Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Excited to be Celebrating the War of 1812 Bicentennial???

You know, I get some really funny looks when I tell my fellow Tuscaloosan’s how ready I am to celebrate the War of 1812 Bicentennial beginning this month. Looking into their eyes I can almost read their minds when they look at me as if to say, “Man, Register, when are you gonna get a life?” I can understand why they feel this way. The City of Tuscaloosa didn’t even exist in 1812 so why should ANYONE here be concerned with a war that was fought 200 years ago for God-knows-what reason with an outcome that resulted in God-knows-what?

There’s a mighty big reason why we should be celebrating. The significance of the War of 1812 for Tuscaloosans is enormous. You might ask, “How big an impact could events from the War of 1812 have in my everyday life?” What happened in that war impacts every one of us every moment of our lives.

For right or wrong, the only reason there’s not a big “NO TRESPASSING” sign over this entire region of the country is because the War of 1812 resulted in treaties that tore millions of acres of land away from the Indians and every square inch of Tuscaloosa is built upon that land. Not only that, most of the land granted to charter the University of Alabama in 1819 came from the land the Indians lost when they were conquered in the War. All of the privileges that come with living in Tuscaloosa originate in the events that occurred during the War which began 200 years ago this June.

As a consequence of the War of 1812, all the land within the present day boundaries of Alabama came under American dominion. The rush of settlers who flooded this choice land that the Indians lost after their crushing defeat found a ready world-market for their production via the Port of Mobile. During the course of the War, Mobile was acquired by the United States in 1813 and grew from being a small town into one of the largest ports in the country. The only permanent exchange of territory as a consequence of the War was the U.S. acquisition of Mobile County south of the 31st parallel.

From its earliest days, Tuscaloosa’s geographical importance has rested upon its place as the northern head of navigation for the Port of Mobile. The bloodless conquest of Mobile by the U.S. Army in 1813 opened the Black Warrior River Valley to international commerce for the first time. As a result, Tuscaloosa traces its maritime traditions to the navigation of the Black Warrior.

One of the main causes of the War was the problem of maintaining the rights of Americans on the high seas. Prior to the war, thousands of American seamen were kidnapped, imprisoned, and forced to work on British ships. The War of 1812 ended this practice and opened up the Gulf Coast to American commerce for the first time. This month, Tuscaloosa citizens have a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the tall ships that once ruled the world. The national bicentennial celebration kicks off in New Orleans this month with NOLA Navy Week, Tuesday, April 17th to Sunday, April 22nd. NOLA Navy Week is the first of six Tall Ship Regattas planned this spring and summer by OPSAIL to celebrate the Bicentennial of the War of 1812. Tall ships leave New Orleans for the New York City Parade of Ships on May 23rd through May 30th. The Norfolk, Virginia, Tall Ships Parade is June 1st through June 11th, and Baltimore, Maryland will commemorate Declaration of War events from June 13th through 19th. The tall ships arrive in Boston, Massachusetts, on Saturday, June 30th and the USS Constitution, a veteran warship from the War of 1812 and the oldest commissioned ship on earth, will be a part of the celebration which gets underway in Boston Harbor with the Blue Angels fly-over on the 4th of July. This first group of War of 1812 Bicentennial events ends with the last Tall Ship Parade and fireworks in New London, Connecticut, on Saturday, July 7th.

Tuscaloosa cannot be the venue for a tall ship regatta celebrating the War of 1812 Bicentennial, but the new Tuscaloosa Transportation Museum can showcase the Tuscaloosa area’s role in the War of 1812. The activities of our new museum concerning the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 can provide a means for clarifying some of the confusing incidents from our local history.

An example of one of these incidents is described on a historic marker located in front of the West End Fire Station on Culver Road. This marker titled “Black Warrior’s Town” describes the May 1812 kidnapping of Mrs. Martha Crawley that has long been associated with an Indian village reputed to have been located in present-day Tuscaloosa. The incident ended up being used as a justification for the Treaty of Ft. Jackson which ripped 23 million acres of land away from the Indians. After studying, for over 20 years, the details of what happened to Mrs. Crawley, I continue to be confused about the many versions of this story which has such an enormous historic impact. The same historic marker also mentions Davy Crockett’s comments concerning his War of 1812 service in the area of present-day Tuscaloosa and this subject is another part of our history that begs for clarification.

One more way Tuscaloosa citizens can contribute to the celebration of the War of 1812 Bicentennial is to work together to see the publication of Tuscaloosa native Dr. James F. Doster’s The Creek Indians and Their Florida Lands, 1740-1823. Even though this document was published in 1974, it has never included its original exhibits or source citations. Its proper publication will be an important contribution to the literature of the War of 1812 and a legacy to one of Tuscaloosa’s most beloved citizens.

Another Tuscaloosa area venue that can showcase the story of how the original Alabamians lost their land in the aftermath of the War of 1812 is the Moundville Archaeological Park. The annual Moundville Native American Festival in October already attracts Native Americans and visitors from all over the country, so the War of 1812 Bicentennial is an excellent opportunity to focus public attention upon this often ignored and tragic chapter of the story of how Alabama’s Native Americans ended up in Oklahoma.

An interesting current exhibit in the Tuscaloosa Transportation Museum includes articles associated with Tuscaloosa’s 1969 Sesquicentennial Celebration. Only seven short years now separate us from our city’s own bicentennial celebration in 2019 along with our own State of Alabama’s Bicentennial that same year. In the meantime, Louisiana will be celebrating their bicentennial this year and Mississippi in 2017.

Regardless of the tangible rewards that came to this country as a consequence of the War of 1812, there are many intangibles. These intangibles are related to our national identity or our regional consciousness. In Tuscaloosa, we don’t have a Star Spangled Banner House like they do in Baltimore; however, Francis Scott Key did visit here, and the last I noticed, Andrew Jackson’s portrait on a $20 bill is still welcomed currency in Tuscaloosa. Forty of our fellow sixty-seven Alabama counties are named after people and places that are intimately tied to the War of 1812. The War unconsciously becomes an everyday part of our Alabama vocabulary when we speak of the counties of Wilcox, Randolph, Perry, Barbour, Clay, Calhoun, Colbert, Lawrence, Jackson and Lowndes, plus the cities of Decatur, Jacksonville, or Montgomery. When we speak the names of these places, we are talking about men who made their mark on society during the War of 1812. Now is the time to set the record straight on the formative years of our origins in order that we may be better prepared to share and celebrate our heritage with one another and with the world later this decade with our own Tuscaloosa bicentennial in 2019.

The Declaration of War which occurred 200 years ago on June 18, 1812, was not precipitated by some cataclysmic event like Pearl Harbor or the attack on the World Trade Center. In fact, in our world of instant communication the U.S. would have never fought a war over the political arguments used to bring our country into this fight. This war was fought to an indecisive outcome that few people today comprehend.

Consider this: my challenge to you, Tuscaloosa, is to broaden your horizons and to learn more about the living legacy of the War of 1812 as we begin this bicentennial.