2012-07-28 / Top News

British Capture Fort

By James Dau


Interpreters dressed as British soldiers and their Native American and French- Canadian allies confront their American counterparts. More than 50 reenactors took part in the event. Interpreters dressed as British soldiers and their Native American and French- Canadian allies confront their American counterparts. More than 50 reenactors took part in the event. On July 17, a force of British soldiers marched on Fort Mackinac to the martial tones of fife and bagpipe and demanded its commander, Lt. Porter Hanks, surrender immediately or risk his small garrison facing the full assault of His Majesty’s army and their Native American and French-Canadian allies.

“Sir, I have summoned you to demand the surrender the fort of the island of Michilimackinac into the arms of His Most Britannic Majesty,” British Captain Charles Roberts said, “and in order to save the effusion of blood which must, of necessity, follow the attack of such troops as I have now at my command, I grant this consideration. One hour will be allowed for your decision.”

British troops and their allies had landed at British Landing hours earlier and had placed cannon on the high ground to the north of the fort. A single warning shot echoed over the island forests to lend credence to their threat.


Interpreters portraying Brit- ish Captain Charles Roberts (left) and American Lieutenant Porter Hanks reenact the surrender of Fort Mackinac in the first land engagement of the War of 1812. The night before the attack, Capt. Roberts landed a force of British soldiers and their French-Canadian and Native American allies at British Landing, marching south to occupy the high ground north of Fort Mackinac. Lt. Hanks did not realize war had broken out, and was unprepared and forced to surrender without a struggle. Interpreters portraying Brit- ish Captain Charles Roberts (left) and American Lieutenant Porter Hanks reenact the surrender of Fort Mackinac in the first land engagement of the War of 1812. The night before the attack, Capt. Roberts landed a force of British soldiers and their French-Canadian and Native American allies at British Landing, marching south to occupy the high ground north of Fort Mackinac. Lt. Hanks did not realize war had broken out, and was unprepared and forced to surrender without a struggle. “An unconditional surrender has been made,” Lt. Hanks responded.

This was the first that he or anyone at Fort Mackinac had learned of the outbreak of hostilities with the British crown, and so were wholly unprepared to fight an enemy with superior numbers and position. His decree was met with celebratory cheering from the British allies and the discharging of weapons into the air. The first land engagement of the War of 1812 had ended without bloodshed, and the Straits of Mackinac would remain in British hands until the end of the conflict.


Friends Good Will, a recreated War of 1812 sloop, fires its guns in salute, returning that of the Fort Mackinac cannons. The original ship was an American merchant vessel that arrived in Mackinac Island without realizing the fort had already been taken by British forces. It was summarily captured by the British. Friends Good Will, a recreated War of 1812 sloop, fires its guns in salute, returning that of the Fort Mackinac cannons. The original ship was an American merchant vessel that arrived in Mackinac Island without realizing the fort had already been taken by British forces. It was summarily captured by the British. This year marks the bicentennial of the beginning of that war, and Tuesday, July 17, the bicentennial of that first land encounter between the American and British militaries on Mackinac Island. In commemoration of this moment in history, Mackinac State Historic Parks reenacted it on that date, featuring costumed interpreters and guest speakers for the public on Fort Mackinac’s parade ground. Amid the warm air and light breeze of that summer evening, costumed interpreters dressed as American and British soldiers, Native American warriors, and French- Canadian allies of the British assembled to act out the events leading to the surrender of the fort. When the reenactors portraying Lt. Hanks and Capt. Roberts completed their surrender exchange with a ceremonial flourish of Capt. Roberts’ sword, those on the British side took up the same victory yell that the real combatants unleashed two centuries before. They fired their weapons, as well as Fort Mackinac’s cannon, in celebration. Out in the harbor, the recreated sloop Friends Good Will, an American vessel captured in the harbor by British forces shortly after the fort’s fall, answered with cannon fire of its own.


Reenactors dressed as British soldiers prepare to march into the Fort Mackinac parade grounds Tuesday evening, July 17. They marched in formation to the sound of bagpipes and fifes. Reenactors dressed as British soldiers prepare to march into the Fort Mackinac parade grounds Tuesday evening, July 17. They marched in formation to the sound of bagpipes and fifes. There was more, however, than the spectacle of historic speech and gunfire. Four guest speakers took the lectern before the reenactment to explain the significance of the event being memorialized. Dennis Moore, public affairs officer for the Consulate General of Canada, Eric Hemenway, Native American Remains Protection and Repatriation Act specialist for Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Phil Porter, Mackinac State Historic Parks director, and Dennis Cawthorne, chairman of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, spoke of the farreaching significance of the events of the War of 1812, of events that, in many ways, began on Mackinac Island.

Mr. Porter explained the historical context of the event, placing the capture of the fort in the larger tapestry of the War of 1812. The war began as a result of American sailors being forcibly impressed into the British navy to help the British in their ongoing war with France. When war was declared, word did not reach frontier outposts like Fort Mackinac immediately, which gave the British the opportunity to surprise its garrison and capture it.

“The United States fought many wars, many times, in many different places,” Mr. Porter said, “but U.S. soldiers only saw combat once in the Michigan territory, and that was during the War of 1812.”

Although the conflict was violent, he said, its outcome paved the way for lasting peace between the United States, Great Britain, and Canada.

“When the U.S. declared war on Britain, no one could have guessed that from the hostilities would emerge one of the most enduring and productive binational relationships the world has ever known,” Mr. Moore said. “Since that time, it is now, and has been for many years, the world’s longest undefended border. It signifies enduring trust and common, binational goals.”

Mr. Moore’s statements highlighted points made by Mr. Porter and Mr. Cawthorne in their speeches, that from the strife of the War of 1812 emerged a long-lasting peace and eventual cooperation between the United States, Great Britain, and Canada. This was made possible, in part, by the firm establishment of the thennebulous border between the United States and Canada.

“From that struggle, both the United States and Canada emerged with more clearly defined identities and borders, giving them the potential to realize one of the longest-lasting partnerships the world has ever known,” Mr. Moore concluded. Never again would war erupt between any of the three nations.

Mr. Hemenway presented a different perspective on the story. As a representative of the Anishnabe people, among whom the Odawa count themselves, Mr. Hemenway revealed the significance of Fort Mackinac and the War of 1812 for Native Americans in the Great Lakes region.

“For the Anishnabe,” he said, “Mackinac Island has a very deep and special meaning. We have lived in this region for thousands of years. Our forefathers were buried here, and all the tribes came together to defend this place. The War of 1812 for Native Americans in the Great Lakes cannot be seen as one event, but as a continuation of events since the French and Indian War. All of the tribes came together to try and push the British out, but that didn’t work as planned. Later, we tried pushing the Americans out, but we were again repelled. In the War of 1812, we were not fighting to expand an empire, but to protect our homeland and our nation that had been intact for so many generations.”

The War of 1812 was the last time many of these tribes employed military action to achieve their goals, instead engaging in negotiations and treaties which often left them with much less than they started with.

“For us, the war never ended,” Mr. Hemenway said, “it just changed to different kinds of battles.”

He points out, however, that things are different today.

“I like to look at this and think that our great leaders from then are with us today,” he said, “seeing our young braves here on Mackinac again, and knowing that their sacrifice was not in vain.”

Such has been the significance of the War of 1812, that through this period of violence that began on Mackinac Island, lasting efforts at peace have sprung forward. So as the cannons fired from Fort Mackinac and Friends Good Will over the harbor, this reenactment celebrates not a military victory, nor commemorates a wartime loss, but the peace that followed it.

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