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Feature Stories

How War of 1812 shaped the Prairie State

War 1812

"Illinois in the War of 1812," by Gillum Ferguson
(University of Illinois Press, 349 pages, $34.95 hardcover)

This year marks the bicentennial of the War of 1812, an often confusing conflict rooted in struggles between Great Britain and France that eventually played out across the eastern half of North America.

Initially reluctant to be drawn into Europe's battles, the U,S. finally got fed up with Britain's war-related restrictions on U.S. shipping and its support of American Indian tribes that resisted settlers' westward migration. So on June 18, 1812, the young nation declared war on Britain.

The conflict dragged on more than 30 months and inspired the U.S. National Anthem. (Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that became "The Star-Spangled Banner" after watching British ships bombard Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore.) But many Americans remained unclear as to why the country was fighting, and today the War of 1812 is often described as the "forgotten war."

Tale of a territory

Unlike the American Revolution, the 1812 war didn't immediately change the nation's course. But the conflict, Gillum Ferguson argues in his meticulously researched history, did play a pivotal role in the development of what was then known as Illinois Territory. Split off from Indiana Territory in 1809, the region included the current states of Illinois and Wisconsin and parts of Michigan and Minnesota.

"All those states, especially Illinois, would eventually owe their existence, at least in part, to the War of 1812," writes Ferguson, a Naperville, Ill., attorney who often writes about Illinois history.

According to Ferguson, his is the first comprehensive attempt—apart from an article published in 1904—to focus specifically on Illinois' role in the war. His approach is scholarly in detail; the book includes 100 pages of notes documenting sources.

Far from a dry academic treatise, however, "Illinois in the War of 1812" offers colorful glimpses into life on the American frontier and an even-handed look at American, British and Native American leaders who figured in bloody battles at Chicago's Fort Dearborn and elsewhere. Wartime atrocities, at times recounted in gruesome detail, abounded on all sides. But Ferguson also writes of acts of heroism and "saving instances of humanity" on the part of U.S. soldiers, pioneers and tribal leaders.

War's end and statehood

The war ended Dec. 24, 1814, with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in what is now Belgium. Ratification took several months, and getting word to far-flung combatants proved slow. In the meantime, attacks continued to be mounted sporadically by all sides in Illinois and elsewhere.

The final major battle, the Battle of New Orleans, took place in January of 1815 and ended with a U.S. victory. That summer, the U.S. began a series of peace conferences involving a number of Indian tribes. With peace more or less restored, settlers once again poured into Illinois Territory, and in 1818 Illinois became the 21st state in the Union.