April 10, 2013
Oxford resident Ron Brock, president of the Northeast Oakland Historical Society, takes aim with the type of 18th-century musket that would have still been used in the War of 1812. The historical museum in downtown Oxford is now featuring a display of military artifacts from the second war between the United States and Great Britain. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
It’s been called everything from America’s “Forgotten War” to America’s “Second War of Independence.”
But the truth is many Americans don’t know much about the War of 1812.
The Northeast Oakland Historical Museum in downtown Oxford is hoping to change that locally with a special display of military items from this bloody conflict with Great Britain that lasted from June 1812 to February 1815.
“We wanted to commemorate the war’s 200th anniversary,” said Oxford resident Ron Brock, president of the Northeast Oakland Historical Society.
The display includes a .69-caliber flintlock musket from the late 18th century, swords, bayonets, cartridge boxes, a wooden canteen used by U.S. infantry, musket balls and a flint, a musket ball mold, uniform buttons, a small cannon ball, commemorative ribbons, and other artifacts from the 32-month war.
All of the items are on loan from the Brock family.
“My son and I have collected this stuff over the years,” he said. “We find it at antique shows, swap meets, garage sales, estate sales, all over.”
Finding artifacts from the War of 1812 is not an easy task.
“You’ve got to do a lot of scrounging to find it.” Brock said.
One reason is the age. “It’s 200 years old, so there’s not much out there,” Brock said.
Another is volume.
Not as many soldiers fought in the War of 1812 as did in 19th-century America’s other major conflict, the Civil War, so not as many things such as guns, swords and uniforms were produced and used.
The Civil War (1861-65) was also the first conflict to use mass-produced weapons and other war materials, hence more survived to become collectibles.
The main causes of the War of 1812 were Great Britain’s attempts to restrict American trade with the French; America’s desire to expand its territory to the north and the west; and the Royal Navy’s impressment of American sailors from merchant vessels. Impressment is the act of taking men into a navy by force.
Although the United States had formally won its independence from the British in 1783, Brock said they were “still leaning on us.”
While the end of the War of 1812 ushered in a period of partisan agreement in American politics (commonly known as the “Era of Good Feelings”), bolstered national pride and encouraged the spirit of expansionism, the conflict itself was not exactly the United States’ finest hour as it lost many costly battles, including the capture and burning of Washington D.C.
Brock called the war “very anti-climatic.”
“We fought. People died,” he said. “We didn’t gain any land. We didn’t lose any land. So, what did we actually accomplish?”
Michigan was a significant battleground during the war as at least seven land battles and four naval or amphibious actions were fought here, according to the Michigan Commission on the Commemoration of the Bicentennial of the War of 1812.
“There’s a lot of local history,” Brock said. “Battles were fought here in Monroe (which was called Frenchtown back then), Mackinac Island, Detroit, Wyandotte.”
Michigan, which was still a territory at the time, actually served as a base for the first American invasion of British-controlled Canada in July 1812. It was a failure.
The first land battle of the War of 1812 took place here – the capture of Fort Mackinac by British forces and their Indian allies on July 17, 1812. It was a bloodless engagement as the Americans surrendered without firing a shot
The War of 1812 marked the only time in history that conventional battles on land and water were fought in Michigan, according to the state’s 1812 bicentennial commission.
Unfortunately, it’s not a history filled with glorious victories and tales of heroic deeds.
For instance, Detroit is the only major American city to ever surrender to a foreign power – that’s a record that still stands today. It was surrendered without a fight despite the fact that the American commander, Brigadier Gen. William Hull, had a larger force under his command than the British did.
“In this area, the United States got its butt kicked,” Brock said. “We lost (almost) every battle we fought.”
The worst was the Battle of Frenchtown (or Battle of the River Raisin), which actually consisted of two battles and occurred Jan. 18-23, 1813.
It was the largest battle fought on Michigan soil and one of the bloodiest engagements of the entire war, according to www.riverraisinbattlefield.org.
A total of 379 Americans were killed, 60 were seriously wounded and more than 500 were captured. Following the battle, Indians allied with the British murdered somewhere between 12 and 42 wounded American soldiers who were awaiting transport, according to the National Park Service.
This incident became known as the River Raisin Massacre and gave rise to the famous battle cry, “Remember the Raisin!”
Overall, the War of 1812 was certainly not a bright chapter in Michigan’s history.
“British forces occupied all or part of Michigan’s territory for most of the war, and the residents suffered great physical and economic hardship,” according to the state’s 1812 bicentennial commission.
In the end, the War of 1812 may not be memorable in terms of America’s performance on the battlefield, but Brock believes it’s still important to learn about this conflict because it shows “we didn’t always make the best choices.”
The Northeast Oakland Historical Museum is located at 1 N. Washington St.
It’s open Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday from 12-4 p.m. For more information or to arrange a group tour or field trip, please call (248) 628-8413.