Reasoning that it qualified as dissertation-research (for me, that is), D and I drove down to the Niagara Peninsula last weekend to watch the re-enactment of the Battle of Queenston Heights. This event was part of a huge, national project to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, with events planned all around Ontario and Quebec for the next two years. There will be fancy-dress armies, historically-accurate food, tall ships, sea-battles, red-coats, poke bonnets. Laura Secord. Tecumseh. General Isaac Brock. The events are spectacular, and expensive, equal parts educational opportunity and vacation plan.
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). Continue reading “Prologue to a Series on Queenston Heights: What I Know About the War of 1812 I Learned from Johnny Horton”→