1812 is the backdrop to a novel of early America
By Tracy F. Seelye, Express editor
HANSON — Perhaps it could be called the Rodney Dangerfield of wars.
Even on the bicentennial observance of its final year — and of the writing of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” during the 1814 British bombardment of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry — there has been little notice of the War of 1812, as the Napoleonic Wars were called hereabouts, outside of history classrooms.
That may be due, in part, to how close we came to losing our fledgling nation back to the British only about 20 years after winning it.
Author Deborah Hill of Brockton suggests that today’s attitudes toward the conflict are also not much different from those of 1812-14.
“Most people never strayed far from home, communication was very difficult, America was really just a collection of citizens here and there whose concerns usually stopped at their front door,” Hill said.
Eonomically, states were fairly autonomous.
“The new nation was was becoming firmly locked into regional power struggles,” she said. “The sea provided for anybody, like the fisherman and the mariner who got rich as the Boston merchants got rich.”
At least that was the case before President Thomas Jefferson decided an embargo on trade with Britain in an attempt to halt the impressment of American sailors.
“The embargo meant that both merchants from Boston and mariners of the seas would face ruin,” Hill related.
Her latest historical novel, “This is the House,” intersperses chapters of a fictionalized biography of such a mariner — an ancestor of her husband’s family, Cape Cod sea captain Elijah Cobb of Brewster — with those of an invented character representing his wife and the struggles they faced as a result of the embargo and war.
“I am not a professional historian, I am an author and authors are known to take liberties with fact,” she said to a Hanson Historical Society audience Thursday, Aug. 7. “I hope not to take liberties with history.”
As part of the cadre of mariners working to establish trade and credit for the new nation, she recounted how Cobb ran afoul of British press gangs looking to bolster their navy during the Napoleonic Wars. By that time, America had become entwined in the conflict, though few were aware of it.
Cobb and his crew were held at St. John, Nova Scotia and later exchanged for the crew of another merchant ship, the Alert, captured earlier.
“The people I’m writing about are based on my husband’s family, based on the town of Brewster,” she said. “I keep telling my husband’s family this is not a biography.”
Hill grew up on Lake Erie in Ohio — which is where some of the heaviest fighting in the western frontier was experienced, usually with the United States on the losing end, as Canada was dragged into the conflict.
“These skirmishes might as well have happened on the moon,” she said. “They were just not relevant to us at all and news of them would come weeks after they occurred.”
Hill outlined how, as the state militias dispatched to Ohio, the British were able to take territory in Maine, burn Washington D.C., and be prevented only by fortifications in Baltimore from taking back the United States after Napoleon abdicated and the French were out of the war. Militias from Massachusetts and Connecticut, who refused to go fight in Ohio, as well as Southern militias helped protect Baltimore.
“But the British people did not feel like having anymore war and they didn’t want to raise taxes — and they saved us,” she said.
A certain respect for America had been earned by the victories at Baltimore and New Orleans, demonstrating the renewed military organization of the militias and regular Army, she concluded.