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Ohio 'On The Front Line' In The War Of 1812


Two hundred years ago, the War of 1812 embroiled the United States, Canada, Britain and several Indian nations on several fronts - on the Niagara River, in Lake Ontario, on the blue water of the Atlantic, along the coast of the Chesapeake, at the mouth of the Mississippi and here in Ohio - in what was then the northwest frontier of the United States. An exhibit at the Ohio Historical Society presents letters and diaries, maps and firearms from a little-remembered conflict that nevertheless played a critical part in American history. It's called "War of 1812: Ohio on the Front Line." John Haas and Cliff Eckle are both archivists at the Ohio Historical Society, co-curators of the exhibit. And they're here in the studio with us at member station WOSU in Columbus. Nice to have you with us today.

JOHN HAAS: Thank you.

CLIFF ECKLE: Thank you.

CONAN: And, John, let me begin with you. As you go through the documentary evidence, which I gather is your specialty, is there anything suddenly brought this to life for you, this 200-year-old war?

HAAS: Yes, several different things. The letters, a lot of times when we find the letters, we've heard about these characters through history - President William Henry Harrison - General William Henry Harrison, war hero. But then when you actually have a letter in your hand that he wrote, it kind of brings it to life.

CONAN: About the Battle of Tippecanoe perhaps?

HAAS: We do have some on the Battle of Tippecanoe. I don't have one with me right now. But we have a lot of his material, a lot of his original letters, a lot of the transcribed letters. I have a brief one here I can read to you.

CONAN: Sure.

HAAS: This is from Cincinnati. It's 10th of January, 1812.

(Reading) I enclose you here with a speech for each of the tribes of Indians which reside in the Indiana territory. You will, please, to take measures to have these delivered. I am respectfully yours, most humble and obedient servant, William Henry Harrison.

And he was writing to William Wells, the Indian agent in Fort Wayne.

CONAN: And this has just come to light, I gather.

HAAS: Yes. We found this - Matt, Matt Benz actually found this in the Hunt family papers. There's a large ledger book, and there's bunch of letters glued into it. And that was one of them. There's muster rolls in there from some of the units that were called out during the war. And there's another one from Chillicothe, February 1, 1815.

(Reading) Dear Sir, I have just, in time, to inform you of some good news. Jackson has captured and defeated the whole British army at Orleans. From good and trusty sources we have this news.

CONAN: Of course referring to another future president of the United States, Andrew Jackson.

HAAS: Exactly. And that was written in Chillicothe to a gentleman living in Urbana, Ohio.

CONAN: It's interesting, we go back and a lot of us will remember "The Civil War," the great program by Ken Burns on PBS, and the eloquence of so many of the diarists and the letter writers. Are you finding similar examples for the War of 1812?

HAAS: Yes. We're finding both. Some of the, I guess, say, some of the fellows who are less eloquent, there's a certain eloquence unto itself just for a guy trying to write down a letter in a diary to save for posterity, even though he hasn't had much schooling. You get some very interesting material just from those letters, describing their trekking across Ohio. We have three diaries and a map noting the routes of three different soldiers from eastern Ohio and from northern Kentucky all the way up to northwestern Ohio, and the story of how they got there and what they did on their way.

CONAN: This is slightly wilderness at the time. And, Cliff Eckle, as you go through some of the more 3-dimensional objects that are on display at this exhibit, what stands out for you? What brings it to life, do you think?

ECKLE: Well, some of the most significant artifacts that we were able to include actually pre-date the War of 1812 because we wanted to include the Native Americans and how they were affected by the War of 1812 as well. So we went back to the Treaty of Greenville, which was in 1795, in which after a series of battles over quite a few years, the Indians were defeated at Fallen Timbers by Anthony Wayne.

And the Indian tribes met with the Americans at Greenville and agreed to cede the Southern two-thirds of Ohio for white settlement. And for Native Americans, they saw this as a good faith effort to create a lasting peace, a lasting accommodation. And over - between 1795 and 1812, there were continual encroachments upon their territory. And so from their perspective, they saw the Treaty of Greenville as the last good faith effort that failed.

CONAN: It's interesting, the Canadians would portray the War of 1812 as a Canadian victory. That might get some argument, but on the whole, you'd have to say they were probably right. The British Navy eventually did bottle up the maverick United States frigates that caused them so much trouble early on. Of course, the United States won the decisive victory at the Battle of New Orleans at the end of war. But it was a disaster for the Indians.

ECKLE: Yes. In many ways, it was a Civil War because not - although many Indians fought with the British because they saw them as the lesser of two evils. But there were some Indians that fought with the United States and - but the majority of Indians tried to remain neutral, and they were stuck in a war zone. And so it was just an impossible situation.

CONAN: And Ohio's part in this - it emerged from a front in this wilderness to take on a much more dynamic role as part of United States in the immediate aftermath.

ECKLE: Yes. And one of the reasons why we wanted to work on this exhibit is, unlike in other wars, wars were fought far away, Ohio was a battleground in a literal sense. And some of the significant battles of the war were fought here in Ohio: at Fort Meigs, at Fort Stephenson and on Lake Erie. And the war in this theater, in which they call the Northwest, began disastrously with the capture of Detroit. And basically, Detroit surrendered without a shot.

And so the British were able to come down in Fort Meigs, which is just upstream down to Maumee from Toledo. It was really a bashing where we had to hold the British to prevent them from controlling the Northwest Territories because at that time, it was so heavily wooded, the main roads into the area were the rivers. And so that made Fort Meigs incredibly important. And our - there were two sieges in 1813 where we prevented the British from going further. And had the circumstances gone the other way, it would have been disastrous for the United States. The British had some plans to basically force the United States to cede much of the Northwest Territories back to them.

CONAN: Indeed, John Haas, much of the Louisiana Purchase, which was not all that much earlier.

HAAS: Yes. It was only 1803. So just eight or nine years earlier is when we got the Louisiana Purchase from the French. But the other major battle that Cliff was talking about, Fort Stephenson, again, it was on a river that you could navigate quite deeply into Ohio. And so the British tried to get down the river, get to the interior of Ohio, but they were stopped in Fort Stephenson, which is now Fremont, Ohio.

CONAN: And he mentioned one other, the Battle of Lake Erie, and we don't think of the Great Lakes as the source of naval conflict. But indeed, whole navies were constructed by both sides on Lake Erie. It's almost impossible to imagine these days.

HAAS: It is pretty incredible when you read the story of how the fleets were constructed and how quickly they were constructed and how good the ships turned out to be. And - but, yes, it was a major victory for the United States because then we controlled all of Lake Erie and could move our troops anywhere we wanted to at that point. So it was extremely important. And, of course, Commodore Perry and his favorite, you know, his famous lines, we have met the enemy and they are ours. And we have various reproductions of that and some really nice artwork done over the years by various artists for that particular battle.

CONAN: I don't know if you've had the opportunity ever to visit the Capitol in Washington, D.C., but there is this enormous mural of the Battle of Lake Erie as we see Oliver Hazard Perry being rowed from his ship to - which was...

ECKLE: Distressed.

HAAS: Which was sinking, yes.

CONAN: ...and rowed to another ship from which he conducted the later part of the battle successfully.

HAAS: Yes. That's - I have not seen that, but it's high on my list of things that I want to see.


CONAN: As you - the objects that are on display, a lot of people would be interested in the firearms, Cliff Eckle.

ECKLE: Well, the firearms that we acquired in recent years because we were anticipating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 - we don't have history (unintelligible) on those specifically. We don't know the soldiers that used them. But the type of weapons that were typical of the period, they're single-shot, muzzle-loading (unintelligible) much of the type of weapons that were used in the American Revolution. The technology hadn't changed. And so they were fairly large caliber, 6-9 caliber, which is over half an inch in diameter of the bore of the muzzle. And they're smoothbore so they're particularly accurate beyond a certain range.

CONAN: Maybe 50 yards or so, no?

ECKLE: And so these - we have three rifles or - excuse me - muskets on display in the exhibit.

CONAN: And as you - I know you're working in different fields, obviously the same field of history but in different aspects of it. What, Cliff Eckle, surprised you about the stuff that John Haas is able to uncover in the documents?

ECKLE: Well, just the breadth and the extent of some of the diary accounts of the soldiers that are trekking across the hike because if - consider you're basically going on an extended camping trip and in horrible conditions and to take the opportunity to write with a quill pen and include these kinds of letters and diaries is pretty remarkable that they were able to accomplish that given the conditions.

CONAN: And John Haas said the same thing. What of the material that Cliff has been able to come up with? Let's see, oh, my goodness.

HAAS: The - a lot of the archeological material - one of our cases - I think the case with the rifles, and it also has a large amount of archeological material dug up from, I think, Fort Meigs area, but other sites too. Possibly - I don't know if there's any from Fort Stevenson or not, but the amount of material that's still being found at some of these sites is pretty amazing. Most of it, of course, is the metal material. Most of the leather stuff has rotted away. Occasionally, you'll find something like that. But, yeah, the musket balls and the canon balls and parts of the weapons that are...

ECKLE: And things from everyday life, like buttons and pins and...

HAAS: Yes.

ECKLE: ...then also things that they ate, like the bones of the animals, they were - or things like - things from pigs and cattle and those kinds of things. We'll tell you about the everyday life of the soldiers. And the collections that we have on display are mainly from Fort Meigs, which is in Perrysburg, Ohio. And in 1974, the society had the fort reconstructed on the original site. And then in 2003, they added a visitor center, which is a modern museum. And there's classrooms and things of that nature at the site. So it's - we'll be celebrating its bicentennial in May of 1813.

CONAN: Cliff Eckle, you just heard, history curator with the Ohio Historical Society. Also with us, the co-curator of the "War of 1812: Ohio on the Front Line" exhibit at the Ohio History Center, John Haas. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, John Haas, I wanted to ask you something else. The war was not universally popular in the United States. New England largely opposed it. Indeed, there was talk of secession in England - New England, a talk that seemed ironic, not all that many years after that, and enthusiasm varied regionally.

HAAS: Yes.

CONAN: What was Ohio's role in this political part?

HAAS: Ohio was a more pro-war, but there were significant, important Ohio people that were not pro-war. And Cliff actually knows more about it that I do, but Senator Worthington, the town of Worthington is named after. He was a governor, a senator. He had some very close friends, Henry Clay. It was Albert Gallatin, right, was his secretary of....

ECKLE: Treasury.

HAAS: ...treasury, was also a friend of his. And he communicated with both of them, and they were both trying to sway him: Henry Clay, pro-war, Gallatin, anti-war. And so one part of the exhibit is Cliff put together a little part of it that shows: these are the arguments, these are his two friends, these are - this is what they're telling him. How would you vote? (Unintelligible) vote.

CONAN: And could you summarize the pro- and anti-war arguments?

ECKLE: Well, Henry Clay was speaker of the House. He's from Kentucky, and he was very pro-war. And he saw this as an opportunity to defend America's honor against the depravations of the British were doing to American sailors by - when they were stopping American ships in the high seas...

CONAN: Impressment as it was called, yes.

ECKLE: ...as amendment to service in the British Navy. Also seizing American ships that were trying to trade with the continent because the British were at war with France at the time. And also he sought - Henry Clay saw there's an opportunity to claim the rich lands of the north.

CONAN: Canada?

HAAS: Mm-hmm.

ECKLE: Mm-hmm. And Albert Gallatin, who was his secretary of the treasury - and both of these were all members of the same Democratic-Republican Party, the Jefferson's party, same party as President Madison, as well as Thomas Worthington. And Albert then - he said, we weren't prepared for war. We don't have the financial means. We don't have the army or the navy. If we were to go to war now, it would be disastrous, and he was right.

CONAN: And he was right. Yeah.

ECKLE: And so Thomas Worthington had a very difficult decision. In fact, in his dairies, he said it was the most difficult decision he made in his life, and he ended up voting against the war because he agreed with Albert Gallatin, that we were not prepared. And - but following what was declared by a vote of 19-13, he was in the minority. And - but once war was declared, he was wholeheartedly in support of it and fought...

HAAS: Yes.

ECKLE: ...very difficult - very diligently to help the war effort.

CONAN: And if, John Haas, you could summarize what Ohio - how was Ohio changed by the War of 1812?

HAAS: Well, Ohio was greatly changed by the War of 1812 because when it was finally settled, when the treaties were finally signed, all of northwestern Ohio was opened to settlement. So more immigrants came to Ohio. More people moved from other areas of the United States and southern and eastern Ohio moved to the northwestern Ohio area. There's an area in northwestern Ohio called the Great Black Swamp, and that was a difficult thing that had to be traversed during the War of 1812. But now, it's some of the richest farmland in the world because the people that went there drained it. And so now, that area known as the Great Black Swamp is one of the most rich agricultural areas in the United States.

CONAN: Thanks to John Haas and Cliff Eckle of the Ohio Historical Society for joining us to discuss the War of 1812. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.