The Columbus Dispatch
Events lend perspective to War of 1812
Steve Stephens | DISPATCH
A 15-star flag, like one that would have flown over the fort in 1813, is displayed above an artillery battery at Fort Meigs.
ERRYSBURG, Ohio — As far as Ohioans are concerned, the conflict between the Americans and British at the beginning of the 19th century should really be called the War of 1813.
This year marks the bicentennial of two major Buckeye State events in the confusingly named War of 1812.
The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie near South Bass Island, perhaps the most famous and most important naval battle of the war, will be commemorated in late summer at Put-in-Bay.
But another clash, which was also vital to the American war effort but much less celebrated, took place just a few months earlier and 40 miles to the west near present-day Perrysburg.
There, at Fort Meigs, future President William Henry Harrison and a force of more than 1,200 Americans repulsed a British and American Indian attack and survived a siege from April 28 to May 5, 1813 — and another later in the summer — allowing American forces to move to the north toward Fort Detroit and an important victory in Canada at the Battle of the Thames.
Fort Meigs was dismantled soon after the battles of 1813, but the site was acquired by the Ohio Historical Society in the 1950s and a replica structure — the largest wooden-walled fort in the country — was reconstructed in 1974. The fort has been renovated since then and a new museum was built in 2003 as part of Ohio’s statehood bicentennial commemoration.
I visited the fort on a raw April day, when the cold wind and sopping wet ground let me easily empathize with the American officers who called the fort “the most disagreeable encampment” they ever experienced.
“Our camp is overwhelmed with mud and water,” noted Capt. Daniel Cushing in March 1813, a month in which two to three men were dying every day at the fort due to disease or the elements.
Standing on the artillery batteries on banks high above the Maumee River rapids about 15 miles from Lake Erie, a visitor can see why the fort was so strategically important.
The fort was built on a 10-acre site from more than 3,500 trees, denuding a large chunk of the surrounding forest but clearing the line of sight so as to make it easier to espy and fire upon an advancing enemy. The reconstructed fort closely matches the footprint of the original and includes seven large wooden blockhouses and a quartermaster’s building.
Several of the blockhouses contain displays about various aspects of the fort, including its construction, the daily life of its soldiers and how it was successfully defended.
One especially poignant audio exhibit plays the music of camp life. Visitors can choose from more than a dozen fife-and-drum calls — from the morning assembly call and a lively tune indicating that it was time for soldiers to gather wood for fires to the mournful Roslin Castle, played at funerals, of which there were many. Besides those who died of illness, American forces suffered more than 300 casualties during the campaign.
Next weekend will mark the biggest celebration of the Fort Meigs bicentennial, with some terrific special events scheduled Friday through Sunday. The events will include a nighttime artillery “duel” across the Maumee River, a tasting of two new War of 1812 commemorative beers brewed by the Maumee Bay Brewing Co., lectures, a living-history encampment and historical interpreters.
Other events are scheduled throughout the year. But history lovers will find a trip to Fort Meigs well-warranted even if they can’t make one of the bicentennial events.
The site’s museum and visitors center tells the history of the fort and the war through an orientation film and 3,000 square feet of exhibits.
Quotes from participants on both sides of the conflict are used throughout the museum, giving the displays an air of authenticity and immediacy.
Visitors will see many War of 1812 artifacts, a number of which have never been displayed before. Items recovered by archaeologists at the site include tin canteens, a soldier’s playing die made of bone, and the iron shoes and tack of the only buried horses ever recovered from a War of 1812 site.
From the fort itself are displays of hardware such as iron door handles, latches and padlocks, plus a myriad of construction tools such as chisels, mattocks, spades and axes used to construct and maintain the huge structure.
The museum also includes displays on the conflicts that led up to the War of 1812, including the many settler-vs.-Indian battles fought in the Ohio country before and just after the Revolutionary War. Among the most interesting items are spurs belonging to Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne, who led American forces at the nearby Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1795, and the portion of a shell and buckskin wampum belt presented to Wayne by Indian leader Little Turtle during negotiations that led to the Treaty of Greenville.