By Correne Martin
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Prairie du Chien (1814), which was the only battle of the 32-month War of 1812 to be fought on Wisconsin soil. The British won the battle but eventually lost the territory that became the state of Wisconsin.
“This is one important aspect of our state history that the residents should be proud of and should want to honor,” said Susan Caya-Slusser, site director of the Villa Louis Historic Site in Prairie du Chien.
To commemorate the city’s role in this historic conflict, a local Bicentennial Committee is planning events and awareness efforts for the public to enjoy this spring, summer and fall. The committee consists of officials from the Fort Crawford Museum, Villa Louis, Prairie du Chien Memorial Library, City of Prairie du Chien, Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Council, and Parks and Recreation Department.
“There will be many fun events as part of the Bicentennial Celebration. One will be able to see and experience people, structures, happenings that are unique to Prairie du Chien. Many, such as the homes, cemeteries, and battlefield cannot be found anywhere else in Wisconsin or the upper Mississippi area,” said Mary Antoine, president of the Prairie du Chien Historical Society. “What we have is unique, worthy of bragging rights. There are not many places where one can drive just a few blocks and visit early French-Canadian log houses, see a battle between Americans and British, walk the same grounds as Black Hawk and William Clark (and Zebulon Pike, Zachary Taylor, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Eleanor Roosevelt, to name just a few of the national figures who have been in Prairie du Chien.)”
Events scheduled to honor and celebrate the 200th anniversary/bicentennial are provided in the sidebar to this article.
According to the Jan. 2014 Prairie du Chien Historical Society newsletter, “The Battle of Prairie du Chien began on July 17, 1814, when a British force, led by Colonel William McKay, attacked the American-built Fort Shelby in Prairie du Chien. Many residents of Prairie du Chien and Green Bay joined up with the British along with more than 300 Native Americans from various tribes of the Upper Mississippi River. A three-day seige ensued. On July 20, 1814, the American troops commanded by Lieutenant Joseph Perkins surrendered Fort Shelby.
“There were no casualties. The British reported three wounded, and the Americans seven. Fifty-three Americans were captured when Perkins surrendered.
“The British renamed the fort, Fort McKay, and stayed in Prairie du Chien until the spring of 1815, when word arrived of the Treaty of Ghent. The treaty returned Prairie du Chien to the United States. On May 25, 1815, the British abandoned Fort McKay after setting it on fire. The United States constructed Fort Crawford the following year (1816) on the battleground site to gain tighter control over the region.”
According to Caya-Slusser, “The War of 1812 is misunderstood, it’s not often taught in the schools, and many people don’t have a good knowledge base on this part of our history, as opposed to the Civil War and the thousands of books, movies, events, and documentaries that surround that often romanticized time in our nation’s history.”
To put the Battle of Prairie du Chien into perspective, a condensed version of the War of 1812 follows, according to the April 2014 Prairie du Chien Historical Society newsletter:
“The War if 1812 was between the United States and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, its North American Colonies and its Indian Allies. On June 18, 1812, the United States of America declared war on Great Britain. Several reasons were:
•British tax and trade restrictions due to the war between the British and Napoleon.
•Impressment of American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy.
•British support of American tribes against American western expansion.
•Possible American interest in annexing part of British Canada.
“The United States had reasons to go to war but they were not prepared for it. There were few troops, little money and poor military leadership. Over the course of two years ships were built to compete with the British navy and troops learned how to fight.
“The British were able to seize and hold portions of the Michigan and Wisconsin Territories invade and occupy eastern Maine and capture and burn Washington D.C.
“Major events for the American troops included control of Lake Erie in 1813, victories at New Orleans and Baltimore, and at Fort McHenry, which inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem, “Defense of Fort McHenry.” Its lyrics were eventually used for “The Star Spangled Banner.”
“The British finally defeated Napoleon in 1814. With this conflict over two reasons for war with Great Britain disappeared for the U.S.—trade restrictions and impressments of merchant sailors. There was little reason for either side to continue. The stalemate resulted in the Treaty of Ghent.
“On Dec. 24, 1814, the diplomats had finished and signed the Treaty of Ghent. The treaty was ratified by the British three days later on Dec. 27, and arrived in Washington on Feb. 17, where it was quickly ratified and went into effect,a finally ending the war. The terms called for all occupied territory to be returned, the prewar boundary between Canada and the United States to be restored, and the Americans were to gain fishing rights in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The treaty did not mention the grievances of 1812 that led to war. The Americans were satisfied that their honor as an independent nation had been upheld.”
Caya-Slusser encourages everyone to come out to the many events happening this year in Prairie du Chien: “Between events at Fort Crawford, the Prairie du Chien Memorial Library, Villa Louis, and even a parade, there will be something for everyone to enjoy while