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With a crisp chill in the air, John Purdy (left), Josh Wingler and Edwin Miller set up camp Saturday during the Pike Cantonment Commemoration at the Battle of Plattsburgh Museum. Re-enactors commemorated Pike-s Cantonment and the hardships suffered by Zebulon Pike and his men as they camped on the Saranac River during the first winter of the War of 1812.
Staff Photo/Rob Fountain /

Published December 09, 2007 06:30 am - A small group of War of 1812 re-enactors commemorated Pike's Cantonment Saturday, sitting around a fire as brisk North Country conditions set in.

Re-enactors taste war nearly 200 years past
Modern taste of war 200 years past

Contributing Writer

PLATTSBURGH -- When a snow squall painted the landscape white Saturday morning, several re-enactors learned what Zebulon Pike's men suffered through for an entire winter.

But the trio, who were commemorating Pike's Cantonment, sipped hot chocolate and talked about the War of 1812.

Pike is, by most accounts, considered to have been a second-rate explorer with a spotty military history. Having a famous Colorado mountain named after him is one of his few accolades.

"Nothing that Zebulon Montgomery Pike ever tried to do was easy, and most of his luck was bad," wrote Donald Jackson, editor of Pike's journals.

In the fall of 1812, with a few thousand troops in tow, Pike set out to take Montreal; however, the men got about as far as Lacolle before the British forced a retreat. The troops set up a camp along the Saranac River and men lived six to a tent, with barely a blanket per person.

"So, for us to sit here for an afternoon is really nothing compared to what those guys went through," said Josh Wingler of Plattsburgh.

He and two friends from Waterbury, Vt., Edwin Miller and John Purdy, had their own small camp Saturday behind the Battle of Plattsburgh Association building on New York Road. The three sat around a small fire, each dressed in a uniform modeled after the ones worn during the War of 1812.

Conditions during Pike's Cantonment were quite harsh and a number of men died. The group wasn't sure how many. One casualty wasn't even caused by the weather: Officials hanged a soldier for murdering a local person during an altercation.

But aside from the cold itself, most were killed by dysentery or a lack of food.

"The guys that came out of Pike's Cantonment were hardened soldiers," Wingler said.

The re-enactors said the deaths at the camp and Pike's failed bid for Montreal are indicative of the war in general.

"It's interesting, the War of 1812 is a story of a lot of failures," Purdy said. That was true of the Revolutionary War, as well.

Many of the high-ranking officers, including some generals, had been low-ranking officers under George Washington. With poor management skills, they commanded thousands.

The war also had a lot of friendly-fire incidents, mostly caused by the diversity of uniforms, which some militia members didn't even wear.

During the first attack on Lacolle, on Nov. 12, 1812, two commands converged in the fog and started firing at each other before realizing there was no enemy.

Most soldiers weren't as skilled as their British counterparts either, the group said. The British tended to stay at war all the time, keeping their force well-trained.

The American forces were mostly comprised of citizen soldiers, with a lot of manpower accounted for by militias.

"For a lot of them, they were probably more idealistic than anything," Wingler said.

He and the other two said they re-enact for a number of reasons.

"We don't fit in normal society," Purdy said with a laugh.

He's been doing re-enactments since 1979. He brought his wife, Rebecca, with him once, he said, and now she will sometimes go by herself. "She calls it a subculture of history and friends."

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