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Washington on Fire

Why the War of 1812 is our second war of independence.

Sep 3, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 47 • By RYAN COLE
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The exhibit also touches on the involvement and plight of the Native-American tribes of the Midwest who, at war’s end, were pushed west to make room for white settlement. Ferdinand Pettrich’s sculpture of the “Dying Tecumseh” captures the last moments of the Shawnee chief, and serves as a fitting symbol for the death of the resistance movement ignited by the warrior and his half-brother, Tenskwatawa. The interpretation of this important aspect of the war’s legacy is not, however, overwhelming or grievance-laden: Those looking for an account of American wartime atrocities and injustices will be disappointed. The accompanying didactics are clearly written, jargon-free, and devoid of any overarching political agenda. And though the curators do not ignore the public’s largely episodic understanding of the war, they never resort to lecturing or scolding.  

Indeed, if the theme of the bicentennial of the War of 1812 is historical amnesia, and the purpose of the corresponding commemorations is to revive that memory, “A Nation Emerges” is a great success. Those who wander into the exhibit with only a tenuous understanding of this chapter of American history will likely leave with a fuller appreciation of a conflict that was much more than a skirmish that occurred between our Revolutionary and Civil wars. The War of 1812 not only gave us a national anthem and a shot of national confidence, it also introduced a set of military heroes and political figures who reshaped our political landscape and announced America’s rise to the rest of the world. 

Other bicentennial exhibits and events may seek to illuminate this legacy, but few will likely do it as well.

Ryan Cole is a writer in Indianapolis.

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