Sept. 12, 2014
"Hurry, we're late," my wife called back to me. She was headed to the Midshipmen Store at the U.S. Naval Academy. A sale was on for Navy fan gear and we wanted to be well attired for the annual Army-Navy football game. I had the honor of accompanying my wife, then a Navy Captain and a commanding officer of the Academy's health clinic.
"Go on, I'll catch up," I called out, relishing the opportunity to stage my own little mutiny. I had seen a large cannon in front of MacDonough Hall just a few yards from the Mid Store. I was fascinated by the ding, the pronounced concavity in the mouth of that cannon. The plaque below told the story. I'm a slow reader of historical plaques.
As I ran my hand over that ding, I read how Lieutenant Thomas MacDonough had fired the cannon ball from his ship that had hit this naval gun and caused that depression in the mouth of this captured British cannon. Even more dramatic, Lt. MacDonough's well-aimed shot had driven this very gun back on its carriage and had killed Commander George Downie, the British skipper of the HMS Confiance. That was a turning point in the Battle of Lake Champlain.
The Battle of Lake Champlain was fought two hundred years ago, on September 11, 2014. In our time, September 11th will be remembered, as it should be, for the horrific terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and United Flight 93, brought down by heroic American passengers over Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
But the War of 1812 had its share of terror tactics, too. A Canadian writer, the late Pierre Berton, related the story of what happened when the American militiamen outside what was to become Chicago surrendered to Indian allies of the British. Six hundred Pottawatomie Indians, led by Black Bird, their chief, had pledged to let the captured soldiers and their families go free for a ransom of $100 each. Black Bird will not keep his promise.
At the wagon train, the soldiers' wives, armed with their husbands' swords, fight as fiercely as the men. Two are hacked to pieces, a Mrs. Corbin, wife of a private, had vowed never to be taken prisoner and…Cicely [a black woman, an enslaved person]who is cut down with her infant son. Within the wagons, where the [soldiers'] younger children are huddled, there is greater horror. One young Indian slips in and slaughters twelve single-handed, slicing their heads from their bodies in a fury of bloodlust.
[Pierre Berton, The Invasion of Canada: 1812-13, Penguin Books Canada, Ltd. Toronto: 1980, p. 254.]
Ransom? Beheadings? Woman and children slaughtered? Sounds like this morning's headlines on ISIS. This was hardly an isolated incident. Such massacres on both sides were part of our country's early history.
Knowing about such events in our past helps us cope with terrorism today. It's not the first time we have faced such determined and bloodthirsty enemies. It won't be the last.
What we need is to have a feel for our history. I have run my hand over that ding in the cannon's mouth. I felt it. At the Lincoln Cottage in Northeast Washington, D.C., you can run your hand along the railing of the stairs that lead up to the room where President Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. Across the river at nearby Mount Vernon, you can mount the same stairs that George Washington descended when he learned that he had been elected the first President of the United States.
Through such experiences, we place ourselves in communion with all those Americans past and present who have taken the oath to defend the land we love. My wife and I have many times attended the Induction Day ceremonies at the Naval Academy. That's the day when approximately 1,200 new "Plebes" arrive to begin their four-year period of instruction in military and academic subjects. On I-Day, the Plebes receive their immunizations; get extensive physical examinations, and haircuts. They are dressed in baggy uniforms called "whiteworks." All their over-the-counter and prescription drugs are dumped in big piles. From now on, the Navy is responsible for their health and safety.
At day's end, the Plebes and their parents gather in Tecumseh Court. "T-Court" is named for an enemy Indian chieftain we honor today for the fact he saved American prisoners from being tomahawked and scalped during the War of 1812.
Suddenly, over the massive columns of Bancroft Hall, four Navy jets thunder overhead, so low you can read the numbers on their fuselages. You can feel the roar in the pit of your stomach. It's sound of freedom, they say.
And the Plebes raise their right hands and recite the Oath of Office. Many of their parents and many of us assembled as a cloud of witnesses will be in tears as these vibrant young people pledge their lives to protect and defend our Constitution.
They end their recitation of the Oath with the same words spoken by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and by every other commander-in-chief:
So Help Me God
You can run your hands over these words. They are engraved on a plaque affixed to the bulkhead (wall) in Bancroft Hall. You can feel your country's history.