Health problems and deadline pressure have kept me silent on this blog. But I thought I’d offer, for anyone wandering across this space, my meditation on America’s “second war of Independence,” and whose independence matters now.
The dark-skinned fifteen-year-old boy looked up at the two genial soldiers and wondered how to get clothes that fine. Certainly nowhere near this drafty boarding house in the Bronck’s part of New York, with ocean winds chilling the bone.
William Apess had spent most of the past two months running. He’d lost his traveling companions, with whom he’d sailed from New England paying only with borrowed charm and fake war stories. Apess didn’t know what to do now: his master swore he had another year left on his indenture, but he was done with being tormented by some Connecticut farmer who thought he could batter the half-Pequot Indian and half African man at will. He grinned when the soldiers offered him another drink, and again when they made their offer.
“By then I had acquired many bad practices,” Apess wrote 20 years later in his memoir A Son of the Forest. After a few drinks, the soldiers “told me about the war, and what a fine thing it was to be a soldier. I was pleased with the idea of being a soldier, took some more liquor and some money, had a cockade fastened to my hat, and went off in fine spirits.” Not that he was particularly interested in the new war. It was 1812, not the Revolution, and “I could not think why I should risk my life, my limbs, in fighting for the white man, who had cheated my people out of their land.”
Apess would go AWOL after six months of basic training on Governor’s Island and watching as a captured deserter was executed before trainees’ eyes, be tortured upon his return in mock “scalpings,” and operate a cannon in the unsuccessful invasion of Montreal all before he reached legal age. It would be decades still before Apess became famous in the Pequot land of Massachusetts for organizing a quiet revolt by the Mashpee Indians, and praised in the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.
In many ways, the War of 1812 was the first of what was often to come: wars begun by men without military experience for ever-changing reasons, feeding the development of events that became clearer casi belli, fued by underlying economic rationales even as the deep economic and human costs became clearer.
This “Second War of Independence” was paired with continued action against American Indians, most memorably by war-hero-turned-politician Andrew Jackson. As Jackson sparked the “removal” of Indian tribes to points far west, his successor would corral thousands of regular and militia soldiers into extending the nation throughout the continent. Slavery, that other original sin, awaited its own war while shaping these.
The Louisiana Purchase, a mixed-blessing gift from Jefferson, brought all of the original sins into sharp relief: “purchased without blood,” the new territory contained slaveholders and rebel slaves and so did the war that followed a decade later. Would the new territories – and those won in that other war, against Indian nations – be slave states? What kind of armies and navies would “defend’ them?
Competing land claims would raise the first war costs/who pays fights, with war veterans and widows still pleading their cases before Congress while many vets poured out their harrowing war stories in land claims hoping for a piece of the promised future. Early mavericks — most of them battling Andrew Jackson, whose “Indian removal” strategy enacted what Jefferson had only warned of — included William Lloyd Garrison, whose early refusal of militia service prefigured his future as a scion of abolitionism; Revolutionary veteran Noah Worcester, founder of the first national pacifist organization the American Peace Society; Texas icon Davy Crockett, and the Hamlet of American expansionism, General Ethan Allen Hitchcock, one of many graduates of the brand-new West Point to play a role in this story. Others included cadets Thomas Ragland and Nicholas Trist, who helped lead one of the first mutinies at the Academy, and Edgar Allan Poe, who started as a civilian “Private Perry” to support his writing and would eventually be poking fun at another, the future conqueror of California General Winfield Scott.
Meanwhile, the only women to insert ourselves here is Nicholas Trist’s mother, Thomas Jefferson’s close friend Elizabeth, while we can only deduce soldier’s heart in mirror image from the fury of Andrew Jackson and from the hundreds of soldiers, both in Andrew Jackson’s naval wars and those on the frontier, who occasionally “deserted by squads.” Throughout, the pesky men of conscience, whether liberal vets like Noah Worcester or stick-in-the muds like Garrison, would keep moving the zigzag path further along.
The war’s immediate causes, contested for the past century by historians, were as simple and complex as described by historian Albert Klyberg: “impressment of sailors, British trade restrictions for Americans doing business with the Continent, an American desire to annex Canada, and British-inspired Indian uprisings in the West.” The first on that list, impressment, became in Congressional debates conflated with less tangible concepts of the new country’s “honor” and credibility. “If we now recede we shall be a reproach to all nations,” said Henry Clay, perhaps originating a now well-worn theme.
Uniformed dissent in this new war was surprisingly robust. In private journals, petitions and public campaigns, both officers and ordinary soldiers raised questions about the federalization of the armed forces and the wars’ sometimes brutal conduct. It is not that surprising that so of our resisters sprang from West Point, equipped by its Ivy League-style education as much to challenge authority as assume it.
“You will find a great variety of characters at the Academy but generally high minded young men and some of them quarrelsome and extremely tenacious of their honor,” Charles Peters told his brother-in-law Ethan Allen Hitchcock, grandson of the founder of the Green Mountain Boys.