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War 200 years ago set stage for Chicago

Thu, Aug 23, 2012

On the 15th of August 200 years ago, the land we call Chicago was a battleground. There was bloodshed and battle cries, defeat and victory. It was all part of the greater War of 1812, a war whose only gains were a reinforced American identity and independence.

As part of Navy Week and the Chicago Air and Water Show, civilians and members of the military will commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812 with the presence of large Navy ships docking in cities around the Great Lakes, including Chicago.

The War of 1812, sometimes called the Second War for Independence, is little discussed these days, but it had a significant impact on the country we know today. Even less discussed are how the war played out in the Midwest and how the area that is Chicago today was affected.

“If you’re thinking about the war in this region, it’s not generally in the history books,” said Ann Durkin Keating, a history professor at North Central College in Naperville. “It’s not on many people’s radar screens when thinking about the War of 1812.”

Keating wrote an entire book about the war in this region, called Rising Up from Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Rise of Chicago, newly published by the University of Chicago Press. The battle, in which the U.S. lost to the Native Americans, is more commonly known as the Massacre of Fort Dearborn, but Keating doesn’t believe it qualifies as such.

“It’s called a massacre afterwards because the U.S. lost,” she said. “There’s lots of reasons, but a big one is it’s really useful to describe this battle as a massacre because it masks the fact that there were no reinforcements that came, the withdrawal was ill advised.”

Although the Potawatomi secured a victory for the Native Americans in this particular battle, the U.S. victory at the end of the war in 1815 also marked the beginning of the end of the decades-long U.S. war with the Native Americans. Defeating both the Native Americans and the British also better established the legitimacy of the country.

“Great Britain will acknowledge boundaries with the United States, and they’re not going to get involved in the Indian Wars, so the Indian Wars will fade out,” Keating said of the aftermath of the war. “Nationally, it’s helping to create American nationalism. Who’s American, who’s not. People are making choices. They’re identifying themselves as Canadian, they’re identifying themselves as American.”

The results of the war, while not necessarily concrete, are a little more evident than its origins. There is no one good reason why the U.S. entered the fight, Keating says. Historians generally point to British impressment, a tactic in which the British would steal U.S. sailors and force them to serve in their Navy. Others also mention the desire to gain more territory by way of defeating the Native Americans, some of whom were allied with Great Britain.

The young United States took on quite the challenge, however , when it decided to do much of their battle with the British on the seas. With the undisputed best Navy in the world at that time, the British seemingly had the upper hand. Fortunately for the U.S., however, much of the British Navy was already fighting Napoleon in France.

“The United States wins the war largely because Great Britain doesn’t put the kind of investment in that would make this a winning effort for them,” Keating said.

Circumstance happened to be on the side of the U.S. in this war in the middle of two other wars. Nonetheless, a victory is a victory, and the U.S. would not be the country it is today had they been defeated.

“I think it’s terrifically significant from the standpoint of where we live and U.S. territory that is held as part of American society,” Keating said. “The alternative vision is that this is territory that would’ve remained in Indian hands. That decision remains the basis on which a place like Chicago will rise.”

Colleen Connolly, StreetWise Editorial Intern

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