Forget the spirit of '76. In Alabama, we're looking forward to looking back to the Spirit of 1812. An interview with Dothan-born author, instructor and…History books don’t tell you a lot about the War of 1812, but Robert O. Register can. The Dothan-born author, instructor and indefatigable blogger has dug deep into the narrative of that oft-ignored American conflict in his general research into the history of the Southeastern U.S., and, with the 200th anniversary of the war at hand, Roberto is ready for a bicentennial celebration. “No generation has ever had THE ONCE IN A LIFETIME opportunity we BABY BOOMERS now have to be able to say we experienced two NATIONAL BICENTENNIAL CELEBRATIONS in a single lifetime,” he exults on Zero, Northwest Florida, one of his 16 different blogs.
For most of us, the War of 1812 evokes fleeting images of redcoats torching Washington and Dolley Madison saving the cupcakes. What we know about the Battle of New Orleans, we may have learned from Johnny Horton’s old country song of the same name. However, Register and other scholars want you to know that America’s first major war of choice was a complex undertaking, not to be considered lightly, one that echoes across two centuries to the present day. We caught up with Mr. Register preparing for his first-ever trek to Valley Forge, and asked for some bicentennial particulars:
What’s your take on what the War of 1812 was about in the first place?
You could argue that the U.S. could have avoided declaring war on Great Britain in June of 1812 and that the war was unnecessary because it ended in 1815 with no clear winner, but in many ways it was unavoidable. The U.S. declared war on Great Britain because, even after losing the American Revolution, the Brits absolutely refused to treat us as a sovereign, independent nation and it was hurting us in the pocketbook. Great Britain did not see our fledgling republic as permanent or destined to have dominion from sea to shining sea. The impressment of hundreds of American sailors into the Royal Navy and the confiscation of American shipping destined for Europe showed they had no intention of treating us as independent. Encouraging the Indians to kill our settlers in order to stop American expansion or threatening to turn the Deep South into another Haiti via slave insurrection didn’t help relations any either.
How did it come off as a referendum on US military preparedness almost 40 years after Lexington and Concord?
At the opening of the war, the U.S. Navy had six warships. The Royal Navy had about 400.
Neither the U.S. Army nor the state militias were prepared to go to war with Great Britain in 1812. Look at what happened here, in what is now Alabama, in the summer of 1813 at Burnt Corn Creek and Ft. Mims. The Battle of Bladensburg, which occurred just before the burning of Washington, D.C., has been called “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms” and “the most humiliating episode in American history.”
The U.S. had only been making muskets for about 15 years when we declared war, so there weren’t a whole lot of guns to go around. There are many cases of the militia being called and not many folks showing up or showing up unarmed, but the “Spirit of ’76” was constantly being invoked as newspaper editors of the day asked their readers if this next generation after The Founding Fathers had “the right stuff.” We were lucky that during the first two years of the war the Brits were tied up in Europe fighting Napoleon. That all changed after Napoleon got exiled to Elba in May of 1814.
Are we still experiencing repercussions from the War of 1812, or was it a self-contained historical event?
Yes, we are still experiencing repercussions from the War of 1812 in the present day.
Probably the most important thing to come out of the War of 1812 was the creation of our national consciousness. We still sing the “Star Spangled Banner,” and “Old Ironsides”, the ship that first showed the world that the Royal Navy was not invincible, still floats in Boston Harbor and is the world’s oldest commissioned ship. I visited the Smithsonian last Veteran’s Day and from what I could see, “Old Glory” was definitely the most visited exhibit in any of the museums.
Unfortunately, Andrew Jackson, who first came to prominence during the War of 1812, is still used to this day by radicals on the left and the right to push their propaganda. Neo-Nazis post items on the Web like “Hitler was no worse than Andrew Jackson.” The defeat of the Red Sticks, and the subsequent removal of all the tribes west of the Mississippi, has been called “a model for Hitler’s ‘final solution’.”
On a more positive note, the war brought on a two-century era of peace and cooperation between the United States, Great Britain and Canada and today Tecumseh [a Shawnee Indian chief who threw in with the British] is considered a Founding Father of Canada by many Canadians.
What got your attention about the War of 1812 in the first place?
Twenty years ago I decided to write a driving tour of the Gulf South. After my initial research, I realized I didn’t know enough to write such a guide, so I began to study the formative years of the Gulf Coast in earnest. I have been familiarizing myself with our local people, places and events related to the War of 1812 for two decades now. One of my current goals is to use what I have learned to create a kind of glossary of the Deep South’s role in the War of 1812, which can be used to create driving tours/maps, calendars/almanacs or be used to enhance Wikipedia articles about the subject.
Why should the rest of us care?
Well, the War of 1812 on the Gulf Coast is a terrific story that really could stand more clarification. The bicentennial celebration can show communities the need to preserve their cultural resources and the importance of passing an accurate picture of our area’s story down to coming generations. The Bicentennial of the War of 1812 is a once in a lifetime opportunity to focus attention upon a story that will attract visitors to our area. Visiting historic sites and museums is one the most popular vacation activities in America. Visitors spend money and the more we make our area more interesting and entertaining, the more visitors we will attract. Heritage tourism can attract visitors from our own state as well as the entire nation.
In addition, we should encourage television production companies to film travel programs and historic reenactments at historic sites in our area. I’d be a lot more interested in watching those kinds of shows than the current epidemic of “Red Neck TV” reality shows that now fill our cable channels.
Alabama wasn’t even a state yet, but it figures prominently in the narrative, doesn’t it?
A lot happened in Alabama before it became a state but things really started cooking after all of the area within our present state boundaries came into the United States and that didn’t happen until April 15, 1813 when Old Glory was finally raised over Fortenza Carlotta at the Port of Mobile and the Spanish flag was retired forever. Mobile’s population was down to about 300 in 1813. Seven years later it was up to 2800 and by 1840 almost 13,000 people lived in Mobile and it was one of the largest ports in the country. Mobile has a wonderful colonial heritage but nothing much really happened until the Americans showed up in 1813 and we hope to commemorate the Bicentennial of the Advent of the American Flag Over the Port of Mobile on Monday, April 15, 2013.
On July 27,1813, the Red Sticks [a faction of the Creek Indian tribe] were attacked by Mississippi Territory Militia near Burnt Corn Creek and on August 30, 1813, the Red Sticks retaliated by wiping out most the defenders, women and children of Ft. Mims in present day Baldwin County. Beginning in November 1813, the U.S. Army, supported by the Tennessee State Militia, the Georgia State Militia and the Mississippi Territory Militia fought many major battles in present day Alabama culminating in the defeat of the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend on March 17, 1814.
On August 9, 1814, the Treaty of Ft. Jackson, located where the Tallapoosa River and the Coosa River meet to form the Alabama, was signed and the Creek Nation extinguished its title to over 23 million acres of land in present day Alabama and Georgia.
On September 15, 1814, Americans at Ft. Bowyer on Mobile Point, the present day site of Ft. Morgan, repelled an attack by British forces based in Pensacola.
In August of 1814, Andrew Jackson moved his headquarters to Mobile where he gathered men, material and intelligence in preparation for the Battle of New Orleans, which occurred on January 8, 1815.
After the Battle of New Orleans, Ft. Bowyer was overrun by British forces on February 11,1815. This battle was the last land battle of the War of 1812.
The only permanent exchange of territory that occurred as a consequence of The War of 1812 was the U.S. acquisition of Mobile County south of Ellicott’s Line [a surveyor’s mark of the boundary between the U.S. and Spanish West Florida].
We have a unique opportunity during the next three years to celebrate the 200th anniversary of many major events that shaped our region and our nation’s history.
So what do you think? Andrew Jackson: racist or genius?
Sure, there’s a lot of racism and genius in Andrew Jackson’s story. I’m very sensitive to those who would make Andrew Jackson a scapegoat for the way all aboriginal people have been treated in North America for the past 400 years.
It’s true that Jackson killed Indians in war and many tragically died during the removal to Oklahoma but I don’t see how trading land in Alabama for land in Oklahoma and moving there translates into genocide or how Jackson’s decisions can be compared to the horrors of genocide in the modern day. The Cherokee’s Trail of Tears occurred two years after Jackson was out of office and I believe the Indian tribes would have been moved away from white settlements and pushed west of the Mississippi whether there had been a President Andrew Jackson or not. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson proposed their migration west of the Mississippi River if the plans for their assimilation into American society did not work and a secret clause in an 1802 agreement between the State of Georgia and the U.S. included a clause for the peaceful removal of all Indians from the State of Georgia. Removal to Oklahoma was the destiny of the Southeastern Indians whether there was an Andrew Jackson or not.
How is the bicentennial to be observed hereabout?
This national celebration of what has been called “The Second American Revolution” kicks off next month with NOLA Navy Week in New Orleans.
Middle Tennessee State University has placed an outstanding Tennessee War of 1812 Driving Tour on the web.
In the summer of 2013, a major event is planned for Ft. Mims in southwest Alabama. The Alabama Department of Archives and History has included all the dates of the major battles of the Creek War and Andrew Jackson’s move to Mobile in preparation for the Battle of New Orleans in their press materials to promote “Becoming Alabama,” from 2012-2015, a commemoration of the Bicentennial of the War of 1812, the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the 50th Anniversary of major events of The Civil Rights Movement.
As I said before, it is our wish that some sort of an appropriate celebration be conducted in Mobile in April of 2013 to commemorate The Advent of The American Flag in Mobile. Hopefully, some of your readers will become involved and help promote in some way the next three years of celebrations connected to the Bicentennial of The War of 1812.