Detroit plays big role in 1812 bicentennial

The Detroit News

Due to its importance in war, city among 10 on Great Lakes to receive visit from warships

Two hundred years after it began, the War of 1812 between the fledgling United States and Great Britain remains one of the least known conflicts in American history.

To the British, it rates a shrug compared to their life-or-death struggle against French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

To Americans, it’s a war that evokes hazy history lessons: something about sailors being taken from U.S. ships by the British, the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key stapled to the image of first lady Dolley Madison fleeing a burning White House with George Washington’s portrait.

To Canadians, it’s a flag waving moment based on stinging defeats dealt to overconfident American invaders.

And to Native Americans, it was a disaster.

In actuality, the War of 1812 decided the control of the Great Lakes, the Northwest Territory and the cementing of Canada as one of the jewels of the British Empire.

And during the war, 1812-15, Detroit, southeast Michigan and much of southern Ontario were in the middle of the conflict.

Because of its importance in that war, Detroit is one of 10 cities on the Great Lakes that will be part of Navy Week, when warships past and present will visit the city Tuesday through Sept. 10.

As part of the War of 1812 bicentennial, Detroit will be visited by the USS DeWert, a frigate, and the USS Hurricane, a coastal patrol boat.

“The war started in Detroit when we invaded Canada on July 12 by Gen. William Hull, who was also the acting Michigan Territorial governor,” said Jim McConnell, secretary of Michigan’s War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission.

“Initially, we suffered defeats, but we quickly reversed those defeats, especially with the Battle of Lake Erie. We took the initiative and the British and Canadians never got it back.”

‘Remember the Raisin’

One of those defeats happened on Aug. 16, 1812, when British Gen. Isaac Brock invaded Detroit and persuaded Hull, who thought he was outmanned and outgunned by the British, to surrender Fort Detroit, which he did without firing a shot.

Another defeat came at the Battle of Frenchtown (now known as Monroe) on the River Raisin.

“Actually, there were two battles at the River Raisin,” said McConnell, a retired Dearborn history teacher. “The Americans won the first one on Jan. 18, 1813. But they relaxed and didn’t think the British would counterattack right away, which they did on Jan. 22. They wiped out the American army, killing about 400 soldiers.”

The British marched off with American prisoners, leaving a few guards watching over wounded U.S. soldiers.

“That night, a band of Native Americans, who we believe weren’t involved in the original battle, moved in and began to harass the wounded.”

Things escalated into torture and then outright murder of the survivors.

“That’s where the battle cry of ‘Remember the Raisin’ came about,” McConnell said.

Eric P. Hemenway, a spokesman and historian for the Little Traverse Bay band of Odawa Indians, confirms it was a savage war.

“It got ugly on both sides with savagery shown by both Indians and settlers,” said Hemenway, a Harbor Springs resident and member of the Odawa tribe.

“This was a new war between the Americans and British, but from a tribal perspective, it was a continuation of resistance that started from the French and Indian War and a continuation of the Seven Years’ War.

“The Indian nations didn’t care about trade agreements or the impressment of sailors; this was about the same old issue of the continuation of foreign invasion of native lands.”

Traditionally, the Native Americans had fought against the much despised British, but banded with them, hoping the British would help them with their cause.

“They saw it as a last means to defend what they saw as theirs,” Hemenway said. “What gets lost is there were repercussions to Native Americans after the war. After fighting for over 100 years for our lands, we were outnumbered and outgunned. We had to turn to treaties after 1812.

“The big treaty for our tribe was in 1836 when we ceded 13 million acres. We went from living in an entire state to living in just a county.”

After the defeat of Napoleon in Europe, the British and Americans grew tired of the war (sometimes referred to as America’s second war of independence) and more or less finally decided to end it. They entered into peace talks in August 1814.

After months of negotiations (the U.S. demanded some Canadian territories and fishing rights of Newfoundland, while the British sought to keep parts of Maine it captured during the war), both sides agreed to return to the status quo before the war.

The British stopped impressing seamen from American ships and reopened European markets that had been closed during the war with France.

Canada, which gained pride over its repulse of American troops, firmly and happily stayed an English colony.

A seminal moment

The biggest losers were the Native Americans, who were abandoned by the British when the war ended.

Depleted in numbers and denied firearms, those living east of the Mississippi eventually ended up ceding their lands to American settlers.While the war was a dark time for Native Americans, it was a triumph for Canadians (despite American forces torching the city of York, known today as Toronto).

“The prime minister called it a seminal moment in our history and it was,” said Kyra Knapp, project facilitator for the War of 1812 project for Chatham-Kent Tourism and Tourism Windsor Essex-Pelee Island.

“We came together to fight for a united cause; one of the most important moments defining who we are as Canadians.”

Usually reluctant to blow its own horn, Canada on Aug. 25 did indulge in a rather in-your-face-America “Capture of Detroit” festival with a symbolic march from Sandwich to downtown Windsor.

Although the Articles of Confederation are still on the table, Canada is ready to let bygones be bygones, according to Knapp.

“It’s not about who won or didn’t win,” Knapp said. “It’s about what’s happened since then … 200 years of peace between our nations.”


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