Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
Enjoy extensive portrait of our nation’s youth
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
WASHINGTON—The War of 1812 bequeathed a national anthem (heard before every ballgame) to the United States. But in today’s popular consciousness, that’s about all.
Fortunately, along comes an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery that’s full of surprises, great artwork and riveting tales.
Not that “1812: A Nation Emerges” is lighthearted about a conflict that cost 15,000 American lives and changed world history. For our fledgling nation, survival was at stake. America, only a generation old, fought principally to stop Britain from halting U.S.-flagged ships and abducting its sailors into service in the British navy.
The conflict, lasting 2 years, was sort of a draw.
America lost most of the land battles, and its attempts to invade Canada failed, fostering that nation’s emergence. But what’s sometimes called the Second War for American Independence did give the United States a secure spot among sovereign nations.
Indians lost their British allies, opening the way for westward expansion; patriotism and Andrew Jackson-style democracy flourished; citizens called for better methods of transportation, including the Erie Canal; and the way was paved for the Monroe Doctrine and empire-building.
Important stuff. Yet this unique show manages to have fun.
Not all the intrigue came on the global stage, it notes. Washington’s salon society, especially in first lady Dolley Madison’s court, was heaven for early deal-makers—as well as debutantes in search of a beau. (Perhaps it was the ice cream that Dolley dished out during her Wednesday-night “squeezes,” so called because everyone wanted to get in.)
One gets a good look at “War Hawks” Henry Clay and John Calhoun and military heroes-to-be Andrew Jackson and Winfield Scott. And in these works of art, they are all young and good-looking.
“They were hunks,” said the National Portrait Gallery’s acting director, Wendy Wick Reaves.
That’s a useful perspective to have on the period, especially if your mental picture of Scott—“Old Fuss and Feathers” as he eventually came to be known—is colored by his corpulent Civil War-era appearance, when he had to be hoisted onto his horse.
Walking around the exhibit’s five bays, beneath the gallery’s distinctive vaulted ceilings, one gets the feeling that a “Night at the Muse um” moment could happen at any time. And that if the figures on these walls came to life one evening, they would know one another and have lots to talk about.
That’s just what curator Sidney Hart and assistant guest curator Rachael L. Penman sought—to evoke you-are-there connections. The resulting exhibition is on a grand scale, encompassing nine sections and 100 pieces (with a dozen Gilbert Stuarts) drawn from public institutions and private homes in the United States, Great Britain and Canada.
Visitors get a sweeping visual history of the war and the world in which it took place. But the show’s strength is that it tells the big story through the lives of extraordinary individuals.
From the moment you walk through the door, cool stuff clamors for your attention.
Just overhead is a 17-star, 17-stripe U.S. flag, the only such flag known to survive from the period. Here, it is being shown to the American people for the first time.
To the right is a marble bust of Napoleon Bonaparte, the military genius who loomed so large in the French–British–American loggerheads. This particular sculpture was a prize possession of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.
Ahead, ships practically sail off canvas in a mammoth painting by Thomas Birth, “Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie.” This battle cemented the phrase “Don’t give up the ship!” in our national lore.
U.S. naval officer Oliver Hazard Perry, who supervised building of the American fleet at Lake Erie, had the words stitched on a blue ensign flown from his flagship during its duel with the British in September 1813.
They commemorated the dying words of his friend James Lawrence, a naval officer killed that June when his USS Chesapeake fought the HMS Shannon off New York, trying to break through the British blockade.
The war brought other memorable phrases: “We have met the enemy and they are ours,” from Perry’s dispatch to Maj. Gen. William Henry Harrison after the Battle of Lake Erie. And “Oh, say, can you see by the dawn’s early light,” from Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Key was inspired to write his now-famous lines as he—negotiating for American prisoners aboard a British ship—witnessed the 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry outside Baltimore, the nation’s third-largest city. HMS Meteor delivered some of the “bombs bursting in air” that Key described, and HMS Erebus fired the “rockets’ red glare.”
The exhibit pairs the latter line with a mural of the scene and reproductions of Key’s handwritten poem and one of the Congreve rockets the British fleet rained down.
For visitors from the Fredericksburg area, a special delight is that many of the show’s characters are Virginians:
–Thomas Jefferson, who as president failed to halt British encroachment on American trading rights during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s.
–James Madison, Jefferson’s successor, who encouraged Congress to declare war on Britain (hence the nickname, “Mr. Madison’s War”) and signed its bill into law on June 18, 1812.
–John Randolph, the Roanoke congressman who thought the war a fool’s errand.
–Dolley Madison, sometimes called the nation’s “first first lady” for her trend-setting role.
–Paul Jennings, body servant to President Madison, first White House memoirist and the slave who helped Dolley Madison save some of the executive mansion’s iconic treasures—including Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of the first president—from British troops bearing down on the capital Aug. 24, 1814.
Dolley Madison also saved silver, china and some of the White House’s red-velvet draperies. The exhibit includes a red-velvet, empire-style gown that Dolley owned, perhaps made from the curtains she salvaged. Given the garment’s fragility, this is probably the last time the dress will be put on display.
A copy of the only known photograph of Paul Jennings, taken in Washington after he secured his freedom, is one of the exhibit’s other great treats.
That category includes a family portrait of Robert Ross of Bladensboro, the revered British army commander killed by an American sniper in Maryland in 1814 (Ross spared private property when his troops burned Washington); a giant, ego-driven portrait of British Adm. George Cockburn, advocate behind the sacking of Washington, who had the artist make the burning capital the painting’s background; and a green-leather-bound book of James Madison’s that Cockburn took from the president’s room in the U.S. Capitol when his troops torched the building. (It wasn’t returned to the U.S. until 1940, perhaps to encourage its wartime alliance with Britain, said Hart, the gallery’s senior historian.)
Intriguing, too, are a romanticized, life-size statue of a dying Tecumseh, the Shawnee leader whose alliance with the British bedeviled the Americans; a large-scale model of the USS Constitution, kept by President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office; and the U.S. copy of the Treaty of Ghent, the document that ended the war, still bearing diplomats’ signatures and wax seals.
Ironically, the war’s final battle—Andrew Jackson’s triumph at New Orleans in early 1815—came two weeks after negotiators inked their Christmas Eve peace pact.
The exhibit’s last gallery holds a special War of 1812 video shot by History, the cable-TV channel that underwrote the show with TD Bank Group, and three final flourishes:
A 1828 copy of Noah Webster’s first dictionary, created to encourage nationalism and replace British spellings with Americanized ones.
A pamphlet bearing the first mention of Uncle Sam, the figure who evolved from the initials “U.S.,” stamped on barrels of meat supplied to the U.S. Army during the war by Samuel Wilson of Troy, N.Y.
A beaver pelt, a nod to early American millionaire John Jacob Astor, who made his fortune in the fur trade and Manhattan real estate. (In 1814, he lobbied for a bill to permit only U.S. citizens to trap fur-bearers on American soil.)
Curators Hart and Penman have written a beautifully illustrated catalog, co-published by Rowman & Littlefield and the Smithsonian Press, for the show.
“1812: A Nation Emerges” is full of not just great art, but great stories. You’ll leave wanting to know more.
ON THE NET:
Virtual exhibit: npg.si.edu/exhibit/1812
National Portrait Gallery’s Facebook page: facebook.com/npg.smithsonian
Gallery’s Twitter feed: twitter.com/npg
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029
IF YOU GO …
WHAT: “1812: A Nation Emerges”
WHERE: The National Portrait Gallery. Eighth and F streets NW, in Washing ton, above the Gallery Place–Chinatown Metro station (red, yellow, green lines). Across from the Veri zon Center.
WHEN: 11:30 a.m.–7 p.m. daily through Jan. 27.