Wednesday is the 200th anniversary of the Fort Dearborn Massacre.
Notice that I said massacre, daring to challenge the crusade to relabel it the Battle of Fort Dearborn, the result of a well-intentioned, but misguided effort at "reconciliation." (Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass provides some background as he describes the politically correct effort to keep a statute depicting the massacre under wraps.)
This is more than a fight over a word. No reconciliation or understanding can flow from this intentional distortion; increased bitterness and division is the only possible result. The dictionary definition of massacre exactly fits the facts of this wholesale and indiscriminate bloodletting. (Thefreedictionary.com defines it as the "the act or an instance of killing a large number of humans indiscriminately and cruelly.")
In the early days of the War of 1812, the fort, near the present intersection of East Wacker Drive and North Michigan Avenue, was ordered evacuated. At 9 a.m. Aug. 15, 1812, a column of some 110 Army soldiers, militia and civilians, including women and children, marched out of the fort to begin the 150-mile trek to the safety of Fort Wayne in Indiana Territory. On the beach just a mile-and-a-half away, an army of 500 Potawatomis and other Indians descended on the column in an orgy of killing and maiming.
Sixty-eight of the departing Americans died there on the beach, including those slain after the 15-minute battle for the sin of being gravely wounded. The 42 survivors taken prisoners were later murdered, tortured, enslaved or ransomed. A wagonload of children too young to walk to Fort Wayne was butchered. This after the Indians had promised the Americans safe conduct and a protective escort, which never showed up. No more than 15 attacking Indians died.
The latest effort to rebrand this as a "battle" between contending armies has just arrived in a new book from an acknowledged scholar of local history, someone who should know better. Ann Durkin Keating, history professor at North Central College in Naperville, discredits her otherwise fine and informative account of the birth of Chicago, "Rising up from Indian Country," with a disturbing epilogue declaring, "Why it was not a massacre."
She allows that a "large number of human beings" were killed, but with breathtaking denial, she observes that the killings were not "indiscriminate. The Potawatomi warriors attacked an army company of U.S. soldiers during a time of war." I guess the kids just got in the way.
With cold insensitivity, she dismisses the "killing of many women and children." While it might seem indiscriminate violence to you and me, she instructs us that you have to understand that from the Potawatomi perspective, those innocents "represented an advanced guard of American settlers who challenged the bounds of Indian Country by placing their families in harm's way."
She goes on: "Because it was called a massacre soon after the event, it is hard to move away from this descriptor. However, it was not a 'massacre,' but a part of a declared war that the United States waged against Great Britain and their Indian allies. As such, the Potawatomis and their allies won a military victory."
She attempts to armor herself against charges of historical revisionism by noting how American victories seem always to be called "battles," and Indian victories "massacres." She's got a point and a thing should be described accurately, whether a battle or a massacre. She's also right to expound on the cruelties and bloodlettings inflicted on Indians while they were being expelled from their lands.
Yet, that does not excuse her twisted interpretation of the slaughter on Chicago's beach. Let both sides of this debate acknowledge the injustices and violence committed against the other side. Let Americans recognize the butchery of at least 150 men, women and children of the Lakota Sioux at the Wounded Knee Massacre. Don't call it an "incident" or a battle. It was a one-sided, indiscriminate slaughter. As were others. And let Native Americans also recognize that they weren't the only victims, that like their American brethren at times, they committed atrocities.
The better side of human nature recognizes the need to seek reconciliation when injustices have been committed. But reconciliation based on one-upmanship and politically motivated concoctions is impossible. Scrubbing history at the expense of truth leaves only rawness and scars.
Here are links to my forthcoming historical novel Madness: The War of 1812."
To read more about the war, visit the Official Bicentennial of the War of 1812 website at http://www.visit1812.com/
For a list of bicentennial events in Chicago visit http://www.chicagonow.com/dennis-byrnes-barbershop/2012/08/some-war-of-1812-bicentennial-commemorations-in-chicago/
Here is the city's bicentennial website that describes its commemoration during Navy Week: http://www.ourflagwasstillthere.org/events/chicago-il/94-public/partners-places-and-events/events/341-citywebsite-chicago.html