Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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‘Forgotten war’ remembered

IF you know what happened 199 years ago this Saturday, you’re among a select few.

Hint: It had a direct impact on our region. If things had gone differently, those of us in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan might be Canadians today.

On that day, Congress declared war on Great Britain. The year gave birth to the name of the conflict: the War of 1812.

Some historians and enthusiasts call it “the forgotten war.” It’s overshadowed by the American Revolution that preceded it and the Civil War that came nearly a half-century later. But if we had lost the War of 1812, there might not have been a Civil War.

My family and I have volunteered at Fort Meigs State Memorial in Perrysburg since 1998. The original fort, named after then-Ohio Gov. Return Jonathan Meigs, Jr., was built in February, 1813, rebuilt in the 1970s, and renovated in 2000.

At a time during the war when American forces were losing left and right, the soldiers at Fort Meigs held their ground not once but twice in 1813: In May, when British cannons pounded the fort from what is now Maumee and from where Fort Meigs Cemetery is today; and in July, when Native Americans led by Tecumseh tried unsuccessfully to lure the troops from their safe confines.

And in August of that year, at the smaller Fort Stephenson in Fremont, U.S. troops with a single cannon decimated an onrushing force of British, Canadians, and Native Americans.

These U.S. stands were crucial after the massacre at the River Raisin in what is now Monroe. In January, 1813, 397 American regulars and Kentucky militia were killed there or went missing, and 547 prisoners were taken. Only 33 men escaped from the British and their Native American allies in one of the war’s bloodiest battles.

This defeat set back Maj. Gen. William Henry Harrison’s plans for recapturing Detroit, which had fallen to the British without Americans firing a shot. Harrison had built Fort Meigs as a place where his troops could hunker down for the winter, acquire numbers and supplies, and push on later to Detroit and into Canada.

Fort Meigs covered 10 acres within its walls. In September, 1813, it was torn down and replaced with a much smaller post. Its large scale was no longer needed, thanks to one of the most famous victories in American naval history: Oliver Hazard Perry’s sinking of the British fleet on western Lake Erie near South Bass Island on Sept. 10, 1813.

Because the Americans now controlled the lake, the British were cut off from supplies and reinforcements. The men and supplies Harrison had gathered at Fort Meigs were moved to the Erie Islands for the invasion of Canada.

Four local sites — Monroe, Perrysburg, Fremont, and Put-in-Bay — are part of the War of 1812’s history. Our region has more to remember, revere, and rejoice in from the earlier war than from the Civil War.

Suppose the British had built on their victory at River Raisin and crushed Fort Meigs while it was under construction, or that the sieges later that year had been successful. Let’s say Fort Stephenson had fallen, or Perry had met defeat. Had the war ended with the British victorious, they could have brought southeast Michigan and northwest Ohio into Canada.

That brings to mind a plaque I saw at a museum at Fort Erie, a War of 1812 site in Canada, right across the border from Buffalo. It read something like this: “If the American army had been as successful as the American navy, you’d be standing in the United States now.”

But the War of 1812 was fought to a draw. No territory was won or ceded. The conditions that led to the war — especially the impressment of American sailors into the British navy to help in its war against Napoleon in Europe — were no longer issues.

The only losers were the Native Americans. After their British allies abandoned them, they lost their last vestiges of influence in these parts.

But what if this part of the country had become part of Canada after the War of 1812? Would that have changed the dynamic between North and South during the Civil War?

Ohio sent many of its sons to fight for the North. Would the loss of manpower from at least part of Ohio becoming foreign soil have changed the balance of power?

One thing is for sure: Saturday is the 199th anniversary of when we last went to war against Great Britain. Next year marks the bicentennial of “the forgotten war.” Those of us in this region should remember.

Dennis Bova is a copy editor for The Blade’s Pages of Opinion.

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