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If you go
What: 200th Anniversary of the Siege of Fort Wayne, War of 1812
Where: Old Fort, 1201 Spy Run Ave.
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today
Cost: Free
Siege of Fort Wayne, Saturday

Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Brush catches fire as the historic fort is under attack Saturday at the Siege of Fort Wayne re-enactment.

Siege at Fort turns 200

Re-enactment reveals significance of battle to local, American history

Re-enactor Ruth Lanz shares a moment with her beau, Gerret Swearingen, before he marches into battle Saturday at the Siege of Fort Wayne.

As the Native Americans and militiamen stood off, as they hid behind bushes of braches and dead leaves, as they tried to protect the women and children, as the muskets fired, releasing billows of smoke and loud cracks heard from across the river, a woman took photos with her digital camera.

She was dressed in period garb – a wicker hat with a large feather plume atop her head. She wore a tan linen dress and a brown apron.

This pioneer woman watched a re-enactment from a battle that took place during the Siege of Fort Wayne in the War of 1812. Put on by Historic Fort Wayne, a nonprofit group that manages the Old Fort, the event featured battles and artillery demostrations, music and infantry drills.

“A garrison of 80 men were surrounded by 500 to 1,000 Native Americans. (The Native Americans) had to keep the garrison here until the British came from Canada with cannons,” said Keith Layman, Historic Fort Wayne’s historian.

The volunteers who perform are so up on their history, the group doesn’t rehearse so much as it simply acts. One re-enactor will draw up the scheme of the battle or duel and tell the rest of the group what’s happening about 10 minutes before the battle, Layman said.

And most of those volunteers participate because they know most Americans – children and adults – lack knowledge of history.

“They’re not teaching history in schools anymore,” said Sean O’Brien, a re-enactor since 1997. “1812 gets a paragraph (in history books), and the War of 1812 was vital.”

As he talks about the war, O’Brien will stop midsentence to salute a captain or bow to a lady, removing his enormous pope-sized black hat.

“It’s like a sail. When the wind catches it,” and he darted his head from side to side.

Rich Ferguson is stationed in one of the barracks. There is one small bed – where a soldier and his wife would sleep – and two tinier beds, for the children. The other children, Ferguson said, would sleep on mattresses that were stored under the beds.

Spread across his bed is an actual buffalo hide. It would have cost two months’ pay to buy the buffalo roll from the Native Americans, Ferguson said.

Only the captains would have been able to afford to import the new-fangled feather mattresses, which ran about $200 in the early 1800s. Today, that would be about $5,000.

As re-enactors like Ferguson and O’Brien talk about the history of the period they are portraying, it is clear they are not only fascinated by what went down 200 years ago, but by what could have happened.

The history of the Siege of Fort Wayne could have gone very different if, say, the British troops that were a day’s march away hadn’t retreated. Had they continued to march to Fort Wayne, it would have given the Native Americans enough backup to overtake the fort.

“That’s how close we’d come to being British subjects,” Ferguson said. “It’s one of those twists of fate. We just got lucky.”

He tells of the wooden cannons the Native Americans built to fire upon the fort. When they set off the cannon, it exploded, as Fort Wayne militiamen stood around and laughed.

“Isn’t making a wooden cannon stupid?” asked Isaac Hullinger, 9, who attended the event with his father, Dan Hullinger, of Fort Wayne.

“Pretty much,” Ferguson replied.

Marla Schneider of Fort Wayne attended Saturday’s event with her 6-year-old son, Erik. She had never been to a re-enactment and thought Erik would like it.

“He’s obsessed with old muskets and guns, and I knew he would like coming to the re-enactment,” she said. “I don’t think he knows what’s going to happen. He will be excited.”