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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Lafayette: The Lost Hero to air Monday, September 13 on PBS

On Monday, September 13 at 9PM Central Time (check local listings), PBS will air a documentary on one of the more unique and important figures from the Revolutionary War, the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette was a French noble, who came to fight for the American cause at only 19. Lafayette: The Lost Hero presents the intimate story of the man who served as major-general in the Continental Army, and was a close friend of George Washington.

The story of Lafayette involves struggle and troubles, as while he is from a noble family, he strives to prove himself in French aristocratic society. He marries Adrienne, daughter of French aristocrats in 1775. In his youth, he became enamored with the idea of liberty and found sympathy with the American cause, which motivated him to travel to America, leaving a pregnant Adrienne in France.

The Revolution is but one part of the whole story. Lafayette’s life after the Revolution is covered very well, including his role in the French Revolution, imprisonment in France and Austria, and return to America to a hero’s welcome in 1824-5. The interesting aspects of this film are the love between him and Adrienne, as well as how both France and the United States have seemed to forget Lafayette (an example given was a statue of him donated by American schoolchildren being moved from the center of Paris to an obscure park). Through wonderful use of living history demonstrations, interviews with scholars and descendants of the Marquis, and wonderful use of images and animations, Lafayette: The Lost Hero is a documentary that you should record and watch.

Here’s a trailer:

Lafayette: The Lost Hero from The Documentary Group on Vimeo.

Click here for images and information on the documentary from the PBS website.

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The Politically Correct Revolutionary War

I take children’s television programs dealing with historical events very seriously because not only are kids our future, but if they are given a bad education on history, I will end up attempting to fix the mistakes when they arrive at college (shudders). This leads me to examine a series, originally put out by PBS called Liberty’s Kids. The goal of the program is to educate kids age 7-12 about the American Revolution (God forbid that kids are encouraged to read books on the subject). This is certainly a noble effort, but the show falls short, choosing to present a politically correct story of our war for independence that ignores many historical facts. While you may be wondering why I would follow a kid’s show, I must state that I take such things seriously and want to make sure that history is presented correctly to kids, especially in today’s society where kids are not as likely to pick up books and seek out historical truth.

The main characters of the show report the events of the Revolutionary period while working for Dr. Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. While it is true that Franklin printed such a paper, a Google search is inconclusive for the time of the Revolution. However, two details of Franklin’s life support the idea that he was not publishing the paper during the Revolutionary period. First, he was serving in an ambassadorial role to England on several occasions from the mid 1750s until 1775, which meant being in London for years at a time, which would have prevented him from publishing the paper. Likewise, his service in France during much of the Revolution would have also prevented him from publishing the paper. While I certainly understand that the cartoon is somewhat fictitious, I also do not want children to get the wrong ideas about Benjamin Franklin and the Revolution. In addition to the child reporters of Dr. Franklin, is another character named Moses, a former slave who taught himself to read and purchased his freedom, who now works for Franklin. This is even more unlikely given the nature of society at the time with regard to slavery and the status of blacks in society.

The major problem I have with this show is the over emphasis on minority characters and the glossing over of the negative aspects of these characters for the sake of political correctness. For instance, African Americans are frequently highlighted in areas where they would have had little presence at the time, particularly in the Continental Army (less than ten percent of all Continental soldiers were black, but you would get the impression from the show that it was much higher). American Indians were also shown in favorable light, with characters such as the Shawnee Cornstalk used to give the impression that American Indians were at peace and harmony until the white man arrived, which contradicts mounds of evidence to the contrary.

In addition, several key battles are overlooked. For instance, George Rogers Clark’s expedition to liberate the Illinois Country was not covered by the series. Instead, the series focuses on two of the main characters traveling down the Mississippi River to meet Governor Galvez with a Continental officer. The series does not examine Quebec, which was an important early battle in the war, specifically because of the amazing journey through the Maine wilderness by Benedict Arnold and his men. Only one episode covers the entire Southern theater of battle, which has the important events of Camden, Gulliford Courthouse, and Cowpens. While I understand that covering everything in the war would be too much for young children, consider this, the series was made up of 40 episodes at roughly 30 minutes each, which is 20 hours of total time. In contrast, the groundbreaking series by A&E The American Revolution covers the entire war very well, including the events overlooked by Liberty’s Kids, in a little over eight hours (I watched The American Revolution when I was ten, which is the target age area for the PBS show).

To be fair, there are some aspects of the show that I like. The show does a wonderful job of portraying George Washington to be a wonderful man of character, which is somewhat lacking in today’s historical discourse. The portrayal of Benedict Arnold is quite good, and the battle sequence, though a little quirky, is done very well, so not to scare young kids, but give them a decent concept of the nature of the battles during the war. In addition, the show illustrates the trials of the Continental army at Valley Forge, their training by Baron von Steuben, and the attempts to seize power from Washington by other officers. The political and international relations aspects of the show are also very well done.

In closing, PBS’s attempt to present a politically correct American Revolution to kids fails this historian’s litmus test for the most part. While it is important to tell the stories of minority participants in history, the over emphasis of minority characters, as well as the neglect of several events in the Revolutionary War only serve to give kids a misguided idea about this critical time in our history. There are some good qualities to the show, but they are overshadowed by the problems noted. I encourage parents to watch the show, if available, and talk with your children and make sure they have access to books on the Revolution and the major players, so that they can gain a better education about this time in our nation’s past than through the tube. Kids, do not let your knowledge of American history be only what you watch on television, get out and read, as you will discover many wonderful things that TV will not provide.