Prologue to a Series on Queenston Heights: What I Know About the War of 1812 I Learned from Johnny Horton

I was trying to remember when I first heard about the War of 1812, and I came up with two icons I must have encountered when I was very small, though I could not say exactly when: Laura Secord and Johnny Horton.  Laura Secord has a pretty obvious 1812 connection, so obvious she even has her own historica minute.  Johnny Horton might require an explanation.

When I was about seven I had Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits on a beige audio tape, without a case, one that a neighbour kid left at our house when he moved. It was an unfortunate oversight on his part, one that has, sadly, informed my sense of American history as much as L.M. Alcott or Herman Melville or Frederick Douglass.  It’s a good thing I’m not an historian, because I’m pretty sure they’d take away my degrees for that.

So, as a seven year old I absorbed a peppy, post-war version of American history, much preoccupied with battles and heroic men:  Johnny Reb fights all the way through the Civil War, Ol’ Hick’ry defeats the Red Coats with a weaponized alligator, Davey Crockett strangles a bear and dies at the Alamo, and even the Bismarck is imagined in Texan terms, with guns as big as steers and shells as big as trees.  It’s Disney-history, nuggets of sepia-toned high adventure rendered as three-minute narratives in 4/4, with Horton’s band singing “Mush! Mush!” behind him, as Big Sam McCord goes north to Alaska (where the rush is on).

I still know all the words to these songs, and I’m pretty sure my earliest sense of the War of 1812 comes from Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans,” which puts me on the Wrong Side. For those who aren’t familiar, here’s a particularly intriguing live version from 1959.  Johnny Horton is ghostly in white buckskins, while American backwoodsmen and Red Coats dance-fight on the misty stage, leaping and pirouetting like it’s a nineteenth-century West Side Story.

Why is this the first post in a series about this past weekend’s re-enactments for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Queenston Heights?  Especially considering official commemoration has framed it as a Canadian Victory?  I spent Saturday on the Heights, wandering around the park with D, talking to re-enactors and eating hotdogs and cartridge candy.  We watched a one-hour version of the battle, staged like a four-act play, and fought by an international brigade of men in nineteenth-century uniforms, who fired their muskets until the air was white with imaginary battle-smoke.  I listened to speeches that extolled the War of 1812 as a symbol of enduring friendship between Canada and America, as an origin-point for Canadian sovereignty.

Half a dozen times over the course of the weekend, I heard “The Battle of New Orleans” in my head.  It reminded me of the truism that commemoration is less about remembering, than about the uses to which we put the past in the service of the present. As Ol’ Hick’ry and Johnny Reb and Davey Crockett were useful in America in 1959, so General Brock is useful to Canada in 2012. Only, what use is he to us, exactly?

This is the prologue to a series on the 200th Anniversary Re-enactment of the Battle of Queenston Heights.  Here are links to the other parts:

Report from a Re-Enactment I:  The Theatre of War in Four Acts

Report from a Re-Enactment II: Conversations with a Mohawk Warrior and a Damn Yankee

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