Tom P. Curtis II, president of the Society of the War of 1812 in Wisconsin, is a descendant of a general from the war.
200 years later, various commemorations are planned
Aside from the White House torched by British soldiers and maybe the Battle of New Orleans, few people know anything about the War of 1812.
Well, except that it started in 1812.
It’s sort of become a cliché that the War of 1812, sandwiched between the Revolutionary and Civil wars, is the forgotten conflict. But here in Wisconsin, it was a turning point in the territory that wouldn’t officially become a state for decades.
And it was mostly over beaver pelts.
“The British were forced to forever relinquish their control of the area. It was a bitter end to the British fur traders in Wisconsin,” said Michael Douglass, director of Villa Louis state historical site in Prairie du Chien.
To commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, several events are planned in Wisconsin. They include a re-enactment this weekend of the only War of 1812 battle fought on Wisconsin soil and a visit to Milwaukee by the Navy next month.
Prairie du Chien in southwestern Wisconsin was strategically located between the American military garrison in St. Louis, Mo., and the British fort on Mackinac Island in Michigan. After war broke out in June 1812, the Great Lakes quickly fell under British control. Native American tribes were drawn into the conflict, and the lucrative fur trade in the Great Lakes region ground to a halt.
Partly motivated by the desire to get the fur trade started again and end the war, American soldiers from St. Louis two years later built a fort at Prairie du Chien, a trading village since the 1750s. British fur traders saw this as an affront and sent an express canoe to Mackinac Island to complain to the British commander.
The British sent a couple of soldiers and commissioned a fur trader to assemble a militia group, gathering Indians from several Wisconsin tribes as they traveled to Prairie du Chien. The group of 600 arrived on July 17, 1814.
About 60 soldiers from the U.S. 7th Infantry were stationed at the fort in Prairie du Chien along with a gunboat in the Mississippi River. The British militia asked them to surrender. The Americans said no, then they started firing flintlock muskets and cannons at each other.
“It wasn’t a decisive battle per se; it didn’t change the course of the war,” said Douglass. “But it really does outline the conflict that existed out here. It’s a wonderful history lesson.”
The 2 ½ -day battle ended when the American gunboat was forced to flee, leaving the 60 soldiers in the fort with no option but to surrender. It was a relatively bloodless battle. Two years later, the Americans returned to Prairie du Chien to build Fort Crawford. And at the end of the war through the Treaty of Ghent, British fur traders were booted from the Midwest.
Nothing is left of the original fort, which was burned to the ground by the British. The battle was fought on what’s now the lawn of the Villa Louis estate, constructed in 1870.
On Saturday and Sunday, re-enactors portraying American, British and Indian fighters will stage narrated battles there.
“At the end of the battle when the American flag comes down, you are struck with the notion it could have been different. It’s always a little chilling for me,” said Douglass. “We consider for a while there’s this other side of Wisconsin history. British flags flew here in Wisconsin, and this war changed that.”
Now that the bicentennial of the War of 1812 is being commemorated through a series of re-enactments and commemorations, more folks might learn about it, said Thomas P. Curtis II, president of the Society of the War of 1812 in Wisconsin.
The descendants of War of 1812 soldiers and sailors are fairly limited compared to those of the Revolutionary War and Civil War. Formed two decades ago in Wisconsin, the society has 15 members, with about half living in the Milwaukee area.
“You ask the citizen on the street, you know anything about the War of 1812? You get a complete zero,” said Curtis, of Menomonee Falls.
Curtis is a descendant of Gen. Morgan Lewis, U.S. quartermaster who commanded American forces in the Battle of Fort George. He still has his ancestor’s sword and a painting of Lewis holding the sword.
Many U.S. naval traditions started with the War of 1812. Battles on Lake Erie and Lake Ontario prevented the British in Canada from taking New York City and large portions of U.S. territory, said Capt. Bill Seaman, chief of staff of Carrier Strike Group Two, based in Norfolk, Va.
To commemorate the war, a large contingent of sailors and ships will visit Milwaukee in August. Milwaukee will be the first stop on the Great Lakes tour with visits by the frigate USS De Wert, the coastal patrol ship Hurricane, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Neah Bay and the Canadian Navy frigate HMCS Ville de Quebec.
There will be an air show, exhibits and demonstrations by the Navy Dive Team and Navy “Leap Frogs” Parachute Team. In addition, there will be musical performances by the Navy Band and the U.S. Coast Guard Silent Drill Team; a Navy SEAL fitness challenge; and ship tours.
The ships are scheduled to be in Milwaukee Aug. 8 to 14.