Ceremony honors Pittsburghers who served in War of 1812

September 24, 2012

Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette
“Huzzah for the Pittsburgh Blues!” proclaims historic re-enactor Bruce Egli, left, who joined Jack Lasswell and Steve Nuckles, far right, following a ceremony at the grave of Capt. James R. Butler at the Trinity Cathedral burying ground, Downtown. The ceremony recognized Butler’s unit in the War of 1812, the Pittsburgh Blues.
By Len Barcousky / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Two hundreds years to the day after members of the Pittsburgh Blues left for military service, each was remembered by name during a service Sunday in the burial ground at Trinity Cathedral.

Their commander, Capt. James R. Butler, is interred in the small cemetery that faces Sixth Avenue, Downtown.

“Shoulder firelocks … prime and load … make ready … present … fire,” re-enactor Steve Nuckles ordered. A salesman from South Fayette, he was dressed in the blue-and-white uniform of a U.S. Army colonel from the 1803-12 period.

The sound of musket fire echoed off the walls of the Episcopal cathedral and the nearby First Presbyterian Church as re-enactors shot three volleys over Butler’s grave.

The ceremony was conducted by the living-history interpreters, all wearing period costumes, from the Slippery Rock Reenactment Association. A handful of spectators, including the Rev. Tim Hushion, an assistant priest at the cathedral, attended the outdoor commemoration.

The Pittsburgh Blues members made up a company of state militia formed in 1807. After the United States declared war on Great Britain in June 1812, members of the Blues became federal troops. They served under Gen. William Henry Harrison, a future U.S. president, in his campaign against Native Americans in Ohio.

The War of 1812 is the nation’s forgotten conflict, Bruce Egli, one of the event organizers, said. While some individual communities will mark the 200th anniversary of its battles and skirmishes, “This was not a big national experience,” he said.

Mr. Egli, of Swissvale, quoted Benjamin Franklin: “There was never a good war [or] a bad peace.”

“The War of 1812 exemplifies that,” he said. “America just survived — although many Americans think it was a victory, because they won the last big battle. To Great Britain, the war was an annoyance that they just wanted to go away, because they were busy [battling Napoleon] in Europe.”

The mixed results from the war do not detract from the bravery of the Pittsburgh soldiers who traveled several hundred miles from their homes and risked their lives and their health doing a year’s military service. Among the local unit of three officers, 53 soldiers and two servants, there were five deaths, nine men wounded and two disabled, Mr. Egli said. That works out to a casualty rate of almost 30 percent.

While the oldest gravestone in the cathedral cemetery is dated 1779, the area has served as a final resting place for a much longer period, Father Hushion said. Native Americans are believed to have interred their dead in a nearby burial mound that eventually grew to five stories, he said.

A church brochure describing the cemetery notes that it once covered a full city block and contained the remains of more than 4,000 people. In addition to the many Indian graves, those buried there included French-speaking men, women and children who had lived and died at Fort Duquesne.

Although the cathedral’s burying ground has been reduced in size over the centuries and most of the remains moved elsewhere, Butler is by no means the only local hero still to lie there. His neighbors in death include the Shawnee Chief Red Pole; Nathaniel Bedford, Pittsburgh’s first physician; and Revolutionary War soldier Samuel Dawson.

Re-enactor Mary Ann Lasswell of Zelienople had been in search of information about 18th-century surveyor and mapmaker Thomas Hutchins, who had been buried in the cemetery, when she came across the memorial to Butler. His uncle, Col. William Butler, also is interred there.

The Slippery Rock Reenactment Association, based in Butler County, has a special link to the family. Capt. Butler’s father was Gen. Richard Butler, a Revolutionary War hero for whom Butler County and its county seat are named.

While the War of 1812 bicentennial also is being overshadowed by the 150th anniversary of events during the Civil War, the commemoration remains a much more important celebration north of the border.

One of the U.S. war aims was the conquest of Canada, then ruled from London. British, Canadian and Native American forces, however, beat back several American armies during the 21/2-year conflict.

“I’ll be invading Canada again next month,” Mr. Nuckles said. This time, he will be in the uniform of an officer in the 17th U.S. Infantry, taking part in a re-creation of the Battle of Queenston Heights. That clash, near the New York border, marked the war’s first unsuccessful attempt by American forces to capture Canadian territory. It resulted in defeat and the surrender of more than 800 U.S. soldiers trapped on the wrong side of the Niagara River.

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