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War of 1812 film tries to rewrite history

PBS’ two hour take on the War of 1812, with its impressive production values, hosts a bevy of Canadian commentors, and features as its main authority on the war, British historian Andrew Lambert.

The only real American scholar in a group of 25 commentators was Don Hickey, a leading expert from Wayne College. Unfortunately, Hickey is only allowed a few comments. Lambert’s view of the war comes off as self-serving, British-centric, and this can be understood all the more if you listen to his views on the BBC, where he’s given a chance to go on at length (31 minutes into the clip).

The worst aspect of the documentary is the repeated attempt to sanitize the Indians’ atrocities. The Indians had a habit of murdering prisoners and noncombatants; in PBS-world this ugly reality needs to be stamped out if at all possible. Unfortunately, this aspect of the history of the period is important enough that it can’t be erased. But they try to, nonetheless.

In one example of this, A.J. Langguth, a professor of communications at U.S.C., says this about General Hull regarding the July 1812 incident at Fort Detroit:

“He had an inordinate fear of the Indians. He was convinced that the Indians were savages and beyond any recognition as human beings. It was as if if they were unleashed on his troops or his family, it would be the worst kind of massacre,” Langguth said.

This requires a brief explanation. Hull, an American general, was holed up in Detroit with a bunch of men, ready to face the British. Unfortunately, Hull was unfit for service: he had been a hero in the American Revolution, but since that time had lived a sedentary life. He also had family at the fort.

The British general, Brock, played on Hull’s fear of the Indians by telling him there was a large contingent of Indians ready to join in the fight, though this was not the case. This caused Hull to surrender, without so much as firing a shot. It was a major humiliation for the Americans.

Langguth, and the filmmakers, moreover, make Hull seem like a decadent individual who was having an irrational flight of fancy. While no one disputes that Hull was an awful general, here’s what Hickey says was going on:

“Several days before surrendering, Hull had ordered the evacuation of Fort Dearborn in Chicago on the grounds that the fall of Mackinac had rendered its defense untenable. The fort was held by about sixty-five regulars and militia under the command of Captain Nathan Heald. Some two dozen civilians were also present. The fort was well stocked, the Indians were known to be unfriendly, and almost everyone was opposed to evacuation.

“Nevertheless, Heald was determined to obey his orders. On August 15, the evacuation was carried out, ostensibly under the protection of 500 Potawatomi Indians. Not far from the fort, the Indians fell on the whites, killing most of them after surrender terms had been arranged. According to one witness, the Indians beheaded one officer, carved out his heart, and at it raw.” (The War of 1812: A Forgoten Conflict, 84)

So much for Hull’s “inordinate” fear of the Indians. The Indian commentators in the film don’t like this sort of thing, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.

In a massacre at Frenchtown, now Monroe, Michigan, Hickey writes that drunken Indains killed 30 Americans after they had surrendered. He quotes an eyewitness: “The savages were suffered to commit every depredation upon our wounded . . . many were tomahawked, and many were burned alive in the houses.” (86)

One commentator, a Canadian Shawnee who is billed as an expert on the war,  said that “when a Shawnee takes a prisoner, what happens depends on what that person just did.”

But if people have already surrendered, then that means by definition they are under the control of the enemy forces, and as such aren’t doing anything.

John Sugden, another Indian apologist, offers the excuse that Indians didn’t have the facilities to keep prisoners.

But another, more likely explanation offers itself: maybe the Indians enjoyed doing these things. Perhaps they didn’t really value human life very much, and so for them such murder and mayhem was really no big deal.

According to yet another Indian excuse maker, Shawnee law professor Robert Miller, whenever whites won a battle it was called a great victory, but whenever Indians won a battle it was called a massacre.

But even this slanted, one-sided film can only come up with one “atrocity” by Americans, the burning of Newark across the border from upstate New York, where residents were given only 12 hours notice that they had to leave their homes in the middle of winter. Sure, this was cruel, but how do you compare this with burning people alive inside their houses?(Hickey 141-142) But basically Miller does create this false equivalency.

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