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Of Beavers and shipwrecks past

The "Caledonia," first square-rigged vessel on the Great Lakes

The "Caledonia," first square-rigged vessel on the Great Lakes

As a history buff, I love historical mysteries that needsolving. And when The Beaver magazine is the key to solving the puzzle, all the better!

 That's the situation today at Lake Erie, or rather, should I say, under Lake Erie, as officials debate whether to raise a finely preserved shipwreck that could be an important vessel from the War of 1812.

The story, "Legal battle brews over War of 1812 shipwreck," was written by a former colleague of mine, Randy Boswell, of Canwest News Service.

In it, Randy details the controversy surrounding the shipwreck, which is purported to be the Canadian-built frigate Caledonia.

The Caledonia started the War of 1812 on the side of the British — which, technically, was the Canadian side — and wound up in 1813 on the side of the Americans after being captured by U.S. forces.

Now, this is where The Beaver comes in.

In the December 1934 issue, an article by historian George Cuthbertson details the fate of the Caledonia. Cuthbertson writes that after the war, the ship eventually scrapped and "sold for firewood and old iron" in Erie, Pennsylvania.


If true, this blows out of the water the theory held by those who want to raise the wreck that the ship is indeed the Caledonia

A group in Buffalo wants to raise the wreck and make it the centrepiece of a new tourism destination in New York state.

As the anniversary of the War of 1812 draws nearer, controversies such as this will likely hit the news with increasing regularity as both Americans and Canadians try to find ways to commemorate the almost 200-year-old conflict.

However, I predict that doing so will pose a challenge for both sides of the border, largely because the actual war doesn't fit into an easily digested black-and-white scenario.

I have just started researching the war in order to prepare for a special issue of Canada's History magazine that will focus on the War of 1812.

In fact, yesterday, I finished a book on the subject by Jeremy Black, titled "The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon."

I was struck by how the war was really a series of half-victories, punctuated by missed opportunities on both sides. It really was a conflict in which both sides regularly found ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

It's also a war of what-ifs: what if England had not been embroiled in a battle against Napoleon at the time of the War of 1812,  and had been able to bring the full weight of its army and navy to bear on the Americans?

Would the United States today only be a shadow of itself, comprised of the original 13 colonies and a handful of others in the southeast?

What if the British had pushed harder to win for their native allies the creation of a new "Indian Country" centred around the southern Great Lakes region.

The British had hoped this new nation would give natives a common homeland, and also would box in the Americans, preventing them from flooding westward in search of new lands to conquer. Sadly, for the natives at least, this demand was dropped from the Treaty of Ghent that brought the war to an end.

As for the Americans, what if they actually had believed in maintaining a strong regular army after the War of Independence, rather than trying to capture Canada with poorly trained militias who often refused to fight outside of their home states?

Imagine what Canada would look like today if a powerful, professional American army have swept over the St. Lawrence and captured Quebec and Montreal during the War of 1812? 

In Randy's story, he mentions that that Caledonia played a role in smashing the Royal Navy's fleet on the Great Lakes.

That's true.

But it's also true that the Americans were no match for the Brits on the high seas. The Royal Navy dominated the oceans, while the Americans held the lakes.

Just another stalemate in a war of stalemates.

With the Beaver at the centre of the upcoming court case involving the Caledonia, we'll certainly be watching with interest here at Canada's History

I'm sure, as we get closer to the anniversary date, that this won't be the last time that Canadians and Americans go to "war" over the War of 1812.

One of the great joys of working at the Canada's History Society.

Posted: 25/06/2010 9:17:25 AM by MARK REID | with 1 comments
Filed under: Caledonia, Mark Reid, military history, ships (frigates), shipwrecks, The Beaver, War of 1812

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