Sunday, Jun 24, 2018
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A War of 1812 chapter closes, but a burning issue looms


Dennis Bova

The Blade
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We get a lot of letters to the editor calling for all the lawmakers in Washington to be voted out of office. But I wonder how those letter writers would feel if this would happen: all the government buildings in D.C. would be burned to the ground?

The former isn’t likely. The latter once happened. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This was the second year of the ongoing bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812. In 2013, northwest Ohio took center stage.

There was the 200th anniversary of the start of construction of Fort Meigs in what is now Perrysburg. There was a celebration of the first siege of the fort, on a May weekend where more than 600 re-enactors — some from as far away as Newfoundland — took part.

The victory at Fort Stephenson — featuring Old Betsy, the cannon used in the battle — in what is now Fremont was the focus of festivities in August.

The signature celebration was the re-enactment of the Battle of Lake Erie in September off South Bass Island. Leading up to that was a special exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art that featured paintings and artifacts of the battle. The event closed on Sunday after a three-month run.

The folks at the art museum were kind enough to let me show up in my War of 1812 uniform to hang in the background. A few people came up to me, asking if I portrayed Oliver Hazard Perry, the hero of the battle — and for whom Perrysburg was named (he never set foot there, by the way).

I told them that I was flattered that they thought I was the commodore, but no. The U.S. Army uniform back then — topped off by a blue coat with red accents, gold trim, and an array of metal buttons — is what regular soldiers wore.

As the exhibit closed, I reflected on the past year. I was fortunate to have helped with some of the events at Fort Meigs. My older son was a crewman on the brig Niagara, the focal point of the Battle of Lake Erie. He was in charge of the ship’s cannon crews, and through him I heard tales of that event — what likely was the largest naval battle re-creation ever.

All is not quite done with events here. There’s the recently announced State of Ohio War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission Research Contest for students ages 13 to 18 in grades seven to 12.

Veterans Day has come and gone, and I got to thinking: How did the veterans of that war, sometimes called the Second War of Independence, cope afterward? They saw their share of carnage. We have accounts of the aftermath of their battles. But how they wrote was just so beautiful.

Take for example Commodore Perry’s famous message to Gen. William Henry Harrison, commander of Fort Meigs, after the victory: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” How eloquent. He didn’t write: “We kicked butt.”

The War of 1812 was the last major conflict for which there are no images. Beginning with the Civil War and every other war thereafter, photographs showed the horror of combat.

With Commodore Perry’s victory, fighting in northwest Ohio was over. The war would go on until February, 1815, mostly on the East Coast — which brings me back to the burning of Washington.

The year 2014 marks the bicentennial of two other signature events of the war: the British setting fire to all the capital’s government buildings except one — the patent office — and the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. During the latter, an American lawyer named Francis Scott Key was so emotionally moved by his countrymen’s withstanding the siege that he wrote a poem that became our National Anthem.

I’ve been to Fort McHenry for Defenders’ Day, an annual celebration topped off by an evening fireworks show invoking the spectacle of the bombardment — after which re-enactors are treated to a feast of steamed crabs. I’ll bet there’ll be quite the celebration there come September, 2014.

But a month before that marks 200 years since British troops set fire to Washington. Somehow, I can’t see much of a celebration in that.

A footnote: What a lot of Americans forget is that in April, 1813, U.S. troops set fire to government buildings in the Ontario city of York, which today is Toronto.

Today, we’re friends with the Canadians and the British. Now if only our lawmakers could appease our letter writers.

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

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