Andrew Shelmidine of Ellisburg gazes through a spy glass as an “enemy” ship approaches. Shelmidine was one of many North Country residents who participated in the War of 1812 bicentennial weekend at the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site last weekend. The ship pictured, Fair Jeanne, is a Canadian brigantine used for youth sailing trips.
SACKETS HARBOR – Long before 10th Mountain Division Soldiers were marching through the North Country, the U.S. military presence in the area left its boot prints on the ground.
Community members had a rare chance to step back into a time that predated the Civil War and witness what it was like to be a member of a young American military during a War of 1812 weekend Friday through Sunday at the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site, which located about 30 miles from Fort Drum.
Shortly after the War of 1812 began, Sackets Harbor became the center for U.S. military and naval activity for the upper St. Lawrence Valley and Lake Ontario region, according to the Sackets Harbor Battlefield Alliance. By 1813, roughly 5,200 troops were stationed at Sackets Harbor, the U.S. Naval Headquarters on the Great Lakes.
As the war between the U.S., Great Britain and Native Americans waged on, Sackets Harbor was the site of two hard-fought battles on July 19, 1812, and May 29, 1813. The British military tried to take the village of Sackets Harbor during the first battle. British forces tried to destroy the U.S. Navy fleet stationed there during the second battle. In both attempts, the U.S. Navy reigned supreme, resulting in a retreat of British forces.
Re-enactors from across the North Country set up camp on the historic battlefield, talked with visitors and participated in battle demonstrations.
Plattsburgh residents Steve Burgess and Thomas Becht spent Saturday morning putting the finishing touches on their military uniforms for the afternoon battlefield re-enactment.
Becht, who served in Vietnam while he was in the Air Force, said the jackets they were sewing were modeled after a New York state militia coat.
The friends had been working on the uniform since March during their “man time” on the weekends.
“We’ve been spending our man time with a needle and thread,” Burgess said, laughing. “It becomes a big family out here; it’s like a social group.”
Another re-enactor set up camp on the battlefield and educated visitors about the Native Americans who participated in the North Country-area battles. Jerry Fulmer, also known as “Hodawisgoh,” represented the Seneca Indian tribe.
“During this particular war, most of the units were militia groups. They didn’t have a large standing Army like they do today,” he said, adding that the U.S. and British militaries hired Native Americans to fight on their sides. “Very few people know that the Native people played a role during this particular war.”
The Oneida Nation sided with the U.S. while the Mohawk Indians, located across the St. Lawrence River in Canada, sided with the British, Fulmer explained.
In 1814, the Oneida Indians helped the U.S. win a key military engagement at the Battle of Big Sandy Creek. A British ship was chasing an American vessel. The U.S. ship led the enemy into Sandy Creek, where their Indian allies waited.
However, battlefield re-enactments aren’t just for men. Teal Abel and her family from Carthage traveled to the battlefield to participate in the annual event.
Because many of the troops stationed in Sackets Harbor were not from New York, there weren’t a lot of women and families present during the battle, Abel explained. The few women present provided comforts of home, such as sewing, cooking and cleaning.
“This was wilderness – they were cutting through to create encampments,” she said. “I think part of the reason was because they didn’t expect (the war) to last as long as it did.”
While her husband and son have been re-enacting for several years, Abel said she has been participating for only the past four or five years. Participants stayed in tents without everyday luxuries.
“We enjoy the camaraderie and learning about this time period,” she said. “This is also something we can do as a family. It’s kind of amazing – you don’t miss the cell phones and the video games.”
Abel, who has a degree in history, said she enjoys bringing this history of the local area to life while learning more and more each year.
To celebrate the bicentennial years, Sackets Harbor historic site staff and volunteers have planned presentations by local specialists and special guests, as well as additional tour opportunities, according to Constance Barone, Sackets Harbor Battlefield Historic Site manager.
“The Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site and the Battlefield Alliance Inc. believe our ongoing annual War of 1812 living history weekend serves to inform visitors about the significant role Sackets Harbor played in the War of 1812,” she explained.
“During the 10th War of 1812 weekend this year, we are fortunate to have the Canadian brigantine Fair Jeanne – a training ship for youth – join us,” Barone added.
The National Park Service lists the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site as one of the top 10 War of 1812 sites in the U.S. For more information about the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site, visit http://www.sacketsharborbattlefield.org.