Re-enactors stage the War of 1812, one battle at a time

National Post

  Jul 23, 2012

John Sek

A re-enactment at Chrysler Farm in 2011.


When he’s not working as a road and bridge inspection engineer, John Sek of Fort Erie, Ont., is a proud gunner in the 2nd Lincoln Artillery Unit.

Sek is one of the enthusiastic “re-enactors” playing his part in the War of 1812 bicentennial in staged recreations of the war’s battles. The unit’s volunteer members dress in uniforms much like those worn by the actual 2nd Lincoln Artillery during the war, and carry historically accurate weapons and full military kit.

Parks Canada and local authorities are staging these re-enactments through 2013 as part of the bicentennial celebrations. Sek has taken part in three to date — the Battles of Ogdensburg, Longwood and Frenchman’s Creek — and plans to take part in another eight battles over the next year. He would be doing still more, he says, but he has other responsibilities as a member of the Fort Erie 1812 bicentennial committee.

Sek says his passion for these recreations is fuelled by his love for Canadian history and a desire to make other Canadians aware of it.

“People don’t realize that the War of 1812 made us,” Sek says. “We successfully resisted an invasion meant to make us part of the United States. We won.” He’s keen to make the average person more aware of his or her heritage. The re-enactments “make the past real. They bring history – our history – to life.”

According to Peter MacLeod, curator of the Canadian War Museum’s 1812 exhibition in Ottawa, the War of 1812 was one of three wars in the period that shaped Canada’s destiny. “The first was the Seven Years War, which brought Canada into the British Empire. The second was the American Revolution, which divided British America between the colonies that formed the United States and those that would later form the Dominion of Canada. The third was the War of 1812, which confirmed Canada’s survival as a separate entity.”

Hundreds of re-enactors from both sides of the border have been bringing the War of 1812 to life in recent weeks. Still to come are the siege of Fort Erie on Aug. 11-12, the storming of Fort Niagara on Sept. 1-2, and the Battle of Queenston Heights on Oct. 13.

The battle for the American Fort Erie was one of the longest and bloodiest of the conflict: more than 500 were killed and more than 1,000 wounded. The Americans held the fort, but later abandoned it due to a lack of supplies. The battle for Fort Niagara began after American troops burned Niagara-on-the-Lake and nearby Fort George in 1813. British troops retaliated by storming Fort Niagara and subsequently burning Buffalo, N.Y.

Queenston Heights, Ont., was the site of the first major battle between American invaders and British troops, their native allies and Canadian militiamen. The battle was won by the British but witnessed the death of their able commander, Sir Isaac Brock.

Major re-enactments will continue in 2013: the first will commemorate the Battle of Fort George on May 25-27, “featuring hundreds of re-enactors and several tall ships,” says Ron Dale, Parks Canada’s War of 1812 bicentennial manager. “This will be followed the next weekend by the large scale re-enactment of the Battle of Stoney Creek.” Fort George was a British fort overrun by the Americans in 1813. Stoney Creek was where the British and their allies held back the Americans who subsequently advanced into Upper Canadian territory. The pivotal Battle of Crysler’s Farm, which resulted in American troops heading for Montreal being driven back across the border, will be re-created on June 13-14, 2013.

Dale says the re-enactors massing to play their part in these events are a real asset.

“These are people who go to a great deal of effort to present historically accurate costumes, muskets and cannon,” Dale says. “As a result, re-enactors help us translate the past for the public.” And, he points out, they do it at minimal risk: they are firing blanks from those accurate weapons. But the staged battles still present a powerful image of an era when war was personal and brutal, medical help primitive, and the odds of dying in battle or later of wounds or disease were very high.

MacLeod is pleased to see so many people signing up to play battlefield roles for the bicentennial. “Ask any historian if Canadians should know more about their history, and the answer you’ll get is an unqualified yes,” he says. “Re-enactors contribute to raising awareness of Canada’s military past and generating interest in our history, including the War of 1812.”

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