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The War Of 1812: A Michigan Bicentennial

July 17 marks the bicentennial of a key date in the War of 1812, when the British captured Fort Mackinac at the onset of war. WKAR’s Scott Pohl speaks with Phil Porter about the historic date. Phil Porter is director of the Mackinac State Historic Parks and chairman of the Michigan Commission for the Commemoration of the Bicentennial of the War of 1812.

Porter says France and Great Britain had been engaged in the Napoleonic Wars for some time, and the British were impressing American seamen into the British Navy. They also had been encouraging Native American tribes to resist the westward expansion of U-S settlers into Michigan territory.

PHIL PORTER:  When the war was declared, there were a number of border posts. The British posts were in Canada, and the United States posts were in the United States territory, just across the waters from them. When war was declared in June of 1812, John Jacob Astor, who owned the American Fur Company, was near Washington, and he heard about the outbreak of the war and quickly sent a representative of his company to Fort St. Joseph, just inside Canadian waters, about 45 miles northeast of Fort Mackinac. He sent his representative there to protect his trade goods in case war broke out, but in doing so, he also alerted the British at that post to the outbreak of war.

They very quickly put together an alliance of regular troops, militia, and about 400 Native American allies, and they planned on and then successfully executed the capture of Fort Mackinac, which was the first engagement on U.S. territory during the War of 1812. It began the domino effect that eventually led to the capture of Fort Detroit and Fort Dearborn in Chicago, and so within a period of a month in the summer of 1812, the peninsulas of Michigan went from being under U.S. control to British control.

The surrender of Fort Mackinac saw no bloodshed

SCOTT POHL:  Was there a lengthy battle at Fort Mackinac? Was there a lot of bloodshed?

PORTER:  The battle of July 17, 1812 was a bloodless battle. The British landed on the north end of Mackinac Island under the cover of darkness on the night of July 16th and 17th, and brought with them two six-pound cannon, and again, a force numbering about 600. During the evening, they set up in the woods behind the fort on the elevated high ground, and the next morning when the sun rose, they fired a warning shot over the top of Fort Mackinac, and that was the first that the young American lieutenant in charge of the fort was even aware that war had been declared. He had only about 68 men inside the fort, and was looking out at a force ten times that size, and quickly decided to surrender without firing any shot in return.

Now when the Americans re-attacked two years later, there was a more substantial battle on the north end of Mackinac Island, and that one did result in bloodshed.

Marking the bicentennial at Fort Mackinac

POHL:  I wanted to find out if are any special bicentennial events planned for the 17th of July.

PORTER:  Yes. On the evening of July 17th, we will be doing a major pageant and commemoration that will talk about the war and about the British capture of the fort at the outbreak of the war. That will be in the fort beginning at 7 p.m. on the night of July 17th. It’s free and open to the public. It will be quite a spectacular program of music and presentations and cannon firings, a dramatic re-enactment. It should be a lot of fun, and educational for people at the same time.

POHL:  Americans are better at commemorating victories and remembering victories, than defeats, aren’t we?

PORTER:  Yeah, and in this case, it’s kind of challenging to be celebrating the British capture of our fort in 1812! But it is an important chapter in Michigan history, and it shows the importance of Mackinac to the nation’s strategic borderlands at that time, and so it is important that we commemorate this, we remember it, because it is such an important chapter in Michigan’s history.

You know, the United States fought many wars, many times, in many different places, but U.S. soldiers only saw combat once in the Michigan territory, and that was during the War of 1812.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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