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War of 1812 Cannonball

Fragment of six-pound cannonball fired in battle between American and British forces on July 1814 at Prairie du Chien, Illinois Territory (now Wisconsin).
(Museum object #H162)

Few people may be aware that the War of 1812 was partially waged in Wisconsin, albeit briefly. Most of the battles between Britain and the developing United States during the "second war of independence" took place along the Atlantic coast and the border between the United States and Canada. However, Prairie du Chien, strategically located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers, was an important commercial site in the early 1800s. Though technically part of the United States, several large British fur trading concerns ran significant operations in this area of what was then known as the Illinois Territory. As such, traders, rather than any organized government, largely controlled this "western" outpost. When an American military unit traveled northward from St. Louis during the war to establish a formal post there, the British recognized the threat to their interests, and cannonballs like the one featured here began to fly.

On May 1, 1814, an expedition organized by William Clark, then Governor of the Missouri Territory, headed north up the Mississippi River with Lt. Joseph Perkins, a company of 60 enlisted men, and 140 short-term volunteers to construct an American military fort at Prairie du Chien. The group arrived on June 2 to find the town nearly deserted, the local militia and many of the town's inhabitants having fled once word reached them of the American military's advance. Most residents, including local Native Americans, felt more closely affiliated with the British and French Canadians than with the American strangers invading their territory.

According to Lt. Perkins's official report, construction on Fort Shelby began on June 6, 1814. Governor Clark, along with the volunteers, departed for St. Louis the next day, leaving Perkins and his relatively small band of men to complete the job and defend the post. Clark also left behind several cannons and a gunboat, the Governor Clark, to assist the company with its defense. Perkins notes "On the 19th [of June] I had the Fort so far advanced that I moved into it and mounted a six pounder in one Block house and a three in the other. I continued working on the Fort until the 17th of July when a large body of British and Indians made their appearance in the Prairie."

Major William McKay, commander of the British force, had left the British post in Mackinac, Michigan on June 28 after receiving word of the Americans' arrival in Prairie du Chien. When McKay reached Fort Shelby on July 17 with 150 soldiers and 400 Native Americans loyal to the British cause, he delivered the customary request for surrender to Lt. Perkins:

"Sir, An hour after the receipt of this, surrender to His Majesty's forces under my command, unconditionally, otherwise I order you to defend yourself to the last man. The humanity of a British officer obliges me (in case you should be obstinate) to request you will send out of the way your women and children;"

to which Perkins promptly replied,

"Sir, I received your polite note and prefer the latter, and am determined to defend to the last man."

Shortly after 1 pm, the British began shooting at the gunboat with a "Brass four" cannon. Within a few hours, the Governor Clark had sustained sufficient damage from the British attack and cut loose its ties to the shore to drift downstream and repair its damage. Along with the Governor Clark went most of the Americans' provisions, including additional ammunition, food, and medical supplies.

The British next turned their attention to Fort Shelby. Museum records indicate that this cannonball fragment, donated to the museum in 1888, was "fired by Americans in Fort Shelby at Prairie du Chien at Joseph Rollette's [sic] company of Indians, July 17, 1814. This company was assisting in the British attack." Although it is impossible to prove that this cannonball was fired at this specific group, historical sources do corroborate the assertion that Joseph Rolette, a British fur trader with ties to Prairie du Chien, commanded a company of men, including Native Americans, during this battle.

After enduring two more days of attacks on the fort by the British, Perkins explained his choice to surrender on July 20: "[F]inding the boat did not return and we had expended the most of the fixed ammunition for the six and three pounder, the water in the well had so far exhausted that we could scarcely get any to drink, and in attempting to sink, it caved in so that I had to give it over those circumstances together with the enemy's approaching us by undermining, I thought it best to capitulate on the best terms I could." Thus ended the brief Battle of Prairie du Chien, the only battle in the War of 1812 fought on Wisconsin soil.

Shortly after the British captured Fort Shelby, renaming it Fort McKay, the War of 1812 ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. This treaty essentially returned all British and American territories to their pre-war status. Though neither side gained nor lost territory, Americans proclaimed victory by holding off the British threat to their newly emerging nation. When news of the war's end finally reached the British at Fort McKay in April 1815, the British troops returned to Mackinac, burning Fort McKay upon their departure. An American military presence occupied Prairie du Chien at the newly constructed Fort Crawford from 1816 until 1856, when the base was closed. Villa Louis, a Wisconsin Historical Society Historic Site, is now located near the site of the old Fort Shelby.

[Sources: Brymner, Douglas. "Capture of Fort McKay, Prairie du Chien, in 1814," Wisconsin Historical Collections, Vol 11, 1888; Grignon, Augustin, "Seventy-two Years of Recollections of Wisconsin," Wisconsin Historical Collections, Vol 3, 1857; Scanlan, Peter Lawrence. Prairie du Chien: French, British, American (Menasha, WI: G. Banta Publishing Co., 1985); Reidell, Edward L. "The Americans at Prairie du Chien," retrieved June 10, 2008; Smith, Alice E. The History of Wisconsin Volume 1: From Exploration to Statehood (Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1973); Wyman, Mark. The Wisconsin Frontier (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998).]


Posted on June 19, 2008

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