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America's forgotten war, remembered

Commemorating the War of 1812's bicentennial

Created date

August 20th, 2013
Reenactors line up as soldiers
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President James Madison called it “the second war for independence.” Others have labeled it “America’s forgotten war.”

Surely, the War of 1812 exists in the shadows of U.S. history, dwarfed by its epic predecessor, the American Revolution and, later, the Civil War. Nonetheless, this neglected conflict is responsible for quintessentially American icons like Francis Scott Key and the Star Spangled Banner, the legendary frigate USS Constitution (fondly nicknamed “Old Ironsides”), and Baltimore’s Fort McHenry.

This year and next mark the 200th anniversary of our second war with the world’s then most formidable empire. Between 1813 and 1814, British forces formed a blockade of the Chesapeake Bay, burned towns, plantations, even the Library of Congress and the White House, and launched an unsuccessful attack on the port city of Baltimore, at the time the third largest in the Union.

While some may think of it as a “forgotten war,” there are at least a few significant tourist attractions that are doing their best to commemorate the War of 1812.

The United States Naval Academy

Since 1845, the sprawling campus of the United States Naval Academy has graced the shores of the Severn River in Annapolis, Md. Here, some the best and brightest of the U.S. Navy arrived as lowly plebes to become officers and gentlemen.

It’s also here that thousands of tourists flock each year for a glimpse of one of the country’s three elite military academies and, through November 2013, they’ll have a chance to see arguably the most comprehensive War of 1812 exhibit anywhere.

As part of its “Sea, Lakes & Bay: The Naval War of 1812 Bicentennial” celebration, the Naval Academy’s museum has assembled an array of artwork, rare documents, and artifacts that chronicle the war between a fledgling country with but a handful of ships and mighty Britain’s fleet of hundreds.

“One of our central objectives was to put as much of the Naval Academy’s collection into this exhibit as possible,” says Scott Harmon, former director of the Academy’s museum and the man responsible for designing the exhibit. “Essentially, we’re using documents and artifacts to present a historical narrative.”

This narrative includes an assorted presentation of items, such as the statue of a lion taken from the quarter-deck of the British frigate Macedonian, the figureheads from the HMS Shannon and the USS Chesapeake, and a variety of swords and muskets used in key wartime engagements.

“We hope that visitors will come away from this exhibit with a sense of the risks that Americans had taken in this war with England,” says Harmon. “We were the underdogs, and yet we managed to wear out the British.”

Fort McHenry

In September 1814, a fleet of 15 British warships and 4,000 soldiers had trained their sights on Baltimore. But in order to take the Union’s third largest port city, they first had to get past Fort McHenry.

Safely out of range from McHenry’s guns, the British ships attacked on September 13 at 6:30 a.m. For 25 hours, the fort’s defenders endured a relentless barrage of 200-pound bombs that rained down a hail of shrapnel.

Believing the fort and its defenders pounded into submission, the British moved in for the kill the next morning. Once in range, the fort’s 60 guns let loose and forced the British to fall back.

Eight miles down river, a Georgetown lawyer named Francis Scott Key looked on with elation as the massive 30- by 42-foot Star Spangled Banner waved above the fort, which had saved Baltimore.

“Here at Fort McHenry, it’s always 1814,” says Fort Chief of Interpretation Vince Vaise, “but next September, we’re going all out to commemorate the bicentennial of the Battle of Baltimore.”

September 6-16, the fort will host a series of events that will include fireworks shows, living history demonstrations by War of 1812 reenactors, and the grand arrival of naval vessels from around the world, set to sail into the Baltimore harbor for the celebration.

Each year, Fort McHenry welcomes some 840,000 visitors from across the country—a number that will likely increase during the bicentennial festivities.

“The fort is more than a historic site, it’s a shrine to those who defended the city and our nation 200 years ago,” says Vaise. “Though their efforts didn’t necessarily result in an overwhelming victory against the British, the United States did gain a greater sense of nationalism and confidence that was every bit as important as independence.”

Further reading on the War of 1812

 

• Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812 (1882)

• Walter Lord, The Dawn’s Early Light (W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1972)

• David Curtis Skaggs & Gerald T. Althoff, A Signal Victory: The Lake Erie Campaign 1812-1813 (Bluejacket Books, 2000)

• C.S. Forrester, The Age of Fighting Sail (Chapman Billies, 2005)

• George C. Daughan, 1812: The Navy’s War (Basic Books, 2011)

• Mark Collins Jenkins, The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy (National Geographic, 2012)

michael.williams@erickson.com

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