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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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.