Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dear President Obama

Dear Mr. President

When you spoke in Baltimore in War Memorial Plaza prior to your inauguration I was impressed that you mentioned a brave African-American, an escaped slave, who as a private in the U.S. Army had his leg blown off by a British cannonball during the bombardment of Fort McHenry, September 13-14, 1814 when Francis Scott Key wrote the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Pvt. William Williams, slave name Frederick Hall, died a few weeks later at the Baltimore public hospital. In my capacity as a historian of the War of 1812 I have written about that brave man, Although African-American men in that period were forbidden by law to serve as fighting men in the U.S. Army or state militias, he was light enough to pass as a white man. (See "Escaped Slave Made the Ultimate Sacrifice at Fort McHenry" by Berry Craig.)

By contrast, at sea, this was a golden period of opportunity for blacks. We believe about one-fifth of men in the U.S. Navy as well as aboard American privateers and merchant ships were African-Americans and we know the stories of many of these men.

As you will know, the British on August 24, 1814 defeated an American army of mostly militia at Bladensburg. It is possible that Pvt. Williams was in that battle as there were several hundred U.S. Army regulars in the battle, fighting with D.C. militia, U.S. Marines, and the sailors of Commodore Barney's Chesapeake Bay flotilla in the area of what is now Fort Lincoln Cemetery. One of Commodore Barney's flotillamen was a former slave named Charles Ball who served helped service the cannons in the battle and later left an important slave narrative, Slavery in America. Barney's position was overrun and the Commodore was severely wounded with a bullet in the thigh. The British under General Ross marched into Washington D.C. and after his lead forces were fired on and his horse killed, this led to the burning of the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and other public buildings.

Mr. Obama, you might know that a War of 1812 Bicentennial bill has been considered in Congress but has stalled. This is perhaps not surprising because despite the great significance of this war in our nation's history, not every of the 51 states of our nation were touched by the war, so it can't be said that every state has a stake in the legislation. This is the reason the backers of the bill, including the Maryland congressional delegation, have had trouble trying to persuade other lawmakers to vote for the bill. I do believe you have had some difficulties getting legislation passed in the past year as well.

Mr. President, I have a better suggestion. I have a plan for a National Museum of the War of 1812 including an archives and research center and have identified a disused Federal building which might be ideal for such a museum. It is the Department of Agriculture's former Annex, also known as the Cotton Building, at 300 12th Street, S.W. The building is within sight of the National Mall and so just across from the National Museum of American History where the newly restored "Star-Spangled Banner" that flew over Fort McHenry can be viewed by our citizens as well as overseas visitors. I would like the proposed museum if it is to be in that location or any other to tell the story of the war, including that of African Americans and all ethnic groups that helped defend this nation.

Mr. Obama, I hope you will back this effort. On March 23, as I was instructed in a telephone conversation with Mr. Juan A. McPhail, General Services Administration (GSA) Building Supervisor, about the former Dept of Agriculture Annex, I emailed Mr Robert Roop, Deputy Director, GSA, but have not heard back from him. I include a copy of that email below. Perhaps you could be helpful in getting me in touch with Mr. Roop so we can explore whether the building in question could serve the needs I have specified. Many thanks in advance. I work near the Cotton Building and can see it out of my window. I cannot wait to see a replica giant 15-star flag flying over the building if it becomes the National Museum of the War of 1812, just as it did over Fort McHenry that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words of the anthem.

Best regards

Christopher T. George
Author, Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay


For an article by me on African-American Sailors in the War of 1812, click on the title above. Incidentally, in a cover article in the Washington Post on Wednesday, it was revealed the President Obama receives an astounding 20,000 letters per day, out of which he does personally read about 10 per day.

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