June 1812. The meal was over, the cigars were lit and the port and brandy were flowing in the officers’ mess at Fort George in Newark, a town that would later become Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. The British Army detachment were entertaining their counterparts from the U.S. Army stationed in Fort Niagara, just a kilometre away, on the other side of the Niagara River where it enters Lake Ontario. Reciprocal visits by the officer classes for dinners, balls and shooting expeditions were commonplace.
A messenger entered the room and handed a dispatch to the British officer in charge. He read it, then called for attention and announced that Great Britain was at war with the United States. That meant their friends from Fort Niagara were now their enemies.
"But," the British commander said, "let us not allow bad news to ruin a good dinner."
So the revelries continued and in the wee small hours the British soldiers accompanied the Americans to their boats to cross the river to their fort.
That was the cordial start to the War of 1812 on the Niagara Frontier. The next time the Americans would cross the river, upstream at Queenston Heights four months later, the British were not so friendly. General Isaac Brock and his Canadian militiamen and First Nations warriors sent them packing (but Brock died in the engagement).
It’s all being remembered in a big way this year, the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the war, which would last until early 1815, with some skirmishes — notably the Battle of New Orleans, famous in myth and song — taking place after peace was negotiated on Dec. 24, 1814.
Travellers will have plenty of opportunities to relive the war over the next two and a half years for pretty well every place that was touched by it is laying on commemorative events to tell the stories behind the names we all know so well: Laura Secord, Stoney Creek, Crysler’s Farm, Tecumseh, Brock, Fort Michilimacinac, Raisin River, Francis Scott Key and dozens more.
The war was also fought at sea, with the might of the British Royal Navy pitted against the infant U.S. Navy. This is recalled in an ongoing event called Operation Sail, in which something like a dozen tall ships from all over the world, joined by modern warships, visit cities on America’s eastern seaboard. The "operation" began in New Orleans in April, moving to New York city May 23-30, then Norfolk, Va., June 1-12. From Monday, June 13 to June 19 the ships will be in Baltimore where, in 1814, a naval battle inspired America’s national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. The other host cities are Boston, June 30-July 5; and New London, Conn., July 6-8.
For this "celebration of America’s maritime heritage," as the promoters call the event, visitors are invited to come aboard the barques, schooners and brigantines and meet the sailors. The U.S. Navy and Coastguard will be staging maritime events into 2015.
On land there will, of course, be re-enactments of many battles, with muskets and sabres and men in red tunics, blue tunics and militia garb. Not forgetting war-paint, moccasins and tomahawks, recalling the singular contribution made to the British and Canadian cause by First Nations warriors under the great chief Tecumseh.
But there will be much more. A few examples:
— Fort George, in a nod to that cross-border dinner when the news of war came, will hold a "Military Ball," with re-enactors playing the parts of British and American officers. No doubt the words "Let us not allow bad news to ruin a good dinner" will be spoken. Also in the area, a 200th birthday cake, about the size of a kitchen table, will be paraded through Niagara-on-the-Lake.
— Old Fort Erie, scene of one of the bloodiest sieges, will be showing off a new visitor centre, hosting a community picnic and staging a victory parade.
— At Fort Henry in Kingston there will be a special performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture by the Kingston Symphony Orchestra. And visitors will be regaled with spy stories from the war.
— A Niagara-on-the-Lake exhibit, "Petticoats, Boots and Muskets," will tell how the war wasn’t confined to male participants.
— At Fort St. Joseph, Richard’s Landing, near the border with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, there will be an encampment where re-enactors will play the part of the soldiers, militia and natives as they got ready to take Fort Michilimackinac.
— The main bicentennial celebration of Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown, N.Y., will be a period encampment in early September.
— Queenston will recreate the funeral of General Brock.
— At Erie, Pa., visitors can tour the tall ship Niagara, a reconstruction of the ship that led the fleet, which beat the British in the Battle of Lake Erie. The ship also takes visitors on summer cruises on the Great Lakes.
— In Ottawa, the War Museum is staging a major exhibition telling the story of the war from the perspective of Canadians, British, Americans and First Nations people.
— The Seaway Trail, a number of routes running along New York and Pennsylvania’s freshwater coast, is erecting markers to tell this area’s story of the war.
The land part of the bicentennial, it will be noted, is shaping up to be a mainly Canadian, and mainly Ontario, event. It has largely fallen off the U.S. radar: Indeed Fort McHenry (the Star Spangled Banner) and the Battle of New Orleans are pretty well the only things most Americans know about it, though Operation Sail may alter that somewhat.
And the British? It’s just a footnote there for in 1812 Britain was engaged in a titanic struggle against Napoleon. In Europe, 1812 is known only as the year of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.
WAR OF 1812 EVENTS
The events noted above are just a small selection of the hundreds of activities lined up for tourists this summer and over the next two years. Check the following websites for specifics: ontariotravel.net (click on War of 1812), thequartermasters.com (click on 1812 calendar of events), warof1812.ca, opsail.org, celebrate1812.com and parks.on.ca.