Who won the War? (Page 2 of 3)
Soldiers, descendants of Loyalists and history buffs recreate a battle to demonstrate why the War of 1812 is still important today.
By Allen Abel with photography by David Trattles
|Not all reenactors are hard core—some admit they sleep on air mattresses inside their tents. (Photo: David Trattles) |
|From the archives|
The land where the make-believe combatants will be duelling was a fallow farm of ghosts. In 1958, the
dredging and digging of the St. Lawrence Seaway required
that certain parcels of land on the Canadian side of the river be levelled and flooded to aid the passage of ocean-going
ships, lest they be speared by steeples. The storied battleground
was inundated. For more than half a century, Canada’s Stalingrad has been as lost as Atlantis.
Lorraine Reoch remembers the morning that Crysler’s Farm slipped beneath the waves. She is sitting in the tent set
up by the St. Lawrence Branch of the United Empire Loyalists, the proud descendants of American colonists who packed up
and sailed north because they found America unappealing.
“My grandfather got me up at 4:30 in the morning to see
it happen,” she says. “A lot of people expected a big wall of
water when they blew the cofferdam at Iroquois, but it just
slowly crept in and took three days. There was 60 feet of
water where my grandfather’s cottage had been.
“If you can imagine land without trees, land without
homes, that’s what it looked like that morning. As we came
down the river that day,” Lorraine says, “they were burning
the last of the shacks.”
Her husband Gord chimes in: “A lot of the older people
couldn’t stand the move, and they died within a couple of
years. These were heritage farms, you know. They went
back hundreds of years.”
Most of the houses and stone-walled buildings from
Ontario’s so-called Lost Villages were removed before the
deluge. Many were transported on tractors to Morrisburg
and reassembled into a touristy slice of yesteryear called
Upper Canada Village. Markers from liquidated cemeteries
were immured in red brick walls. Now the Kezars, the
Mattices, the Davidsons, the Taits and their perpetual
neighbours rest uneasily in their nouveau niches — stones
without their sacred bones.
Also moved to higher ground was an obelisk erected by
the Dominion of Canada in 1895 to honour the fallen of
“What if the Americans had won?” I ask Lorraine.
“I think we’d be American today,” she replies. “Our
grace was right here.”
That point is a matter of dispute. The two sides still can’t
agree on the significance of the battle or on what the War
of 1812 (and 1813 and 1814) achieved, if anything.
“An unmitigated disgrace, the absolute nadir of the
of the American regular army,” lamented the late
John R. Elting, a distinguished U.S. officer and scholar
“British victory in 1813, based on success at Crysler’s
Farm and on a parallel triumph at Chateâuguay, preserved
Canada’s independence from its aggressive neighbour,”
writes Ontario historian Donald E. Graves in his
narrative of the battle, Field of Glory.
“Two far less decisive battles occurred along another river
in the fall of 1813,” sniffs Colorado writer Walter R.
Borneman in 1812: The War That Forged a Nation,
dismissing Crysler’s Farm and Chateâuguay entirely,
compared with the Niagara and Thames campaigns. And,
in his 482-page Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought
the Second War of Independence, A. J. Langguth of the
University of Southern California doesn’t mention the
Battle of Crysler’s Farm at all.
For their part, the latter-day sutlers at the re-enactors’
encampment are happy to profit from both sides. They’re
selling two different bumper stickers, one with the Stars and
Stripes and the other with the Union Jack.
Both say: “War of 1812: Been There, Won That.”
Hundreds of spectators filter out of Upper Canada
Village to visit the costumed combatants. But for some of
the actors, going to war means more than a weekend of
playing Mr. Dressup.
Jim Hough was a door gunner on American helicopters
raining fire on the Viet Cong. It was 1969, the summer of
Apollo 11 and Woodstock. Canadian rocker Bryan Adams
would sing of that season as “the best days of my life,” but
it was also the year Hough was airlifted to Japan with
in his face and then sent home.
It was Lieutenant General Henry Shrapnel, of course,
whose diabolical exploding canister shell was the most
devastating weapon in the British arsenal, circa 1812.
“It took a long time to get Jim here,” says Marsha
Hough, stirring a pot of 19th-century stew under the
Ontario oaks, to be served in hand-turned wooden bowls.
“I buried it for 30 years,” says Jim softly. “It took a long,
long time to pick up a rifle again. Now, when I fire a musket, it’s just black powder. When I fire a cannon, it’s
just smoke and noise. There’s no cartridge and no
cannonball. I know what a cannonball can do.”
He shows me how to load and fire the handsome replica
French rifle that Marsha bought for $700 as a “re-wedding”
“Pour in the powder, open the cartridge, ram it home.
Half-cock. Pour powder in the flash pan. Close the flash
pan. Fully cock, and wait for the order to fire.”
Wait, even as the men you love fall beside you. Steady,
boys … steady … fire!
I ask Jim, “Do you feel a bond with the soldiers who
fought and died in this battle?”
“Their courage was absolutely insane,” he says, “how they
just stood there and reloaded while the other side shot at
them. But it was the same in Vietnam. That’s what you
train to do. You train with a group of guys, you live with a
group of guys. If you ran, you shamed yourself in their eyes.
Honour was a big, big thing.”
At Crysler’s Farm, many of the re-enactors on the
American side are of the Vietnam generation; that, more
than any river, separates them from their coeval Canucks.
Charlie Abel tells me that his father had broken so many
of his bones in childhood beatings, his draft board sent
“Look around the world,” says Charlie. “A lot of the
guys I grew up with didn’t come back from Vietnam.
That’s one of the things about war — boys go over, but
they don’t come back.”
Playing bang-bang in a ruffled shirt and sleeping in a tent
is safer, except perhaps for the Morrisburg mosquitoes. “I
love cannons,” says Charlie. “I’m a cannon person. I like
the noise. I like cannons more than I like my wife.”
On his beefy arm is a tattoo that reads: “Abel’s Artillery.”
Marsha Hough says that she teaches middle-school
to emotionally disturbed boys.
“Like me,” says Charlie.
“War is horrible,” she says. “But when you do the handson
stuff, the kids just love it.”