The War of 1812 Magazine
Issue 11: June 2009
A North Country Treasure -- Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site
The eyes of all have for a long time turned to Sackets Harbor as a place of preparation for mighty deeds.
No fences mark the boundary between the village of Sackets Harbor and the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site on Lake Ontario in Jefferson County. Together they form the geographical center of this picturesque waterfront community. The site, with its expansive landscape, sweeping views of the lake, and historic features, encompasses one-third of the village and is significant for its critical role during the War of 1812 and subsequent use as a United States naval station. The property’s rich military and maritime history are the focus of the site’s interpretive programs.
Following the outbreak of war between the United States and Great Britain in June 1812, Sackets Harbor, with its deep, natural harbor, became the headquarters for American naval and military activity for the upper St. Lawrence Valley and Lake Ontario. A large fleet was constructed at the harbor’s extensive shipyards, and barracks were built to house the thousands of military personnel and workers who provided support for the invasion and conquest of Canada.
In an attempt to destroy the shipyard, a British-Canadian force launched an attack on May 29, 1813. At the time, many of the American troops were across Lake Ontario attacking Fort George. Although the enemy was driven off, the Americans were forced to burn their military stores, a necessity that marred the victory. In December 1814, the Treaty of Ghent officially ended the war, and the Lake Ontario fleet was placed in storage.
After the war, the massive earthen fortifications of Forts Tompkins and Kentucky were leveled, the battlefield became farmland, and some of the buildings were converted for agricultural use. An unfinished ship, the New Orleans, which was designed to carry a crew of 1,000, remained at the yard and a large wooden storage building was constructed to protect it for future use. In 1817, the Rush-Bagot Agreement between the United States and Great Britain limited all naval forces on the Great Lakes.
During the 1840s and 1850s, old shipyard buildings were removed and new quarters were constructed for the naval commandant and lieutenant. By the 1880s, the Navy decided to scrap the New Orleans. Improved Canadian-America relations ended the need for a naval base at Sackets Harbor, but the Navy maintained the facility until 1955, using it for training naval militia.
By the 1860s and 1870s, part of the battlefield was being used as a public park. The land was called the Old Battlefield Ground and became a popular place for patriotic meetings, political rallies, church picnics, and community events. In 1913, a portion of the park was officially set aside to honor all military personnel who had fought and died in the War of 1812. That year, on the centennial of the Battle of Sackets Harbor, a large crowd gathered to attend the dedication of a commemorative granite monument and memorial grove of one hundred trees. The park was donated to the state in 1933, and the property was later enlarged to include the naval station.
The thirty-two-acre state historic site contains ten structures and preserves the nationally significant battleground memorial park and the historic navy yard. The navy yard complex features a commandant’s house restored and furnished to the 1860s, an orientation center and gift shop in the lieutenant’s house, an interactive War of 1812 exhibit in the former stable, and an ice house now a min-theater and well house. The site is open to the public from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend and at other times for special events, such as weddings. The grounds are open year-round and have become a popular spot for bird watching, dog walking, bike riding, jogging, and enjoying spectacular sunsets.
The site is interpreted to the public through exhibits, tours, an interpretive trail, education initiatives, special events, and demonstrations of War of 1812 army camp life. Annually on the first weekend of August the “War of 1812 Weekend” hosts living history re-enactors from the US and Canada. Visitors have the opportunity to interact with re-enactors and learn about weaponry, cooking methods, and the traditions of early nineteenth-century American military life.
Sharing the site’s history with younger audiences has become a high priority. The site is also home to an extensive archive, including a large War of 1812 database, which was donated by a member of the not-for-profit Battlefield Alliance. The archive is accessible to the public by appointment, and periodic publications enhance education and research opportunities.
Throughout the year, the site hosts a series of community events, including a Memorial Day observance, involving 10th Mountain Division soldiers from nearby Fort Drum, summer concerts on the lawn, Fourth of July celebrations and fireworks, and holiday festivities in December. Since 2003, the site has collaborated with other local attractions on a motor coach tour package, “The Sackets Harbor Experience,” which helps promote regional tourism.
Community outreach has become a key component of the site’s long-term preservation and operation. The not-for-profit Sackets Harbor Battlefield Alliance was established in 2003 to support the site’s interpretation and improvement. Through its dedicated members and volunteers, the Alliance has already expanded several of the site’s core initiatives, including visitor orientation and interpretation.
Some of the Alliance’s most popular events include the “Commandant’s Lawn Party” and the mid-winter “Savor Sackets Harbor: A Moveable Feast.” These important fund-raising activities have assisted various educational and promotion efforts, such as the purchase of 1860s reproduction clothing for the site’s interpreters, the installation of an attractive new entrance sign, and new publications.
As a prelude to the War of 1812 bicentennial in 2012, the Alliance looks forward to seeking other partners and opportunities to highlight the site’s importance.
The Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site is one of the region’s most valuable scenic and historic assets. The site tells the fascinating story of America’s courageous defense of its northern frontier during the War of 1812, its long use as a naval station, and later dedication as a War of 1812 memorial park. Throughout its history, the site has played an important role in the village’s development and growth. Today, thanks to community interest and support, the state historic site continues to make an important contribution to interpreting the past while improving the quality and character of the village and the surrounding area.
For information, contact the site at P.O. Box 27, 504 W. Main Street, Sackets Harbor, New York 13685, (315) 646-3634, or visit New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and Sackets Harbor Battlefield Alliance.
Article credit: The New York State Preservationist, Volume 9, No. 1 Spring/Summer 2005, New York State office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
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