Louis Serurier, a French diplomat stationed in Washington in the early 19th century, observed that the War of 1812 lent America “what it so essentially lacked, a national character founded on a common glory to all.” The American war effort was hardly flawless, and the final outcome may have been inconclusive, but battling Great Britain to something resembling a draw gave an adolescent country a sense of national purpose, some international prestige, and a final, definite separation from the Crown.
But the two intervening centuries have been unkind to that legacy. The war’s bicentennial, now upon us, has so far mostly offered commentators a chance to reflect on how little Americans care about their second war of independence, and how the little they do know is stitched together from questionable sources (Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans,” for example).
Perhaps fittingly, Congress, regarding the occasion as less important than the 200th anniversaries of the Lewis and Clark expedition and Abraham Lincoln’s birth, declined to give this bicentennial the lavish, taxpayer-funded treatment afforded to its predecessors. So with no national commemoration, the relevant states, cities, sites, and museums are organizing various smaller activities to mark the occasion. Whether the results will be a string of reminders about (and hand-wringing over) our indifference to the war remains to be seen.
One of the first efforts, however, currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery, opens the festivities on a promising note. “1812: A Nation Emerges” gathers paintings, prints, and artifacts to present an exciting and remarkably coherent account of a complicated conflict.
Unsurprisingly, given the venue, a sizable portion of the show is dedicated to portraits. Some of these depict well-known personages: Andrew Jackson, the bristly hero of the Battle of New Orleans, captured in an uncharacteristically serene gaze by Charles Willson Peale; and Gilbert Stuart’s elegant 1804 renderings of a youthful James and Dolley Madison, the improbable wartime commander in chief and his vivacious first lady.
Other faces, though less familiar, are no less striking. Stuart’s likeness of General William Hull, painted years after his surrender of Fort Detroit to the British and his subsequent court-martial, catches a touch of humiliation in Hull’s weary eyes. In sharp contrast, the young and rising cohort of American military men—Stephen Decatur, William Henry Harrison, Winfield Scott, Oliver Hazard Perry—appear heroic, dashing, and resplendent in their uniforms. Two of the exhibit’s most arresting images are of the enemy: Thomas Lawrence’s breathtaking portrait of the British foreign minister, Viscount Castlereagh, and John James Halls’s magnificent painting of Admiral George Cockburn posed jauntily in front of his handiwork, the city of Washington engulfed in flames and burning to the ground.
This collection alone would make for a worthy exhibit. But “A Nation Emerges” skillfully supplements the portraits with a wealth of documents and objects that link the actors to the war’s origins, course, and aftermath: a battered copy of Madison’s proclamation of war, with its echoes of the Declaration of Independence; Dolley’s velvet dress; a copy of the president’s personal catalogue of government receipts (swiped from the Capitol by an invading Redcoat); a Congreve rocket that inspired the red glare of Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner”; the war’s concluding document from 1814, the Treaty of Ghent, with its red wax seals and signatures still lustrous and clearly legible 200 years later. Contemporary engravings, cartoons, and paintings of crucial battles contextualize the war’s political underpinnings and capture its drama.
The objects not only narrate, they also offer a physical, three-dimensional connection to a largely forgotten segment of our history. Especially absorbing are the glimpses of the British invasion and burning of Washington in August 1814. Contemporary engravings and paintings of the chaotic flight from the city, as well as the shelled and burnt White House and Capitol building, are jarring to American eyes—even in our post-9/11 world.
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.