July 25, 2012
Northern Michigan University History Professor and Department Head Russ Magnaghi is one member of a 12-member War of 1812 State Bicentennial Commission, which is working to organize events that showcase some of the highlights of the little-known war.
“It’s an event most Americans are not very familiar with,” Magnaghi said, adding that for the Canadians, however, it’s a war that is often celebrated as milestone in the country’s history as they continually staved off invasions from U.S. troops.
A scene at Fort Mackinac, the first U.S. fort to fall during the War of 1812. At right are flags flying outside the University Center on the Northern Michigan University campus. (Courtesy photo)
Because of the Upper Peninsula’s close proximity to the Canadian border, the U.P. and the rest of Michigan were very much involved in the conflict between American and British forces.
On July 17, Fort Mackinac became the first U.S. fort to fall in the War of 1812, but according to Magnaghi, it wasn’t necessarily the fault of its soldiers.
“Was it due to incompetence on the part of the garrison? No. They had not been told that war had been declared,” Magnaghi said. “All of a sudden, there is, literally, a knock on the gate door and there is a British commander.”
The commander had come from St. Joseph Island with a force of roughly 600 men. With two cannons waiting, visible on a hillside, American Lt. Porter Hanks, who was the fort’s commander, had little choice but to surrender.
“They didn’t have a huge garrison and they decided it would be in their best interest to surrender,” Magnaghi said. “They didn’t have enough food, they didn’t have enough water for a siege, and so on, and the fort fell. And it remains in British hands until the end of the war.”
To commemorate the historic day, a reenactment of the fall of the fort was held July 17 on Mackinac Island. Soldiers dressed in period clothing marched out of the fort as Lt. Hanks handed is sword to the British commander.
The commission is hosting a number of other events to commemorate other historic happenings in the war. While many of the events take place downstate, Sept. 14 will see another Sonderegger Symposium, this time focused on the War of 1812 in the Upper Peninsula.
According to Magnaghi, the war had a profound impact on the U.P. and Michigan as a whole, as its end created the longest peaceful boundary in the world.
“If we didn’t have that peaceful boundary, and this is something that people forget about because we just live with it and we’re happy with it … the automobile industry, which is a heavy industry … would not be located on a hostile border. It would never have been located on the Detroit River,” Magnaghi said. “The whole discussion of mining and the importance of iron and copper and all of that, on a hostile frontier, would have been a mess … You wouldn’t have had a canal at Sault Ste. Marie. The canal would have been through Autrain. We would have completely ignored the St. Mary’s River, because you would have had these hostile Canadians.”
And, last but not least, Magnaghi said the Detroit Red Wings would never have been formed.
“The Detroit Red Wings were established by two Canadian businessmen, and most of the team, over the years, has been Canadians,” he said. “The Canadians introduced Michiganians to hockey.”
To view a complete listing of the commission’s planned events, visit http://www.michigan.gv/war1812 and click on “War of 1812 Bicentennial Calendar of Events.”
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.