Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Detroit During the War of 1812 and the Regency Era: 1811 - 1820
I've had the pleasure recently to spend a bit of time as a modern visitor, rather than a participant, watching an era I know very little about come to life before my eyes: the Regency era. I must admit that I have very little knowledge of the period - for some reason I bypassed the earlier part of the 19th century in my studies and went from the colonial/Rev War period straight to the mid-to-late 19th century.
I have watched the Jane Austin films - yes, I'm a guy and I admit that I enjoy watching these period dramas! Hey! It's history! - and that is the extent of my knowledge here.
The thing is, Michigan and Detroit played a prominent role in the War of 1812. And yet so little has been written in the school history books about it. And our local media have all but ignored the 200th anniversary of the forgotten war and era as well.
But I thank God for places like Greenfield Village and Historic Fort Wayne (the fort in Detroit, not the city in Indiana), for they have presented events - on the same weekend no less - celebrating the era as well as teaching thousands about the people and the War.
First, please allow me to give you a brief explanation (taken from the History Channel's page) about the War itself:
In the War of 1812, the United States took on the greatest naval power in the world, Great Britain, in a conflict that would have an immense impact on the young country's future. Causes of the war included British attempts to restrict U.S. trade, the Royal Navy's impressment of American seamen and America's desire to expand its territory. The United States suffered many costly defeats at the hands of British, Canadian and Native American troops over the course of the War of 1812, including the capture and burning of the nation's capital, Washington, D.C., in August 1814. Nonetheless, American troops were able to repulse British invasions in New York, Baltimore and New Orleans, boosting national confidence and fostering a new spirit of patriotism. The ratification of the Treaty of Ghent on February 17, 1815, ended the war but left many of the most contentious questions unresolved. Nonetheless, many in the United States celebrated the War of 1812 as a "second war of independence," beginning an era of partisan agreement and national pride.
Now, a bit more specifically, here is a bit about something closer to home for us living in the Detroit area:
The Siege of Detroit, also known as the Surrender of Detroit, or the Battle of Fort Detroit, was an early engagement in this war. A British force under Major General Isaac Brock, with American Indian allies under the Shawnee leader, Tecumseh, used bluff and deception to intimidate the American Brigadier General William Hull into surrendering the fort and town of Detroit and a dispirited army, which nevertheless outnumbered the victorious British and Native Americans, without firing a returning shot.
This took place on August 16, 1812 on the very spot where the photograph below was taken 200 years and three days later.
The British gained an important post on American territory and won control over Michigan Territory and the Detroit region for most of the following year. Brock was hailed as a hero, and Tecumseh's influence over the confederation of natives was strengthened. General Hull was tried by court martial and was sentenced to death for his conduct at Detroit, but the sentence was commuted by President Madison to dismissal from the Army, in recognition of his honorable service in the Revolutionary War. American attempts to regain Detroit were continually thwarted by poor communications and the difficulties of maintaining militia contingents in the field, until they won a naval victory at the Battle of Lake Erie on 10 September 1813. This isolated the British at Amherstburg and Detroit from their supplies and forced them to retreat. Hull's successor, Major General William Henry Harrison, pursued the retreating British and Natives and defeated them at the Battle of the Thames (in Ontario), where Tecumseh was killed.
The following gives a bit of a description of the news of everyday life in Detroit during this regency era:
The War of 1812 left Detroit and the surrounding areas in almost total devastation. The British had burned all of the wooden buildings in the fort before they left and the Indians had destroyed the farm areas around the city, burning homes and shooting livestock. Judge Woodward appealed to Washington for relief (which) sent food for the people and livestock for the farms.
By 1816, conditions had improved. The end of the war started a westward immigration movement...between 1815 and 1820, Detroit's population had increased from 1,000 to 3,000 inhabitants. Settlers were encouraged to explore the outlying areas...locating favorable farm and town sites.
Detroit was becoming a lively place during this time, especially now that attacks by Indians were no longer a fear.
In 1816, workers began a road linking Detroit to the settlement of Pontiac, which was the forerunner of what was to become one of its most famous streets, Woodward.
In 1817, President James Monroe became the first U.S. President to visit the city while in office; he stayed for five days in August. This was a morale booster for the citizens and they planned a procession through the streets with a fireworks display on the night of his arrival (August 13). As a gift, the citizens gave the President horses and a carriage. Michigan territory governor, Lewis Cass, made sure the presidential visit was publicized in the east in hopes of enticing new immigrants to settle here.
1817 was also the year the city even began its own newspaper, the Detroit Gazette, printed in both English and French.
In 1818, the Walk-in-the-Water steamboat first crossed Lake Erie and headed up to Detroit. Practically the entire town showed up for the event.
As was printed in the Gazette on August 28: Yesterday, between the hours of 10 and 11 a.m., the elegant steamboat Walk-in-the-Water arrived. As she passed the public wharf, she was cheered by hundreds of the inhabitants who had collected to witness this truly novel and grand spectacle.
Soon after, steamers were running on regular schedules, carrying an ever-increasing volume of traffic from Buffalo, New York..
New buildings were being erected, among them a few bookstores and clothing shops, the Palmer brothers general store, the incorporation of the Detroit City Library (marking the beginning of the University of Michigan), a hotel called the Steamboat Hotel, which began a ferry service to Canada (whose owner also served as the public hangman), and the formation of the Detroit Musical Society.
As far as clothing, I procured the following from various on line sources, including We Make History:
The era spanning from the 1790s to the 1820s saw an emphasis on elegance and simplicity which was motivated by the democratic ideals of the French Republic but which looked back to classical Greece and Rome for its fashion inspiration. Waists were high, the directional emphasis was vertical, and lightweight white fabrics were at the height of fashions which were so simple that the lady of the time often wore only three garments; a chemise, a corset and a gown! This was an incredible contrast to the clothing of preceding and succeeding periods with their horizontal emphases, multiple layers and often heavy fabrics.
In this period, fashionable women's clothing styles were based on the Empire silhouette - dresses were closely fitted to the torso just under the bust, falling loosely below. In different contexts, such styles are commonly called Directoire style (referring to the Directory government of France during the second half of the 1790s), Empire style (referring to Napoleon's 1804–1814/1815 empire, and often also to his 1800–1804 "consulate"), or Regency (most precisely referring to the 1811–1820 period of George IV's formal regency, but often loosely used to refer to various periods between the 18th century and the Victorian).
The high waistline of 1795–1820 styles took attention away from the natural waist, so that there was then no point to the tight "wasp-waist" corseting often considered fashionable during other periods. Without the corset, chemise dresses displayed the long line of the body, as well as the curves of the female torso.
From what a Regency clothing historian told me, the fashion, although a political statement in France, caught on throughout the cities of North America, Detroit included.
For men, this period saw the final abandonment of lace, embroidery, and other embellishment from serious men's clothing outside of formalized court dress. Cut and tailoring became much more important as an indicator of quality.
This was also the period of the rise of hair wax for styling men's hair, as well as mutton chops as a style of facial hair.
Breeches became longer—tightly fitted leather riding breeches reached almost to the boot tops—and were replaced by pantaloons or trousers for fashionable street wear. Coats were cutaway in front with long skirts or tails behind, and had tall standing collars. The lapels featured an M-shaped notch unique to the period.
Shirts were made of linen, had attached collars, and were worn with stocks or wrapped in a cravat tied in various fashions. Pleated frills at the cuffs and front opening went out of fashion by the end of the period.
Waistcoats were relatively high-waisted, and squared off at the bottom, but came in a broad variety of styles. They were often double-breasted, with wide lapels and stand collars. High-collared white waistcoats were fashionable until 1815, then collars were gradually lowered as the shawl collar came into use toward the end of this period.
I hope to learn more about this period in time of which I know so little. I would like to give special thanks to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan and Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit, Michigan for presenting the War of 1812 as well as the Regency era for thousands of us history buffs, and for giving me not only a new understanding of the period but garnering an interest in learning more.
Also, thanks must go to the 1812 fashion show hostess with the mostess, Ericka Osen, for giving a wonderful bit o' history of the whys and wherefores of 1812 styles as she showed the fashions of the day.
Other information written here comes directly from the magnificent book "Detroit: A Motor City History" by David Lee Poremba.
A few other books that added to this post:
Echoes of Detroit - A 300 Year History by Irwin Cohen,
Yesterday's Detroit by Frank Angelo,