A view from Glen Hill: The war no one remembers

Bob Russell’s keynote address at Wilton’s Memorial Day observance carried forward his role as our historian laureate in his vivid description of the disproportionately large number of Wiltonians who have served in America’s wars and his moving recounting of specific experiences of some of them.

Among the many Wilton veterans he referenced were 47 who served during the War of 1812 (mostly in defense against British attacks by sea) at a time when Wilton’s population was barely 1,700. We’ve learned much about this largely forgotten war as a result of the Wilton Historical Society’s and Wilton Library’s multi-part series this year. The war was seminal in so many respects it could even be considered our second War of Independence in its impact both domestically and internationally.

It included British troops setting aflame our nation’s capital and continual American losses on land over multiple years, with America’s brilliant victory over the cream of the British army at the Battle of New Orleans at war’s end in January 1815 a shining exception. In fact, Canadians celebrate with a major annual holiday their successful repulsing of multiple American invasion attempts. Yet a series of successful American combined-arms operations on lakes Ontario, Erie, and Champlain led to a major shipbuilding arms race with large warships being built quickly by thousands of workers in very well-organized shipyards on Lake Ontario (supported by weaponry plants, textile mills, and industrialized agriculture elsewhere in the States, including our own state in a very significant way) that hastened the advent of America’s greatest period of industrial growth.

The series’ speakers underscored that the war needs to be understood from three contrasting perspectives: (1) Britain and its colony, Canada; (2) the U.S.; and (3) Native Americans east of the Mississippi. In fact, even within the U.S., the war was viewed very differently in New England as opposed to in the South and the then West (meaning west of the Appalachians and east of the Mississippi).

New England, including Connecticut, wanted no war with Britain, its principal trading partner. Likewise, fully occupied with fighting Napoleon, Britain wanted no war with America either and even gave in on the issue of British impressments of sailors from American vessels — an original casus belli. Yet the U.S. pressed forward with war, inspired in part by its belief that Canadians would welcome their “liberation” from British rule.  However, this belief ignored the fact that more than a few Canadians had been American colonists loyal to Britain who sought refuge in Canada during the Revolutionary War.

For Southerners and Westerners, the major war provocation was the perceived British instigation and support of Native Americans in attacking settlers moving into Native American territories. They viewed Native Americans as subhuman savages bent on committing horrible atrocities yet incapable of strategic thinking themselves and therefore requiring British leadership and direction. With the British defeated, the Native Americans, they thought, could easily be subdued.

Of course, such thinking was very wide of reality, as Shawnee Chief Tecumseh showed when he united many tribes through his compelling personality and remarkable skills of military and political leadership until his death in battle. Native Americans in enormous numbers had been killed by settlers: some by bullets, of course, but many more by diseases for which they had no immunity (sometimes transmitted by intentional settler action through, for example, giving contaminated blankets). Often whole villages succumbing in just a few days to the ravages of these diseases, leaving large cultivated fields behind (which in turn gave rise to many settler towns having the word “field” in their names).

Native Americans well understood that relentless settler forward movement would leave them no place to go. Hence, they carried out a scorched-earth campaign to scare would-be settlers into turning around.  They needed no British instigators to induce them to do so and were frustrated, in fact, by British hesitancy to take more aggressive action. It is undoubtedly true that their wartime alignment with Britain sealed their fate and made widely acceptable to most other Americans the brutal treatment of Native Americans throughout the rest of the 19th Century.

Meanwhile, the brilliant wartime successes of the U.S. Navy brought America new respect internationally. More generally, the war marked the passage of a precariously nascent nation from continuing birth pangs into full-fledged independence on the world stage as well as in its own backyard — half-a-continent wide already and soon to encompass the rest.

Once recounted as in this series, it’s a war that’s hard to forget!

Mr. Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.