Monday, May 30, 2011

Our Newest National Park: A Field Trip Away

Much of my spring has been taken up by my son's baseball games. At a recent tournament in Monroe, we were cold and hungry and in the break between games we went in search of a) food and b) Lake Erie. We did find food, and we never made it to Lake Erie (we got stopped by an industrial and private property), but we did find the United States' newest national park, and it seems appropriate to write about it on Memorial Day.

Yes, folks, the 393d unit of the National Park Service is the River Raisin National Battlefield Park! This was signed into law in March of 2009, and began operations in October of 2010.
What, you say--there was a battle in Monroe? Whatever for?
The war that is well-remembered in Canada, but barely known in the United States. The War of 1812.
“Capture of the City of Washington," based on an engraving from Rapin’s History of England, published by J. & J. Gundee, Albion Press, London, 1815. From the Smithsonian Institute and found online at:
The war in which the White House and the Capitol were burned.

And yesterday, sitting at a Tiger's game, I remembered that our national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, was also a product of the War of 1812.

You may remember, from your U.S. history classes, the cry "Remember the Alamo!" But did anybody ever teach you the cry, "Remember the Raisin!"?
I thought not.
The other three national battlefield parks in the U.S. are related to the Civil War. 

According to Wikipedia,
The War of 1812 was a military conflict fought between the forces of the United States of America and those of the British Empire, including those of present-day Canada.[nb 2] The Americans declared war in 1812 for a number of reasons, including a desire for expansion into the Northwest Territory, trade restrictions because of Britain's ongoing war with France, impressment of American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy, British support of American Indian tribes against American expansion, and the humiliation of American honour. Until 1814, the British Empire adopted a defensive strategy, repelling multiple American invasions of the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada. However, the Americans gained control over Lake Erie in 1813, seized parts of western Ontario, and destroyed Tecumseh's dream of an Indian confederacy.

Yes, that's the great Chief Tecumseh, after whom Tecumseh Michigan is named.  Tecumseh was allied with the British during the War of 1812, which went from 1812-1815. Chief Tecumseh himself was killed in a battle in Chatham Ontario (near Windsor) in October 1813.

Back in Monroe, which was then known as Frenchtown, there was a great battle in January of 1813. According to the National Park Service web site,
The battle at the River Raisin (Frenchtown) was among the largest military encounters during the War of 1812. More American casualties occurred here than at any other battlefield during the war against the British and their Indian allies.
That's fact. But it turns out that--as with all good historical narratives--there is some controversy. 
The above print received wide circulation through recruiting posters issued by the U.S. War Department. It clearly (and wrongly) shows the British camp in the background, seemingly looking on as Natives murder and scalp wounded Americans. The print caption reads: Massacre of American prisoners at Frenchtown on the River Raisin by the savages under the command of the British General Proctor, January 23rd 1813. (Sandy Antal’s collection--taken from the War of 1812 magazine, October 2008.)

Writing in the War of 1812 magazine (October 2008 issue),  Sandy Antal states:
After “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights!” the most popular American slogan during the War of 1812 was “Remember the Raisin!” It refers to the circumstances associated with the battle of the Raisin River (22 January 1813), known to Canadians as the battle of Frenchtown.
The destruction of the fighting wing of the Northwest Army at this engagement derailed the overall American winter offensive against Upper Canada. Coming on the heels of the capture of Detroit, this second major defeat in the west prompted Washington to suspend offensive operations on that theatre for seven months, until mastery on Lake Erie was acquired.
But it was not the military defeat that Americans commemorated in the slogan. What they remembered was the “Raisin River Massacre.” A cursory glance at the legacy of this event reveals wide-spread inflammatory assertions that are notably short on substantive specifics...
When it comes to the Anglo-Native alliance, American and Canadian writers have substituted a negative, personality-based approach for military history. But they differ in one important respect. Unlike Canadians who usually explain away a complicated series of events through the alleged incompetence of the British commander, Americans have persistently demonized Colonel (later Major-General) Henry Procter as a bloodthirsty commander who either directed or permitted the murder of defenceless American prisoners. It was these alleged atrocities that gave rise to the slogan, Remember the Raisin!

 I've written before that
The point is--the East Coast experience of colonial history is very different from that experience here. Trying to teach colonial history in the Ann Arbor schools--in my limited experience--is not that different from teaching about the Greeks and Romans. It seems very distant, not immediate.
 And then I pointed out that there are places where that is less true.
And yet...what about Ojibway culture? What about the French settlements in Detroit? What about Fort Mackinaw? What about les Voyageurs? What about the War of 1812? I think we could find ways to make that history--Michigan history--present.
At the time, someone pointed out to me that there are natural tie-ins for Michigan history with certain years of the elementary school curriculum (I think third and fourth grade, depending on your school), and of course the U.S. history curricula in middle school and high school are relevant.

History can live for us. I remember the Tall Ships coming into New York Harbor for the bicentennial. And in less than a year, the bicentennial of the War of 1812 begins. It will continue for until 2015.

I attribute part of the reason that I'm a peace activist because I have seen the dark side of war. We should use Memorial Days as a a clarion call to end war for all time, and I believe that tangible historic experiences make that more possible. Every person needs to relate to an Antietam.

The River Raisin National Park is attached by a nature trail to Sterling State Park (where there is a Lake Erie beach). 

The newest national park, less than an hour from Ann Arbor, with a bicentennial coming up? This should be an irresistible field trip to teachers and to parents, even though the park is still under development (read: limited visitor hours, but you can call for more information). You can even make this a bi-national trip by visiting Fort Malden in Amherstburg, Ontario. The Canadian perspective on the War of 1812 is very different from the U.S. perspective on the war.

For more information:

National Park Service web site
Friends of the River Raisin battlefield web site
Read about Chief Tecumseh here
Detailed historical analysis of the War of 1812 Battle of River Raisin in the War of 1812 magazine

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