British soldiers captured Detroit, and moved south to attack Ohio. In the War of 1812, nothing stood in the way of British troops descending from Canada except the unpredictable rapids of the Maumee River, and a wooden-walled fort named after Ohio’s governor, Return J. Meigs, Jr. The construction of Fort Meigs had barely been completed before cannon balls ripped across the Maumee on May 1, 1813.
Thousands in the Ohio and Kentucky militias withstood days of artillery fire and hand-to-hand combat with the British infantry and Tecumseh’s Shawnee tribe. After two attacks and over 600 combined casualties, the British and the Shawnee retreated.
Fort Meigs stands today as America’s largest reconstructed wooden fort. Ten acres of log walls and cabin barracks sit on 65 acres of preserved land in Perrysburg. More than 34,000 visitors stop by each year to watch reenactments, to enjoy the overlook along the Maumee River, and to step back through time into a pivotal moment of Ohio’s history.
“Our goal is to explain the history of warfare, and to help people understand how we got to where we are today.” said Fort Meigs’ Acting Director, Scott Lonsdale. Lonsdale is 31, and has re-enacted historical battles since he was ten years old. He received a bachelor’s degree in history from Eastern Michigan University, and worked at other historical battle sites before leading operations at Fort Meigs. “This is the dream job,” said Lonsdale.
We walked through the fort during an annual event called Muster on the Maumee, June 14-15, where soldiers and battles from across time are re-enacted. Germanic mercenaries in Renaissance clothing explained pike and archery tactics in the 1500s. On the other side of the hill, a Civil War general displayed several forms of flaming artillery. Central Powers from World War I fired blanks from antique machine guns. World War II Soviets demonstrated the many ways to kill a man with a standard-issue shovel. “You can also use it to shovel,” the soldier told me.
After a thorough military education, I took a break under a shaded tent. Next to me sat men dressed like Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant. Their extensive facial hair would seem out of place anywhere but a battle re-enactment or a bluegrass band. Twain, in a tan suit and thin black bow tie, told stories about the gilded age of the newspaper business while Grant sat in his military uniform and whittled a stick with a pocket knife. I just sat and listened; completely lost in time.
“There’s something about being on the ground where it happened that makes it special.” said Tamia Land, President of the Old Northwest Military History Association. Land walks with a regal assuredness while wearing her War of 1812, 2nd Artillery uniform. “We want to present to the public the way it was,” she said.
The ONMHA is a nonprofit organization that has been resurrecting the War of 1812 since the early 1990s.They march to the same drills, sleep in canvas tents, and re-enact the first battle every Memorial Day. Each year on Independence Day, they read the same 18 toasts (one for each state at the time) that were read on July 4, 1813, and fire 18 shots with replica rifles. A few of their members constructed their woolen uniforms from the same 200-year-old mills that made the originals, now at a cost of $100 per yard.
I walked with Land during a supply run. We filled our canteens (I had root beer in mine). Land shouted the orders, and four cannons blasted blanks at the Maumee in succession.
Clouds of gun smoke rose as the explosions pushed through my ear plugs. I glanced over to the Fort Meigs monument, a 101-foot tall obelisk built in 1902. Children ran circles around its steps, laughing where soldiers once marched. I thought of those soldiers, hunkered down against all-night gunfire. I wondered if they imagined a place like this, where they would be remembered while kids ran freely under the summer sun. If they could just hold on.
Dorian Slaybod is 28, a local attorney and happily living in Toledo.