'From Sea to Shining Sea': A warring America expands its borders

December 26, 1993|By Bruce Clayton

Title: "From Sea to Shining Sea: From the War of 1812 to the Mexican War, the Saga of America's Expansion"

Author: Robert Leckie

Publisher: HarperCollins

Length, price: 650 pages, $30 "War is hell," said Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in his blunt explanation of the savagery of the Civil War.

Yet so many of us find it heavenly to read about battles and soldiers, the blast of bugles, the booming guns, the fighting ships, the death and carnage. Wars and rumors of wars force the conscientious citizen to reflect on large things -- nationalism, honor, sacrifice, courage or cowardice.

In historian Robert Leckie's capable hands, everything about war comes alive, from the noble to the vile. He's written more than two dozen books about America's military past, not counting various fictional and autobiographical musings on war. "From Sea to Shining Sea" is vintage Leckie: vivid narrative style, bloody battles, glossy snapshots of key figures, catchy anecdotes, sweeping (sometimes infuriating) generalizations, and caustic asides. He marches smartly from the War of 1812 -- after glancing over his shoulder at the young republic's successful skirmishes with the pesky Barbary Pirates -- to the land-grabbing Mexican War in the 1840s.

The War of 1812, in which Americans battled the British, %J Canadians and aggrieved American Indians, excites Mr. Leckie's imagination and demands most of his attention. Like most historians, he points to "national honor" as the deciding cause. But then he fogs the issue by simply asserting that President James Madison's decision for war was based on a desire to thwart James Monroe's presidential aspirations.

Mr. Leckie has a surer hand describing military matters. He moves briskly through the fall of Detroit and the defeat at Niagara; the hard-fought naval operations on Lake Champlain and Lake Erie (where Oliver Hazard Perry immortalized his victory with "We have met the enemy and they are ours"); and Andrew Jackson's rousing victories at Horseshoe Bend and New Orleans. The latter was fought before the news arrived that the war had ended.

Along the way, Mr. Leckie expertly profiles the War Hawks -- Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun -- and aged, slow-footed generals such as William "Granny" Hull. The legendary Davy Crockett, decked out in fringed leather jacket and coonskin hat (the frontiersman who "made bumpkinism in America a badge of honor") gets his due; so does Commodore Joshua Barney of Baltimore. Mr. Leckie pays homage to the mighty Tecumseh, the brilliant Shawnee warrior whose death in battle was a blow to Indian dreams of freedom.

America's low point came when the British, sailing up the Chesapeake Bay on route to attack Baltimore, detoured and burned the capital in 1814. When the rowdy victors departed, patriots attempted to cover the nation's shame by throwing a coat of white paint on the president's blackened house -- henceforth to be called the White House. Mr. Leckie writes: "Never before had Americans been so humiliated as by the news of the debacle at Washington. Not even the disaster at Pearl Harbor 130 years later could rival the shock."

During the subsequent bombardment of Baltimore's Fort McHenry and Barney's fleet, the local poet Francis Scott Key watched with swelling pride as the dawn's early light revealed that the fort had held, that the flag was still there. His scribbled lines, first printed in the Baltimore Patriot, were put to an old drinking song; more than 100 years later it became the national anthem.

Mr. Leckie's buoyant, muscular prose works well for military history; his book has the sort of snap history buffs love. But he is aware of the era's savagery.

The brutal, land-grabbing policies of Jackson and Gen. William Henry Harrison (of "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too" fame) reflect the age's view of American Indians all too well. The Seminole War (1835-1842) in Florida, Mr. Leckie writes, "was one more shameful episode in the long sorry saga of the deliberate extinction and dispossession of the southern Indians by the U.S. Government."

It was a rough time. Westward expansion sounds good in the textbooks, particularly when called "Manifest Destiny." But, as Mr. Leckie shows, too many of the Americans who streamed into Texas and other territories claimed by Mexico were heartless adventurers, roughnecks and hooligans.

A goodly number were debtors or ne'er-do-wells who departed quietly, their goodbyes nothing more than "GTT" -- Gone to Texas -- chalked on their cabin door. GTT was "read like obituaries by sobbing wives, white-faced bankers closing on unpaid loans, bilked bondsmen, and infuriated lawyers."

The volunteers entering Texas once war with Mexico broke out in 1846 contained a full measure of rotten apples. They deserted at will, saluted when they felt like it, fought members of the regular army, and brutalized the local population.

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