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First of all, I'd better warn you to turn the dial, if you don't want to hear some shocking things about ourselves — things I daresay you haven't heard before. You remember what Hegel said — "We learn from history that we learn nothing from history." I think he meant that we just won't say, "Because Mark Anthony, Aaron Burr and Belgium did those things, we won't do them either." O no, we must poke our nose out right into the fire and get our fair eyebrows burnt off, before we beware. You and I often take singeings like that and charge them up to human nature. But as a people after our Revolution we took red‑hot scorchings all over the face and down the body over and over again. Never did we profit less by the bungling of any activity than we did in those years following our escape into freedom. But I'd better tell you the facts and let you judge for yourself.
And yet — I hesitate to tell them — these black things that our histories cover up with a sheet, a lily white sheet. As often as I have looked at them I still get a quake in the stomach. But maybe it's p41 best that we do look them in the face — in order to enter into the big charity of preventive medicine.
Well here goes! After the Revolution, in the face of Washington's pleading, Steuben's example, and stout statesmen's warnings, we cast out discipline and training like life boats from a new ship and reduced the army to eighty men. Then we put seven hundred on legal paper, who couldn't be raised or kept going. Three years after the war we had for the common defense less than a thousand men poorly equipped and trained and scattered in the lonely forts on our borders — the equivalent of one hundred policemen on the outskirts of Boston today, with none in the city. So when Daniel Shay organized his rebellion, forced the court to adjourn and marched on Springfield, he had things pretty much his own way. It was only after tumult and bloodshed that peace was restored, whereas a small, well-trained force at hand would doubtless have kept the uprising from even starting. But the people refused to look at this picture — refused to take out preventives or insurance against the dreadful happenings to follow. Even when the United States became a nation and our Constitution was adopted, we had an army of the magnificent size of five hundred ninety-five men. Can you believe it? But listen to the consequence of this neglect. Seven years after p42 Revolution, one thousand souls in Kentucky alone perished by tomahawk and arrow, with no one to protect them. Then a force of hastily recruited men in Ohio were ambushed and wiped out. The next year fourteen hundred quickly raised defenders were also annihilated. And of course our weakness furnished the savage with a new courage for depredations, so that the thousands of persons who perished cannot now even be estimated. There was only one bright spot in this decade of terror. Washington, despite the laxness of the country, selected Anthony Wayne to lead troops against the Indians. Wayne, who had seen Steuben's careful coaching, trained his men for over a year before he took them into action. At the Battle of Fallen Timber, eleven years after the Revolution, he won our first well-executed victory over any sort of disorder. The Indians were so completely spanked that they let the settler live in peace for a long time — and thousands of lives were thus saved. But this action was a live coal in a bed of ashes. For soon the war scares crept steadily upon us — with France fifteen years after the Revolution, with Spain twenty years after, with Great Britain twenty-five years after. At each new scare, Congress voted huge sums of money and called out thousands of men on paper, but at no time did our actual forces even poorly trained, number four p43 thousand men. The soldier seemed to be the thermometer of the nation's fear. His numbers would rise and fall like the encased mercury to record the heat and cold of the people. But he never rose in time before, or stayed long enough afterward, to have any effect upon the temperature. He just didn't exist in time. William Duane in his writings of the period complained, "There is no discipline; there is even no system; and there are gross misconceptions on the subject. There appears to have been a disposition to discourage the acquisition of military knowledge." So we arrived at our Second War with Great Britain, twenty-nine years after the Revolution, weaker proportionally than when we faced that war.
Now the land warfare of 1812 would be so funny, if it weren't tragic; so laughable, if it weren't shameful, that our school histories just must omit much of it, if they're going to show that we are the perfect people of the world. You could scarcely describe the affair in football language, as I did with the Revolution, because the candidates for that gridiron didn't stay long enough to last much after the kick‑off. It had better be classified as an open tournament of all games and events, under any rules which the particular coach wanted to make, and at any time he wanted to play. It probably p44 could be described somewhat as a track-meet, if it were confined to running events. I tell you those men who played against or rather opposite Great Britain the second time, and who took no coaching for their particular stunts, could outsprint anything you've seen in shorts. The first event was staged at Detroit where our force of eighteen hundred had covered themselves up with fortifications. On the appearance of only twelve hundred of the enemy, the eighteen hundred gallantly surrendered without firing a shot or putting up any sort of resistance. This display of talent was soon followed by even a more disgraceful one at Queenstown. General Van Rensselaer got together nearly three thousand hastily recruited fellows at Lewiston to take the heights across the river. Two hundred and twenty-five picked men succeeded in crossing and stormed the place. This little courageous band withstood charge after charge of the enemy, hoping for reenforcements. But the large force on the American side refused to budge or even help their stricken comrades, who were finally killed or captured. After seeing their gallant fellows perish, they made their way to their homes quite quickly. A little later General Harrison got together from four states ten thousand men with no background or experience of warfare. After a short march and slight flurry with the Indians p45 their speed in getting back to their homes and camp was far beyond the most sanguine expectations. You couldn't exactly say they ran. No, they evaporated and their work was over. Then General Dearborn sent an expedition of fifteen hundred men against a small post on the River LaColle. The British garrison consisted of only two hundred men, seven and one‑half times smaller force than ours. But by unskilled leadership the American columns were separated and had an exciting time firing into each other while the enemy escaped. After all these escapades, along came General Smythe, who openly confessed how wrong other leaders had been and how he was the one hope of the war. By bombastic proclamations he induced over five thousand men to come to him at Black Rock for an invasion of Canada. On the promised day for the crossing, less than half the command embarked in the morning and waited there for the order to push across. In the afternoon, Smythe sensing the weakness of his troops, ordered them to disembark, and stated that the expedition was temporarily postponed. The men were so resentful that he promised he would invade Canada at a later date. Three days afterward he got them into the boats — and then out of them the very same way. The scene of riot and discontent was indescribable. Men fired off their weapons in every p46 direction, and threatened Smythe's life. Hunted and pursued, he finally made his way to his home in Virginia, and his command dispersed in disorder.
The next episode was that of General Winchester who sent Colonel Lewis to take Frenchtown, which he captured with a superior force. But after he had gained his victory, his soldiers were so lawless, undisciplined and ignorant of the first essentials of precaution, that the enemy returned and killed or captured the whole of the ten hundred and fifty Americans. Then came two successful expeditions. General Pike with seventeen hundred picked men took Toronto garrisoned by half that number and General Harrison with a force three times as great as the enemy, won a victory at Thames River. But these engagements were isolated and did not have much effect upon the war. Then General Hampton marched on Montreal with about five thousand untrained men, who met eight hundred Canadian regulars, before whom they fled in utter panic. After this General Wilkinson tried the same thing with a similar force. When his advance guard of sixteen hundred men met eight hundred British at Chrysler's Field, they did the usual scampering and Wilkinson gave up the idea of invading Canada. After all this weakness there was nothing to stop the enemy from swooping down upon us. They took Fort Niagara, p47 occupied Lewiston, Youngstown and Manchester and burned Buffalo. When six hundred and fifty British and Indians appeared before Black Rock, nearly three thousand Americans going by the name of soldiers ran away without even aiming — ran to cover so fast that the enemy had no trouble pillaging and destroying everything in sight.
But through these lowering clouds of neglect and ignorance there came a rift of sunshine. Three young generals, Brown, Scott, Ripley, in spite of the backward administration, decided on their own hook in these dark ages to pull out of their shelves the old learning of Washington and Steuben, to have a little renaissance of their own. For a year they worked on preparing thirty-five hundred men for real service in the field. And they were rewarded by the heroic battles of Chippewa and Lundy's Lane. Ah, yes, our histories record these actions, but they don't tell why they were successful. The men were trained and disciplined. And these two contests put a wholesome stop to depredations and invasions of American soil in the north.
Yet much of that work was counteracted by Bladensburg, the prime disgrace of American History. Little anxiety had been felt in Washington, over three thousand British troops who had been hovering about in the Chesapeake for a year. p48 The Secretary of War, the President and General Winder fell into a lengthy argument about how many troops should be called out to oppose this force. Meanwhile, the enemy was marching uninterruptedly toward our Capital. Finally sixty-four hundred Americans were collected just before the battle to oppose the invaders. The camp of men was wild with disorder and drink, while our so‑called leaders were stupid with perplexity. Just before actual contact the three gentlemen mentioned above, fell to discussing the situation as if it were something quite new. The troops were posted on the heights — badly. At the firing of some harmless rockets, our force which outnumbered the enemy two to one, fled right through the nation's Capitol,º leaving it open to plunder and rapine. Why the British chose to burn only the public buildings, was probably due to their sportsmanship.
Of course, General Jackson did excellent defensive work at New Orleans, but that was after the war was over — after the whistle had blown. Of course the Navy, too, did perfect work. The government had seen to it that they had been well-trained for a long time before the war. There were no novices in that organization.
All these actions on land were really more disgraceful than I have described them. Throughout p49 the War of 1812, as you see, most any unqualified man could be put in the saddle and every kind of unprepared man could be put in the field to fight. We were helpless, impatient, disgraceful, because we had discarded training and foresight in the years beforehand. In this war, over two decades after we had become a nation, we committed all the errors of the Revolution to a greater degree — and one more. We had no management or leadership — no commander-in‑chief or the commonest business organization. Fine manhood, for want of previous training was held up to ridicule, suffering, casualties, and disgrace. Now for the figures. We called out over half a million men and could not drive a maximum of sixteen thousand from our shores for over two years. We spent nearly two hundred million dollars, not counting pensions, when two per cent of that sum with a small well-trained force would have sufficed. And above all we sacrificed six thousand lives in camp and on the battlefield, when that figure should not have been over two hundred. As far as might, efficiency, planning and management were concerned, we muddled this war on land to the tune of death and shame. Again we couldn't defend our country against our enemies and had to thank God for European weariness from Napoleon, which called off the British. That's the reason why, p50 when our raw material is finer and greater than anywhere else in the world, the soldier is so wrought up over our people rushing into future extravagance, unnecessary slaughter and possible defeat. For somehow war has a habit of sneaking up on us craftily and quickly, like a thug.
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Page updated: 17 Sep 20