PLATTSBURGH — This month marks the 200th anniversary of Pike’s Cantonment in Plattsburgh, and its history is more alive today than ever.
As part of the commemoration, War of 1812 re-enactors braved a bitter afternoon to re-enact skirmishes. They took time out in the middle of the day for the Wreaths Across America ceremony, placing a wreath at the Old Post Cemetery, where numerous War of 1812 dead are buried.
Wreaths Across America is a campaign aimed to lay wreaths at military cemeteries in all 50 states and beyond.
LOST TO HISTORY
The most hardy of the re-enactors spent hours in canvas tents or huddled near a log fire on the grounds of the Battle of Plattsburgh Association’s museum on the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base.
One of the highlights of the commemoration — and a welcome break from the cold for about two dozen present — was a talk given by Battle of Plattsburgh Association President and Plattsburgh City Clerk Keith Herkalo on the history of Pike’s Cantonment and the later Battle of Plattsburgh.
For years, the exact location of the cantonment, the only undisturbed 1812 military site in the United States, was lost to history. Through the exhaustive work of Herkalo, the actual location was recently discovered, and the archaeological work of Dr. Tim Abel is in the process of unearthing artifacts there and discovering the history that had been locked away for two centuries.
”It’s the location at which an early part of our history began,” Herkalo said. “By that, I mean the military history of this region. It really started in 1812.”
When the Air Base closed in 1995, he pointed out, the location had been the longest continually occupied, military-tactical facility in the country.
LIKE VALLEY FORGE
After declaring war against England in 1812, a newly formed American Army was sent to northern New York to prepare for an invasion of British-owned Canada. The plan ultimately fizzled out in late November, and the 3,000-strong army, the largest invasion force formed during the war, streamed into Plattsburgh to set up a winter military base, known as a cantonment.
Much like Valley Forge before it, the soldiers, under the command of Col. Zebulon Pike, were forced to brave the winter in whatever shelters they could build for themselves. It took most of December before any were completed.
Until then, most of the men had only their blankets and campfires to fight off the cold, which dipped to 20 degrees below zero.
As many as 10 percent of Pike’s soldiers died in December 1812 alone.
The army left in the spring of 1813, and the encampment was burned in July by the British, a year before war returned to Plattsburgh with the 1814 Battle of Plattsburgh. From there, the history of the location of Pike’s Cantonment became confused and was all but lost.
MIDDEN GOLD MINE
Through property maps, records of real-estate transactions and historical documents, Herkalo found what he believed to be the actual location of the cantonment, but he needed help to prove it. In 2009, he met Abel, an archaeologist who holds a Ph.D from SUNY Albany in anthropology and is an adjunct professor at Clinton Community College, SUNY Canton and Jefferson Community College.
He is also an avid War of 1812 historian and re-enactor. After some time, Herkalo convinced Abel to come to Plattsburgh.
”We spent one summer (2011) out there doing some preliminary work, and low and behold if we didn’t find exactly what they were looking for,” Abel said of his first dig at Herkalo’s site.
”From there, it went on to a field school last year, and hopefully another field school this year, and things really have been snowballing here in the last few years.”
Abel and a small team organized through Clinton Community College have unearthed a charred beam and the foundation of a building, as well as other items of historical significance.
From the location of the building and from one artifact — a fragment of porcelain — they believe the cabin belonged to an officer. Another dig is planned for next summer, during which time they will focus on what they believe to be the remnants of a trash pile, or midden.
”We are in an officer’s hut. Wouldn’t it be incredible of we were in Zebulon Pike’s hut?” Herkalo said, barely containing his excitement.
”From a historical perspective, the trash midden is the gold mine. I can’t wait.”