of single-topic documentary programming for national broadcast on PBS including “Chautauqua: An American Narrative,” “Elbert Hubbard: An American Original,” “The Adirondacks,” “Niagara Falls,” “The Marines,” “Window to the Sea,” “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo” and “America’s Houses of Worship.”  Also in development are films on the Underground Railroad and the history of golf course architecture in America.  More information on WNED and its programs and services is available at www.wned.org.

WETA Washington, D.C., is the third-largest producing station for public television.~ WETA’s other productions and co-productions include “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill and National Journal,” the arts series “In Performance at the White House” and “The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize,” and documentaries by filmmaker Ken Burns, including the premiere this fall of “Prohibition.”  More information on WETA and its programs and services is available at www.weta.org.

Florentine Films/Hott Productions Inc. is the production company of Lawrence Hott and Diane Garey, who have worked together since 1978.  They are part of the Florentine Films group.  Hott and Garey have received an Emmy Award, two Academy Award nominations, five American Film Festival Blue Ribbons, fourteen CINE Golden Eagles, a George Foster Peabody Award, the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, the Erik Barnouw Award.~~Their work has been shown on PBS and screened at dozens of major film festivals, including the New York Film Festival, Telluride, Mountainfilm, and Women in the Director’s Chair.~ More information is available at www.florentinefilms.org.

TV Documentary on the Legends of the Frontier

I must state that I believe that The History Channel has declined in quality over the years. When it started, the programming was of a higher quality. Then, the channel began to over emphasize the World War II period (not that this time is not important), specifically Nazi Germany, which earned it the nickname “The Hitler Channel”. Now, the programming has gone off the deep end, with shows like Monster Quest and The Universe, which is more in the realm of The Discovery Channel. It has led me to question, whether a new channel dedicated to history is needed to bring quality programming on history back. With that said, I would like write a bit about a great miniseries that was on The History Channel a few years ago and deals with the subject area of this site and is quite good. The show is known as Frontier: Legends of the Old Northwest and it is one of two series, with the other series, Frontier: The Decisive Battles dealing with four important battles in the Old Northwest.

Frontier: Legends of the Old Northwest focuses on four key figures of the history of the old Northwest. The first episode focuses on Robert Rogers and his rangers that battled the French and their Indian allies for the British during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). The episode discusses Rogers’ early life, his service in the British army when he formed the rangers, and his later life. One of the pivotal events discussed in this episode is the attack on the Abenaki village at St. Francis in Canada in October of 1759, in which Rogers destroyed the village, killed many of the village inhabitants (accounts vary as to how many), and then trekking through the Vermont wilderness for days, struggling for food and survival. The episode provides a great amount of information about Rogers, his rangers, and links them to today’s ranger forces. This subject is a great start for this series.

The second episode deals with one of the pivotal events in the intervening years between the close of the French and Indian War and the start of the American Revolution, Pontiac’s Rebellion. Like the episode dealing with Rogers’ Rangers, Pontiac’s Rebellion examines the life of Pontiac, the Ottawa chief and his rebellion against the British in the Old Northwest in 1763. The rebellion began at Detroit and then spread to many other outposts in Michigan, and eventually to much of the old Northwest. The episode chronicles Pontiac’s life as well, including his death at the hands of fellow Indians.

The third episode chronicles the life and events surrounding one of the most important people in the old Northwest, at least from the American standpoint, George Rogers Clark. The episode, titled The Long Knives, examines the men behind Clark’s epic foray into the Illinois Country during the American Revolution. The episode discusses the training of Clark’s men in Kentucky and his easy captures of Kaskaskia and Cahokia in Illinois, as well as his initial capture of Vincennes, Indiana. The show chronicles Clark’s British opponent Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton, known as the Hairbuyer, for his trade in American scalps, very well. Clark leaves only a small force at Vincennes, which allows Hamilton to retake the town and its fort, named Fort Sackville. Clark then leads an epic expedition across the cold winter prairie of southern Illinois, which includes several days of marching through chest-deep, frigid waters and huddling on mounds of mud, as the Wabash River was swollen and little dry land existed. Clark and his men, exhausted to the point of collapse, then lay siege to the fort and force its surrender. Clark’s expedition paves the way for securing the old Northwest for the Americans.

The final episode of the series deals with the life of Tecumseh and his efforts at a pan-Indian confederacy to drive out the American settlers in the early 1800s. Included in this episode is Tecumseh’s early life, including his fighting during St. Clair’s defeat and the Battle of Fallen Timbers, his brother, later known as “the Prophet”, fight against the whites, including the Battle of Tippecanoe with William Henry Harrison, service and death with the British in the War of 1812. The episode provides great insight into his service in the War of 1812 with the British army and death at the Battle of the Thames in 1813.

Overall, all four episodes in this series are worth watching, as they focus on important people in frontier America and the events surrounding them. Though the programming on The History Channel has declined some over the years, Frontier: Legends of the Old Northwest is one program that illustrates how historical programming on frontier America should be done.