A week after the tall ships descended on Baltimore for the bicentennial of the beginning of the War of 1812, and the city’s historic landmarks related to that event had returned perhaps to our national forgetfulness of that war. A few visitors to Fort McHenry made our tour relaxed and free of mobs. The Inner Harbor was back to paddle-boat dragons, summer-time outdoor live music and smoothies.
Two things struck me about the exhibits at Fort McHenry, where Francis Scott Key’s view of the flag still waving after a night of British bombardment is memorialized, quite informatively and attractively. 1500 shells. Four people died. In fact, little mention was made of any casualties in the entire war.
It is hard to go to a battlefield or memorial of the Civil War, or any American military engagement since, and not be confronted with a narrative of death and casualty. But in the War of 1812, and to a lesser extent, our Revolutionary War, the notion of soldiers dying in action is not central to the historic narrative. Certainly, today, following the mass casualties in the Vietnam War, news coverage from both Iraq and Afghanistan has been dominated by our losses. Did these soldiers die in vain without their remembrance?
The second missing item was the burning of York (present-day Toronto) by Americans. Much emphasis was placed on the burning of the White House and the Capitol, but with no mention of the previous sacking of Toronto. In Canada, the battle in Toronto and subsequent defense of territory captures the story line and aligns with their national identity as non-Americans.
The question we have to ask, with our emphasis on our loss in Washington, and Canadian’s emphasis on their loss in York, do we choose to hold to the painful remembrance of loss inflicted on us, on our tragedies, rather than on the tragedies we inflict on others?
Walking around Ft. McHenry, I imagined 5th graders on class trips running around the premises, looking in on rooms where soldiers slept four to a bed, or climbing on the huge cannons, or trying to imagine a harbor full of tall warships firing relentlessly at the fort. Would they make the connection between the smoothies in the Inner Harbor and the sacrifices 200 years earlier at that fort?
In fact, many died in this war. An estimated 15,000 U.S. soldiers.