‘We Were the Front Line’: Museum Commemorates War of 1812 Bicentennial
Can you tell me about the War of 1812? Although the name might ring a bell, many Michiganians are unable to clearly explain who was involved, where the war took place, and even how its resulting treaty is still relevant today.
Through a new exhibit at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, and a Sunday lecture series sponsored in part by the Michigan Humanities Council, there's a goal that more Michiganians can share the War of 1812 history.
This project is just one of many across the state that commemorate the War of 1812 bicentennial, and the exhibit has been sanctioned as a major commemorative event by the Michigan Commission for the Commemoration of the War of 1812.
“For the commemorative years of 2012-14, you’re going to see a lot of events on what happened 300 years before,” said James Spurr, project director, board member for the Michigan Maritime Museum, and member of the Michigan Commission for the Commemoration of the War of 1812. “We saw it as an excellent opportunity to gather all the scholarship and speakers that we’re aware of and have known throughout the years … in one location as a speaker series.”
Speakers will present on the last Sunday of each month from July to October, and cover a variety of topics and aspects of the war, as well as views from the Canadian and Native American sides. All lectures will begin at 2 p.m.
The information speakers will share goes hand-in-hand with what visitors can see in the museum’s newest exhibit, “War on the Great Lakes,” which opened May 1. Exhibit highlights include a document signed by President Jefferson, portions of ships that were at the Battle of Lake Erie, manifests from vessels of the Great Lakes, and a diorama of the Battle of Lake Erie, involving 15 vessels dueling with guns never heard again on the Great Lakes.
“The exhibit itself draws together from museums, libraries and collections throughout the old northwest, including Canada,” Spurr said. “You would have to drive over 1,000 miles to each institution to see what we’ve brought together and piled in one location.”
Native Leaders Throughout the War of 1812
The Royal Navy on Michigan Shores and Harbors
Causes of the War Relevant to the Michigan Territory
War of 1812 Events in the Straits of Mackinac
The exhibit also features a hands-on gallery for children, and even a local tie with the story of a South-Haven native who fought in the War of 1812 and is buried in the local township cemetery. The museum also offers visitors the chance to sail on a replica War of 1812 tall ship – Friends Good Will. Aboard the replica ship, visitors will hear about when the tall ship journeyed from 1812-14 during the war and experience the sounds associated with sailing on a tall ship in the early 1800s - including historic gunfire by crew members dressed for the period.
The overall goal of this project, as Spurr explained, is “furthering, by way of education, public understanding of the general conflict.
“It’s little known and less understood,” Spurr continued. “This exhibit and lecture series, combined with the sail, offer so many learning opportunities that most people gravitate toward. It is just a much deeper understanding with respect to a war that unfolded on the Great Lakes. We were the front line.”
What may be even less understood is how the resulting treaty of the war is still relevant today, as Spurr explained. When the war ended, the United States and Britain saw the wisdom in demilitarizing and signed the Rush-Bagot Treaty, which would limit naval armaments on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain. This treaty created the world’s longest East-West boundary and the U.S. – Canadian border is now the largest demilitarized border in the world. Although the treaty was ratified by the U.S. in 1818 and confirmed by Canada in 1867, the treaty still has its relevance today in regard to controlling weapons on the Great Lakes.
Aside from the importance of the resulting treaty and what the war accomplished, perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the war, and Spurr's favorite, came from the action on the Great Lakes and how it transformed the United States.
“Think about a nation with an entire naval fleet number in the teens, going up against a world power numbered in the hundreds – yet we held our own in ship-to-ship engagements. It’s a story of America coming of age and recognizing that we were just as capable as our cousins across the ocean at defending ourselves on our waters. We didn’t have the numbers they had, but we had the skills, spirit, tactics and ships, and that’s just as good.”
The history of the War of 1812 is fascinating in many different ways. Whether you look at the story of Friends Good Will, battles on our Great Lakes, or the resulting treaty, it is definitely a war to explore. Take a trip to South Haven this summer; enjoy the sights of southwest Michigan and pay a visit to the Michigan Maritime Museum. Call the museum at (269) 637-8078.
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