Battle of Prairie du Chien marks 200 years with record numbers
By Correne Martin
With the Mississippi River in the distance, in the unseasonable breeze, the trees seemed to whisper the alluring stories of the only War of 1812 battle that took place on Wisconsin soil.
On the documented grounds where it all happened, where the Villa Louis now sits, the Battle of Prairie du Chien was fought in 1814.
This past weekend, re-enactors representing both the American and British causes descended on the grounds, as a sort of big family, to portray and teach history in a way that you can’t find in textbooks or pamphlets.
“Re-enacting is something people will remember far better than handing them a brochure,” said Frederick Carsted, who came to St. Feriole Island from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, to act as Col. McKay, commander of the British forces, for the Bicentennial Celebration of the War of 1812 Battle of Prairie du Chien. In real life, Carsted was an infantry officer in the Canadian Armed Forces before retirement.
The re-enactment event had one of the best turnouts it’s seen in its 24 years in Prairie du Chien, as over 150 re-enactors hailed from all over the country—mostly from the Midwest, but many also from Canada.
Several hundred spectators attended as well.
Event organizers, who announced last week that the battle may not be portrayed in 2015, experienced such a wonderful weekend that they were singing a different tune Sunday.
“Next year, we’re probably going to have something going on. It will be July 17-19, 2015. The re-enactors have expressed a real interest in helping make it happen,” Villa Louis Site Director Susan Caya-Slusser said. “It gives us a chance to carry forward some of the excitement from this year’s bicentennial celebration.”
“There’s a great camaraderie. There’s an element of homecoming when the re-enactors come here,” said Michael Douglass, former site director, re-enactor and narrator of the festivities. “I think the site has always done a nice job of making the re-enactors feel at home. These people are really a big family. They enjoy coming here and sharing their knowledge with visitors.”
Douglass said the War of 1812 event is also a great booster for the local economy. Re-enactors such as college student Elizabeth Stone, who came from Kansas City, Mo., made a trip to purchase cheese curds as soon as she arrived in Prairie du Chien Friday. She said many of her colleagues have hotel rooms, shop at retailers and eat at local establishments during their stay.
“The hotels were full all weekend,” Caya-Slusser said.
On Friday, as people were arriving and setting up their tents and other belongings around camp, on the west lawn of the Villa Louis, a gathering of site employees, volunteers and re-enactors greeted each other with hugs and sat on the lawn to talk about how they “teach” history to the public.
“Everything is appropriate to the period,” said Jean Pearson, who acted as one of the main cooks in camp. “From the pots and pans and food to the officers’ tents and the furnishings inside, it’s all very formal. We really bring history to life.”
“You can see it, smell it, taste it,” added Stone. “It’s like I’m in a different classroom, so to speak. It really adds that special something to learning about our past.”
“This can be a very powerful presentation of life as it once was,” Douglass stated. “I see myself as an unconventional teacher who shows others how history really did happen here, right in the heartland of America. And it was a game changer; Wisconsin was very different after the War of 1812.”
The re-enactment is essentially three days worth of activities all condensed into one hour or less, Douglass noted. “It starts with the demand of the British for the Americans to surrender and it ends with the American flag coming down and the British flag going up,” he said. “There’s always a moment when the American flag comes down when you think, ‘It could have ended differently.’”
The British may have won the siege, but the Americans, after the Treaty of Ghent in 1815, regained control of Prairie du Chien, and the British military abandoned its fort. The United States eventually constructed Fort Crawford over the site of the battle.
“This re-enactment makes people do their research and learn more about this battle,” Pearson said.
“It helps all of us, both young and old, become grounded to our roots and appreciate our lives now, as compared to how it was then,” explained David Hink-ley, also from Kansas City. “It’s also a lot of fun. You do it once and you’re hooked.”
Once everyone was settled for the weekend, Saturday and Sunday seemed to be all business, as the re-enactors dressed up in their period attire and followed a schedule of events, from breakfast over the fire and morning colors, to evening colors, candlelight and English country dancing Saturday night. According to Douglass, after dark is when the camp really seems to transcend back to the 1800s.
“There are some neat moments over the course of the weekend where you feel like you’re slipping back in time,” Douglass said.
Saturday’s battle re-enactment was bursting with members of the public taking in the pyrotechnics (re-enactors use blank charges). Sunday was well-attended also.
After Sunday’s battle, the British Redcoat commander re-enactor, Frederick Carsted was impressed with the weekend’s success.
“This is the most we’ve ever had for re-enactors and spectators,” said Carsted, who has been coming to Prairie du Chien every July since 1993 and re-enacting as a pastime since 1985. “You know you’ve done a nice job when people say they enjoyed the show and ask questions.”