Bits of burnt wood from the United States’ presidential mansion and the tunic worn by General Isaac Brock when he was mortally wounded in the Battle of Queenston Heights are two of the artifacts gathered by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa for its exhibit marking the 200th anniversary of the start of the War of 1812.
Entitled 1812: One War, Four Perspectives, the exhibit looks at the war which ran from 1812 to 1815 from the point of view of the Canadian, American, British and North American native participants.
“The Canadian War Museum is proud to play a role in the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and this exhibit is the most ambitious project undertaken by the Canadian War Museum,” said Mark O’Neill, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Museum of Civilization which oversees the war museum.
“The war of 1812 was the fight for Canada,” Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages James Moore told media at a special preview of the exhibit June 12. “This celebration also begins the countdown for the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation.”
Moore praised the team led by the museum’s pre-Confederation historian, D. Peter MacLeod, in gathering artifacts for the exhibit from its own collection, Library and Archives Canada, the British Museum, Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and others.
The centre of the exhibit is designed to look like the wood palisade of a fort from the period. In the palisade there is capsule information about the war and four adjacent rooms branch off to provide the differing perspectives. Each room has a mannequin especially created to represent a figure prominent in the perspective.
In the Canadian section is probably the most intriguing artifact, the bright red coatee worn by General Isaac Brock when he was fatally shot during the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1812. A small hole can be seen just under the lapel where the bullet hit him as he was charging uphill.
The mannequin in the room is a representation of Laura Secord who walked 32 kilometres to warn the British of a pending American attack.
The British section has a mannequin which pays tribute to the British sailor. Britain ruled the waves during the time, but the Americans had brought about some defeats on the Atlantic and in the Great Lakes. Crucial for the British interest during the war was the protection of Halifax and Quebec City, the main ports for supplying the troops and forts throughout British North America.
“To the British, the most important battles of the wars are the two that never happened—for Halifax and Quebec,” said senior interpretive planner Glenn Ogden, who led journalists on a preview tour.
In the American section, one of the significant artifacts is a sculpture of a royal lion. This was a war trophy seized from the legislature for Upper Canada at York when the Americans captured and burned York.
Another key artifact is a piece of scorched wood from the president’s mansion which would later be known as the White House. Discovered during renovations in the 1970s when Gerald Ford was president, it is on loan for the exhibit from the Gerald Ford Library in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The mannequin in that room is of Francis Scott Key, the Baltimore lawyer who was detained on a British warship as it and other Royal Navy ships bombarded Fort McHenry. In the morning he saw that the oversized U.S. flag was still flying and was inspired to write the poem which became the lyrics for the U.S. anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.
For the North American natives, the War of 1812 was a chance to ally themselves with a powerful nation in their own wars against the expanding American frontier in the west. The mannequin in the room is that of a warrior from the period. The loss of the Shawnee leader Tecumseh in the Battle of the Thames in 1813, led the coalition to falter and left the natives vulnerable to American expansionism.
The exhibit also includes one of the original copies of the Treaty of Ghent which ended the war in 1815 and set the borders between the United States and what became Canada.
Also at the war museum is an exhibit put together by Library and Archives Canada called Faces of 1812 which features portraits and other artifacts.
The exhibit runs at the war museum until Jan. 6 and will travel to other museums in Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and British Columbia from 2013 to 2015.
In a companion book for the exhibit MacLeod writes, “For the Canadians, their victory is self-evident. The combined force of British, Canadians and First Peoples may have lost the occasional battle, but the fact that maple leaf flags fly across the continent and north to Ellesmere Island proclaims that Canada won the war. For Americans, it is a little more complicated. They never broke the British blockade and never came close to conquering Canada. But they did succeed for the most past, in defending American territory against British attacks. For Americans, that has been more than enough for them to regard this conflict as an American triumph.”