Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 162: Moses Smith, “Old Ironsides” Captures HMS Guerrière (#168)

Moses Smith, "“Old Ironsides” Captures HMS Guerrière" (1846) from The War of 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence:

Moses Smith was a sailor on board the USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides," which saw some action during the War of 1812, about which I'd say the general feeling is this. When you have awesome and easily narrated wars like World War II, why look back at a war pales so? Why was it fought? Who won? Those aren't so simple, so best just to replay WWII. (The short answer to who won is: Not us.)

Of course, back then, they didn't have much to compare it to, which is why you'll sometimes hear about the War of 1812 as a Second War of Independence, as in the subtitle here. So if you hear Moses Smith in his 1846 memoir talk about the war as this great war for freedom--a war for Americans to stay American--that's kind of the way it looked.

That said, I wonder how much fun Smith is having with us when he gives an American officer a speech remarking on how Americans have to think and do for themselves and cannot rely on their officers:
... do your duty. Your officers cannot have entire command over you now. Each man must do all in his power for his country.’
At this moment a man was killed on our spar deck.
Really, from rah-rah speech to a death that quickly? Similarly, when Smith discusses the battle, he notes that the British ship tried to surrender, but wasn't given the chance at first:
They tried to haul their colors down; but every man who could be seen attempting it, was shot dead from the tops of the Constitution. We were determined to give them an opportunity to be convinced that we would defend our country’s rights to the last; and, besides, we thought these repeated attempts to haul down the flag were intended to deceive us—for we saw the men as busy as ever in continuing the action.
I love when he says that they were prepared to fight "to the last"--meaning, the Americans were willing to fight to the last British soldier, since the Constitution wasn't accepting surrender right now. And I like how Smith--at the very end--tries to cover this failure of mercy with the note that the British were probably just trying to trick them.

But then, I could be wrong, since Smith seems to take an equally light tone with the idea of American wounded:
Others, whom I could name, bore their amputations equally well. Some of these brave defenders of the nation are among my friends; and I sometimes meet them stumping it through life.
"Stumping it through life" is a a pretty cool way to describe people who lost limbs fighting for their country, but that's Smith's tone basically throughout. Perhaps we should thank him for not giving in to a sentimental, pro patria way of describing the war. Whatever the war was about, it has some of the same consequences in death, ruthless killing, and maiming.

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