2012-06-23 / Columnists

A Look at History

War! Mackinac Island On Front Lines Of War Of 1812

War of 1812

This week is the 200th anniversary of the first days of the War of 1812, the inaugural war declared by Congress under the procedure set out in the American Constitution (there have been only five such “declared” wars in all, with the last one fought in 1941-45). The president, James Madison, signed the declaration on June 18, 1812, which is why we call it the “War of 1812.”

Outside Mackinac Island, the Niagara River in New York, and some other battlefield areas, our American historical markers and history textbooks don’t have much to say about the War of 1812; it is treated as a sideshow or an embarrassment that happened a long time ago. Someday, I suppose, future Americans will know better. If one of the purposes of history is to show David fighting back against Goliath, then the young American republic’s decision to punch back against the reigning superpower of the day, the British Empire, is as close to that picture as our history gets.

Fort Holmes was built on the hill above Fort Mackinac. The fort was built after the British captured Fort Mackinac. (Photographs courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) Fort Holmes was built on the hill above Fort Mackinac. The fort was built after the British captured Fort Mackinac. (Photographs courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) In real life, however, David doesn’t always win. This war, which opened with misguided optimism and enthusiasm, proved to be deadly and damaging. The unity of the country was gravely threatened; one of the two political parties of the day was totally opposed to the conflict, and one of our national sub-regions, New England, was so antagonized by the conflict that it walked up to the verge of secession from the Union. After peace came – a surprise peace brokered in a quiet room by members of the elites of both of the fighting nations – the United States found itself, on the map, exactly where it had been when the war began. Not a crumb of territory was won or lost by either country. Both governments agreed there would be no winner and that they would try to forget that the fight had ever taken place. This decision was promptly seconded by the American people, including the politicians who had enthusiastically called for war only a few years earlier. Our decision to forget the War of 1812 was a conscious, deliberate decision that was made by the federal government immediately after the coming of peace. This attitude was quickly taken up by the American press and public, thus helping to create the next era of American history, the period that is called the “Era of Good Feelings.”

The U.S. Federal government enacted policies that could not be enforced. Fort Mackinac was ordered to keep British tradegoods out of the Great Lakes, but were understaffed. The U.S. Federal government enacted policies that could not be enforced. Fort Mackinac was ordered to keep British tradegoods out of the Great Lakes, but were understaffed. Seeing as how the War of 1812 has been half-forgotten by the American people, it should not be too much of a surprise that there have been very few stabs at serious recent historical research to gain greater understanding of the forces that led to the fateful decision to enter the conflict. Apparently this is not a fertile Ph.D. dissertation subject at this time, however, as several of our Island’s best-known landmarks – the Community Hall, the Stuart House, the Manoogian Art Museum, and the blockhouses at Fort Mackinac – were built either not too long before or not too long after the war, and to this day physically reflect the forces unleashed in 1812, here on Mackinac Island we may want to take a look at how the war began.

The letters of Henry Brevoort, the young New York man who visited Mackinac Island during the last summer before the war, show how one set of American eyes saw the increasingly hostile American-British frontier as the fight grew closer. Mr. Brevoort saw and described to his friend, Washington Irving, several things that may seem all too familiar to Americans of our own day. Many American men, in 1810, either wanted to fight, or thought that fighting would simplify a situation that was getting murky and depressing, and they voted for politicians – Congressional politicians – who, in turn, voted for war. Several things were happening to America back then:

There was a banking crisis. The Bank of the United States was going out of business, and this once-dominant bank’s operations were interwoven with the American economy in such a way as to create a lot of joblessness, especially in Eastern port towns and cities where young people needed work.

This was what was happening in the East. In the American West, at the same time, many frontier and farmer Americans feared violent attacks, and violent acts of retaliation, from men who followed a different religion, belonged to a different ethnic group, and had kinship ties with the British and their Canadian colonists. The Manoogian Art Museum is a building that reflects the effort, in a later time, to get a tiny bit away from ugly fears like these.

An irresponsible U.S. federal government had stretched itself too far, and enacted a set of policies that could not be enforced and created an image of weakness. To fight the recession and create U.S. jobs, and for other reasons, our federal troops stationed at Fort Mackinac had been ordered by Washington to take security actions to keep British manufactures and trade goods out of the American Great Lakes; but there were only a few dozen American soldiers at the Fort to carry out this policy, and the Great Lakes, including the sector guarded here, were hundreds of miles long. American businessmen were so contemptuous of Washington’s policy that they even helped build a huge new warehouse on Mackinac Island’s Market Street to hold the British goods and furs that were expected to be traded here despite the national law. The warehouse is now our Community Hall.

The American government was so overstretched, and had been so badly hammered by this banking crisis and nationwide recession, that we were effectively broke. Our War Department was so insolvent that it didn’t even have a system of military intelligence to send messages to frontier points like Fort Mackinac, which could have helped prevent the catastrophe at British Landing.

And finally, by June 1812, the American people had been in a state of near-constant hostility against the British Empire, and its capital in London, for more than 30 years. It was, to bring this reality home, a situation similar to that seen by many of today’s Americans and today’s Iranians, who as these words are written in 2012 have not seen much good in each other for 33 years – since the violent Islamic takeover, which many of us remember all too well, of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979. American attitudes in 1812 toward long-forgotten British insults and crimes against international law, such as “impressment,” the practice by the Royal Navy of capturing American ships on the high seas and holding some of their crewmembers hostage for months or years, can easily be grasped today if we take the trouble to put ourselves back in the shoes of the men and women who lived back then.

The overall story of how the War of 1812 came to be has now been told very briefly, and it is fortunate that many men and women acted with honor right here on Mackinac Island during the conflict. Their smaller stories are more attractive than this big picture, but it will have to be other columns that will look at them and tell them to readers.

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