Monday, October 25, 2004

In 1814 We Took A Little Trip, Along With Colonel Jackson Down The Mighty Mississip

I don't get no respect.
-Rodney Dangerfield

If you had asked me a week ago what I knew about the War of 1812 I could of told you the following:

1. It was a little war that fit in between the end of the American Revolution and the start of the American Civil War.
2. It was between the USA and the British.
3. The British burned down the White House.
4. Two songs were written about it, The Spangled Banner and The Battle Of New Orleans.

After watching a two hour program, First Invasion: The War Of 1812, on the History Channel, I now see it was the war that gave the USA its identity as a country. Before that American was the Rodney Dangerfield in European politics. Thirty years after the American Revolution the British still occupied American territories along the Great Lakes. They were supporting Indian raids against Americans in the West and hurting American commercial interests by interfering with American trade with the rest of Europe. America was spoiling for a war and only need one more insult from Britain to explode. Britain gave it to them.

At the same time the British were dinking around in America they were mired in a war with France. Britain claimed the right to board any American merchant ship and remove any British sailors found on board. They would sometimes take American citizens. America, as a neutral country, was outraged by this practice and, to preserve American's "honor", war was declared against Great Britain on June 18, 1812.

Ok, we have this little country with no standing army and no navy to speak of declare war against Britain. What is the first thing they do after that? Invade Canada hoping to push the British out of American territory and picking up a little extra territory for itself. It doesn't work and the Americans are chased out of Canada. The British retaliate by setting up a blockade along the Eastern Seaboard that disrupts American trade and its livelihood. New England talks about seceding from the Union and making a deal with the British.

By 1814 Britain's war with France is over and she sends some of those troops and supplies to America. The British plan to attack from Canada across Lake Champlain and down the Hudson River in order to cut New England off from the rest of the country. They also plan to attack New Orleans, and Washington DC.

The attack against Washington DC proceeds on August 24, 1814. When the untested American soldiers meet up with the British troops they panic and turn and run like "sheep being chased by dogs" and the British march into Washington and set it ablaze. That night the glow from the fires can be seen from 50 miles away. Then a miracle occurs. From out of nowhere a storm comes up and torrential rains fall, putting out the fires. Winds pick up and a tornado races through the middle of Washington. The weather does what the American soldiers could not, killing many British soldiers and scattering the rest.

On September 11, 1814 the British fleet is destroyed in a battle on Lake Champlain with what ships left returning to Canada. The British now turn their attention to Baltimore. The American government had given private citizens the authority to attack British merchant ships. This was done because the government had so few ships of its own. A number of these "privateers" are based in Baltimore. Defending Baltimore is Fort McHenry standing at the entrance to the harbor. The officer in charge, Maj. George Armstead, asks merchants to sink their own ships to create an artificial reef. This will keep the British ships from entering the harbor. The merchants comply knowing if the British take Baltimore they will loose more than just their ships.

Armstead also commissioned a flag for the fort "... so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance..." The flag measures 30 by 42 feet with the stars measuring two feet across from star point to star point.

When the British ships start the bombing of Fort McHenry at 7;00AM on the 13th of September, Francis Scott Key was on one of the British ships trying to secure the release of a friend. He was not allowed to leave until the bombing stopped nearly 25 hours later. He watched the attack all through the night, knowing that as long as the British continued shelling the fort the Americans had not surrendered. Then in the early morning hours the shelling stopped. Had the fort fallen?

What Key did not know was that during the shelling Fort McHenry had failed to return fire. This was because the British ships were out of range of the fort cannons. The British decided this lack of response was due to the fact the fort could not respond and had moved several of their ships closer to the fort. When the ships sailed into the range of his guns Armstead opened fire, turning the ships into Swiss cheese.

Key peered into the morning twilight and was relieved to see the flag Armstead had commissioned still flying. The British had abandoned the attack. Key started writing down the words to a poem he would call The Defense of Fort McHenry on the back of an letter he had in his pocket. The opening words were:

Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Later the poem is set to music and the title changed to The Star Spangled Banner. In 1931 by act of Congress it became the American National Anthem.

On December 24, 1814 the Treaty of Ghent was signed in Belgium ending the war between America and Britain. Unfortunately, this news would not reach America for another six weeks and the Battle of New Orleans began on January 8, 1815. Again the British underestimate the Americans and, again, the British were beaten soundly. The British still had not learned that it was madness to march smartly, in nice even rows, toward men positioned behind a barricade while wearing bright red uniforms and white belts that criss-crossed your chest. It gives a man something to aim at.

Now, when I was a kid I would hear Johnny Horton's version of The Battle Of New Orleans on the radio during "oldies" weekends. I have since found out that Horton's recording is a shorter version of the original song. The original song was written by a school teacher in the 1940's as a way of teaching his history class about the battle.

Instead of describing the battle myself I am going to let Jimmy Driftwood's song do it for me. I will tell you that Colonel Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson, seventh president of the United States, was in command of the American troops while Sir Edward Pakenham, brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington, was in command of the British troops.

Battle Of New Orleans
Well,in 1814 we took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
And we met the bloody British in the town of New Orleans

We fired our guns and the British kept a comin'
There wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they began a running
Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

Well, I seed Marse Jackson come a-walkin' down the street
And a-talkin' to a pirate by the name of Jean Lafitte;
He gave Jean a drink that he brung from Tennessee,
And the pirate said he'd help us drive the British to the sea.

Well, the French told Andrew, "You had better run
For Pakenham's a comin' with a bullet in his gun."
Old Hickory said he didn't give a damn
He's a-gonna whup the britches off of Colonel Pakenham.

Well, we looked down the river and we seed the British come
And there must have been a hundred of them beating on the drum
They stepped so high and they made their bugles ring
While we stood behind our cotton bales and didn't say a thing

Old Hickory said we could take em by surprise
If we didn't fire a musket till we looked em in the eyes
We held our fire till we seed their face well
Then we opened up our squirrel guns and really gave em well..

Well, they ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn't go
They ran so fast the hounds couldn't catch em
Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

Well, we fired our cannons till the barrels melted down
So we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round
We filled his head with minie balls and powdered his behind
And when we touched the powder off, the 'gator lost his mind

They lost their pants and their pretty shiny coats
And their tails was all a-showin' like a bunch of billy goats.
They ran down the river with their tongues a-hanging out
And they said they got a lickin', which there wasn't any doubt.

Well, we marched back to town in our dirty ragged pants
And we danced all night with the pretty girls from France;
We couldn't understand 'em, but they had the sweetest charms
And we understood 'em better when we got 'em in our arms.

Well, the guide who brung the British from the sea
Come a-limping into camp just as sick as he could be,
He said the dying words of Colonel Pakenham
Was, "You better quit your foolin' with your cousin Uncle Sam."

Well, we'll march back home, but we'll never be content
Till we make Old Hick'ry the people's president.
And every time we think about the bacon and the beans
We'll think about the fun we had way down in New Orleans.

Copyright Warden Music Co., Inc

The Ghent Treaty did not resolve the issues that started the war but the war did do two things. It gave Canada and the United States a sense of pride in themselves and their countries as both of them had successfully defended themselves against foreign invaders.

And that, my children, is your history lesson for the day.

Click here for more information.

No comments: