Fort Meigs’ bicentennial recalls sacrifices made to shape a nation

2/4/2013
BY REBECCA CONKLIN-KLEIBOEMER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Aaron Gelb, front, of Haskins and Daniel Wilkens of Columbus fire muskets  as Toledo brothers Carlos Rivas-Hamp, 8,  and Grant  Rivas-Hamp, 7, watch during the  200th anniversary celebration of Fort Meigs.
Aaron Gelb, front, of Haskins and Daniel Wilkens of Columbus fire muskets as Toledo brothers Carlos Rivas-Hamp, 8, and Grant Rivas-Hamp, 7, watch during the 200th anniversary celebration of Fort Meigs.

Re-enactors Dick Micka, left, of Monroe and Kenneth Roberts of St. Clair Shores, Mich., cut logs to build a block house.
Re-enactors Dick Micka, left, of Monroe and Kenneth Roberts of St. Clair Shores, Mich., cut logs to build a block house.

With a determined swing of a pickax into frozen ground, the process of constructing an Army fort on the Maumee River began on Feb. 2, 1813.

Two hundred years later, visitors to the historic site in Perrysburg stomped through snowy drifts and shivered against the cold to see just how U.S. troops built Fort Meigs and how they lived, fought, and died in such inclement conditions while battling the British and Native Americans during the War of 1812.

“These poor guys ... they slept in these thin canvas tents,” said Rick Finch, director of Fort Meigs.

Six soldiers would huddle together on boards, blankets, and whatever else they could find to cover the ground, sharing body heat to stay warm, Mr. Finch explained. Still, two or three soldiers died each day, he said, many of whom froze or succumbed to illness.

The Morgensterns from Point Place bundled up for the Founder’s Day anniversary event, wearing wool sweaters, snow pants, and even a trusty workman’s jacket.

Ten-year-old Emma summarized what it must have been like to endure northwest Ohio winters at the fort without such garb: “Crazy and cold and miserable,” she said.

Hands warm in his jacket pockets, grandfather John Morgenstern said he learned at the event that an economic factor played a part in the clothing people wore in the early 1800s.

“They said cotton was very expensive because it all had to be hand-loomed,” he said.

Still, his wife, Karyn Morgenstern, was amazed that the riflemen wore linen frocks.

“I don’t see how they lasted in this cold weather with the uniforms they had,” she said.

Jim Crammond, right,  demonstrates how to make a window frame as Jackie Cahoon and her brother, Alex Cahoon of Findlay, watch during the  200th anniversary celebration of Fort Meigs on Saturday.
Jim Crammond, right, demonstrates how to make a window frame as Jackie Cahoon and her brother, Alex Cahoon of Findlay, watch during the 200th anniversary celebration of Fort Meigs on Saturday.

PHOTO GALLERY: Fort Meigs turns 200

Re-enactor Larry Burns lasted as long as he could with the temperature in the low 20s, wearing layers of thin green material as he demonstrated his flint-lock rifle for spectators.

“The uniforms are made of linen, and riflemen often didn’t get their winter uniforms,” he said, adding that infantrymen had better chances of getting wool jackets.

Mr. Finch wore bright-red mittens as part of his militia outfit and kept warm by helping build a gabion, a cylindrical basket woven from grapevines that would be filled with dirt and placed as part of the fort’s defensive works.

“Think of it as an early-1800s sandbag,” he said.

Re-enactor Annette Bristol of Cleveland tended a fire outdoors as she cooked beef stew and gingerbread, the latter which unfortunately scorched.

“A Dutch oven is hard; you just never know,” she said as she cut off the burnt top before serving the rest of the moist, raisin-studded cake.

Ms. Bristol knew that 200 years ago, she would not likely have been an Army cook unless hired by an officer. Soldiers did their own cooking, she said, and women often served as laundresses for the surgeons.

But she was happy to pretend Saturday, making Martha Washington’s recipe for gingerbread and serving it with fresh butter that Frank Wisniewski of Monclova Township helped churn for the hour it took to turn from cream.

As an Air Force firefighter, Mr. Wisniewski has had his fill of sleeping in tents and trudging through cold weather, but he said he was enjoying his second year as a re-enactor cook at Fort Meigs — and the opportunity to keep such skills alive.

Re-enactor Jean Roberts of St. Clair Shores, Mich., sews a hat as part of the festivities.
Re-enactor Jean Roberts of St. Clair Shores, Mich., sews a hat as part of the festivities.

“We’re not teaching the history like we should [in school]. ... We have to remember what happened to us in the beginning to get us here,” he said.

Fort Meigs celebrates Founder’s Day every year, but participating in its 200th anniversary is special, Mr. Burns said.

“Standing on the battlefield where the men died is touching in a way,” he said.

The Ohio Historical Society maintains Fort Meigs and operates the on-site museum. The fort, which was resized to 50-by-50 yards when most of the troop force was transferred north to Canada, has been reconstructed twice in the past four decades.

Mr. Finch noted that the first reconstruction project, begun in 1967, took almost 10 years, while the second project was completed from 2001 to 2003; the fort’s original construction took just three months.

“They also had the British breathing down their necks,” he said.

Two thousand Army regulars and militia lending a hand probably helped too.

Contact Rebecca Conklin-Kleiboemer at: rconklin@theblade.com.