Reenactors portraying British soldiers advance through the woods at Beekmantown. Photo: Sarah Harris
This year is also the bicentennial of the start of the war, and for the past two weeks, Plattsburgh has hosted a series of commemorative events, including concerts, lectures and dances. It even opened a temporary tavern serving period fare. The celebrations culminated this past weekend with re-enactments on water and land and a downtown parade.
For a lot of people, the War of 1812 is one of those things they only sort of remember from high school history class. “There’s only three things people know about the War of 1812: They know that Dolly Madison saved Washington’s portrait when Washington was burned, they know that Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that became the words to the national anthem, and they know that Andrew Jackson won the battle of New Orleans after the war was over. All that’s true, but there’s a lot more to it than just three events,” explains regular army officer David Fitz-Enz.
Fitz-Enz just finished writing a book about the War of 1812, and says the definitive victory of the war was the Battle of Plattsburgh. On this day he’s dressed in his army uniform, addressing a crowd of spectators packed into the bleachers outside Beekmantown town hall “I’m the narrator for the battle here in Beekmantown which simulated the first contact with the British and the fight at Culver Hill, where Commander Willington was killed, the first British casualty, and on down to Halsey’s Corners, and there the Americans made the last stand before retreating into the city and across the bridge.”
Reenactors are dressed as the American militia and the British army. The British advance through the woods, and the two groups square off in the open field, firing their muskets and cannons.
Here in Plattsburgh, the War of 1812 isn’t a forgotten cast off of history. It’s a widely celebrated part of the city’s heritage. Donna Bell is giving tours at the historic Kent-DeLord house.
She’s dressed in period clothing – a long aquamarine cotton dress and matching bonnet.
“The reason we are standing here today in New York state instead of Columbia which is what the British were going to call this after they captured it, and went to Albany and New York and all of New England – this was going to be Columbia, for Britain, but nope, we’re standing in New York state because we beat ‘em,” she says.
Bell tells me about the house’s original owner, Henry DeLord. He owned a general goods store and supplied the American army, on credit, for a year during the war. She says that story still matters to Plattsburgh: “It’s important to share that heritage so that everybody has the pride in our community that Henry DeLord had when he saved our community with his wits, his brains, his store and his money.”
This weekend, the Kent-Delord house is bustling with visitors. Historical reenactors are camped in a small village of old-fashioned canvas tents in the yard. Crowds of people line the street, stretching all the way to city hall, waiting for one of the weekend’s biggest events: The parade.
Fife and drum units, neighborhood floats, and groups of veterans all march toward downtown.
John Klenovic is watching the parade with his wife and his dog. They’re visiting Plattsburgh from South Florida. John says his stay in the city has taught him a lot: “I’ve learned a lot about the War of 1812, I really wasn’t that familiar, and to learn what a significant role it played in history, and I’m sure the people of Plattsburgh – there’s not a whole lot of places that are mentioned in history books and you might as well celebrate your claim to fame.”
And that’s precisely what’s happening this weekend. Two hundred years after the War of 1812, and 198 years after the Battle of Plattsburgh, the mood is distinctly victorious.