Vail Daily column: American underdogs
“Fury,” “The Imitation Game” and “Unbroken” are the most recent releases in a subgenre of war movies devoted to World War II. Over the course of the past 60 years that war has been featured in more than 200 American movies.
The War of 1812, on the other hand, has only had about seven movies made about it, one of which was a remake. This about the war once called the second war for independence. Americans celebrated their second day of independence on Jan. 8 from 1815 until the Civil War, when the observance began to diminish.
The War of 1812 was significant because it was the first time the United States of America declared war. The young country faced off against its former colonial master the British (again) and Britain’s Native American and Canadian allies.
President Madison asked Congress to declare war for several reasons. The British blocked American shipping, its navy continued to disregard American territorial waters and they routinely boarded American ships and seized American sailors — a practice called impressment. The British were also encouraging Native American resistance to American westward expansion. Great Britain did not take us seriously.
A LASTING LEGACY
It was a short war, but it left a lasting legacy. Francis Scott Key wrote a poem, later paired with an old pub melody, commemorating the failed siege of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was later adopted as the national anthem. Naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry emerged as one of the war’s heroes after defeating the British on Lake Erie and uttering the immortal line, “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” At great risk to her own life, first lady Dolley Madison remained at the White House even as British troops marched on Washington. She removed several historic items from the White House for safekeeping, in particular the portrait of George Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart. The British entered Washington D.C., burning both the Capitol and the White House as well as many other buildings.
The most spectacular British defeat came after the war was officially over. The Treaty of Ghent, signed on Dec. 24, 1814, ended the war. However, word did not reach Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, the commander of a group of rag tag militia facing off against British regulars under the command of Gen. Edward Peckenham. The British marched on New Orleans. Old Hickory, as his troops respectfully referred to him, used what little time he had to widen a canal and build a long, earthen wall on the opposite side, giving his militia a strategic advantage. Despite being outnumbered, the Americans inflicted devastating losses on the British. Such was the precision of Jackson’s riflemen that many of the British infantry fatalities were shot through the forehead. The British attacked at dawn, but by afternoon were requesting a truce — this from the military power that had recently defeated Napoleon.
For a country humiliated following the burning of its Capitol, Jackson’s victory was exhilarating. Jackson became a national hero. He would later parlay that fame into a successful run for the White House.
Johnny Horton sang “The Battle of New Orleans,” the Grammy Award winning song of the year for 1960, and reminded America of Jackson’s glorious victory. Sweet music to this Irish-American’s ears, it can be found online for those so inclined.
PATRIOTISM, NATIONAL CONFIDENCE
World War II elevated America’s place in the world and remains a prominent fixture in American culture. Similarly, the War of 1812 influenced America in the 19th century by creating a climate of patriotism and national self-confidence. The essential similarity in both conflicts was that Americans viewed themselves as the underdogs succeeding against overwhelming odds. In fact, that is the true core of the American Dream. “Rocky,” “The Miracle on Ice” and “Seabiscuit” tapped into the conviction that with hard work, perseverance and pluck America and Americans could prevail. Although the wars were more than a century apart, America’s role as a wronged David facing a formidable Goliath remained the dominant narrative. At the core of this national narrative are scrappy people taming a wilderness and fighting off foes. In the 19th century, we settled a continent and in the 20th century we tamed the world.
This Jan. 8, let’s all take a moment to remember we come from a long line of long shots and dark horses, perhaps our finest inheritance. Happy second Independence Day, fellow underdogs.
Claire Noble is the author of “State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thehkhousewife.