Laurel A. Beechey - Special to the News
The battle is done. Oxford On The Thames, Ontario, lay in ashes after the US Army, under the command of Brigadier General Duncan McArthur, looted and torched the settlement before moving on to Malcolm Mills, near Brantford, to do the same.
Moving up the Thames from Fort Detroit, they had been creating a desert where no one could live and the Americans would not have to fear reprisal by destroying the homes, crops and mills along their way.
That was in 1814, the last year of the War of 1812. As history has proven, although the damage done by McArthur was devastating for the settlers, they didn’t leave. They fought back, they rebuilt and 200 years later, people are still living there, and they decided to share their history. Today the area encompasses Ingersoll, Centreville and Beachville, along the Detroit Rd, now Karn Rd (between Ingersoll and Woodstock).
Organizing a re-enactment is a job of monumental proportions. It is a large scale theatrical production, requiring everything you see in a theatre: researchers, writers, director, costumes, props actors and re-enactors (with the appropriate weapons, etc.). Then there is advertising, publicity and the money needed to put on your very large outdoor play.
It is all daunting and usually done, interestingly enough, not by theatrical people. On top of that, you have to take care of the hundreds of people who you want to come and share your history with you. That means parking, shuttles, transportation, food, portable washrooms, first aid, crowd control, etc. It takes many years of planning and money. If possible vendors can offer some revenue to the organizers and colour and interest to the customers.
In terms of other re-enactments done over the course of the 200th anniversary of this war, this historical re-enactment was small, but quite enjoyable to attend. It was in essence a miniature of other battles done in the last three years.
It took place around Centreville’s mill pond on land actually involved in part of the real battle. It was very picturesque and offered enough cover on the far side of the pond to allow some realism to the village people hiding in the bush and the small but valiant harassment of the Americans by the few local militia and citizens.
A handful of military re-enactors and local people told the story in action and unusual for many re-enactments, in script not narration. Two tiny log cabins were especially built to represent the village.
We were told of the US advance and of the devastation which would be inflicted and watched the villagers melt into the trees. Two local farmers, George Nichols and Jacob Woods, decide they must warn the British of McArthur's advancement and run off to do so. Shortly after the Yankees, originally some 700 feared Kentucky Rangers, and their allied natives arrive. In reality for the re-enactment, only five, but they were able to demonstrate searching and torching the empty village well enough. One villager, Bazely, traitorously informed on and named Nichols and Woods. For his information Bazely was paid, then shot by the Americans.
Both the log cabins on the farms of Nichols and Woods were also destroyed. The Nichols also lost two of the three black walnut trees they had brought with them from New Brunswick.
Because the village was of no strategic value, after pretending to torch the village represented by the two wee cabins, the Americans moved on to destroy and plunder more homes and mills. The villagers returned to their supposedly destroyed homes, and one actress was superb in her grief at the devastation, but with the cabins still standing before her it was actually a humorous moment for the audience. Justifiable, there was no reason to actually burn one down. On the whole they did a wonderful job.
As with all large productions there are crises moments, which occurred on Sunday when General McArthur was unable to attend, so one of Tillsonburg’s new residents, Stephen Bourne, a re-enactor who was to be in Oxford County’s militia, was suddenly promoted to General of the enemy. Fortunately, most of the general public did not understand that he was not appropriately attired.
There were crafts and events for the kids, musket demonstrations, decent food for participants and audience, a few venders to shop and talk to, but most exciting was the opportunity to see something that actually survived that battle – the third black walnut tree.
The present day owner of the same farm which saw the destruction of the local mill, Nichols farm house and other two trees, welcomed visitors. He was proud to tell the history and the fact the while replacing a shed they uncovered the scorched remains of the original cabin’s foundations. Few trees are left today with trunks as large and canopy as lofty as this beautiful old tree. Hopefully this tree will continue to be loved and protected and perhaps one day will overlook the 300th anniversary re-enactment of this devastating battle.