It’s 19 degrees with a brisk wind blowing off Lake Erie as the men of Lacroix Company march across a snow-crusted field in Michigan.
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“Prepare to load!” shouts Ralph Naveaux, the unit’s commander. Fumbling with frozen hands, the men shove ramrods down the muzzles of their flintlocks.
“Aim!” Naveaux yells, and the soldiers point their muskets at an industrial park on the far side of the field.
Six triggers click in unison. “Bang,” one of the men says.
After a second mock volley, the re-enactors retire to the parking lot of one of the bloodiest battlefields of the War of 1812. On this ground, hundreds of U.S. soldiers died in a defeat so stinging that it spawned a vengeful American battle cry: “Remember the Raisin!”
Today, almost no one does. Nor do many Americans hallow the war of which it was part. The “Raisin”—short for the River Raisin that runs by the site—recently became the first national battlefield park devoted to the War of 1812. And it’s no Gettysburg, but rather a small patch of “brownfield” (ground contaminated by industry) south of Detroit. The belching stacks of a coal-fired plant poke above the park’s tree line. Nearby stands a shuttered Ford factory where some of the re-enactors used to work.
This neglect saddens Naveaux, who has labored hard to preserve the battlefield. But ignorance of the War of 1812 lightens his role as Lacroix Company leader. “I made up some of the orders today, and they weren’t carried out well,” he concedes at the end of the wintry drill. “But if we do things wrong out here, how many people are going to know or care?”
If they ever will, it should be now, on the War of 1812’s bicentennial. Two centuries ago this June, the United States made its first declaration of war, inaugurating a 32-month conflict with Britain that claimed almost as many lives as the Revolutionary War. The war also cemented the young nation’s independence, opened vast tracts of Indian land to settlement and gave Americans “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Yet the War of 1812 still struggles for notice, even on its 200th birthday—which has the misfortune of coinciding with the 150th anniversary of what 1812 enthusiasts call “that other war.” The one featuring slavery, Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln.