This article appears in the September 2014 issue of SpinSheet magazine. We thank the publisher for permission to reprint this article.
One of the strangest wars in America’s history will leave our collective consciousness soon, perhaps such as it did when it actually happened. In these pages over the last two years, we have learned how the British saber-rattled their way up and down the Chesapeake region with abandon two centuries before, in a war that many argue had no clear purpose, no great strategy, and some have surmised, no decisive victor. Motivations of national pride then and now are wildly divergent. Bill Pencek, executive director of Mayland’s War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission puts it this way: “The U.S. thinks we won, Canada knows they won, and Britain thinks, ‘What blimmin’ war are you talking about?”
As a somewhat tongue-in-cheek refresher, President Madison and his war hawks were thinking about national expansion and muscle flexing of the young nation, while Britain was fighting Napoleon. Taking Canada would be a mere matter of marching, according to Henry Clay of Kentucky. Or as Don Novello’s Father Guido Sarducci wryly observed, “You could do it in an afternoon … and be home for dinner.” While land and resource-rich Canada was the ultimate prize, rationale for the war was crafted around an unprovoked high seas attack on a U.S. merchantman on the high seas in 1807, and of accounts of the British Navy boarding American ships to impress British-born seamen back to the home country, sometimes ensnaring hapless Americans instead.
And so, in June 1812 war was declared, except that the United States didn’t really have much of a plan for fighting it, and it turned out, neither did Britain. Canada, with a small population and without a dog in this fight, couldn’t do much but circle the wagons and hope for the best. Later they would invent hockey, which might have helped repel the initial invasion. But an early victory won them Detroit, without a shot being fired. Taking Canada wasn’t so easy after all, especially once the British navy diverted attention away from the northern border to the Chesapeake.
After the sacking of Washington in August and bolstered by fresh troops from overseas, British strategy turned its sights on Baltimore, then America’s third largest city. Baltimore shipping was helplessly penned in by the British blockade of the Chesapeake down at Norfolk (remember that the C & D Canal was still years in the future), and the city looked like an easy target after the cakewalk that forced President Madison to decamp the nation’s capital to tiny Brookeville in Montgomery County for a day.
Baltimore didn’t want to suffer that fate, nor the fate of Detroit. It was girding for a fight, and fight it did. The Battle of Baltimore was by far the most important of the war for America. In December, peace was negotiated; though nobody told the troops in Louisiana, where the Battle of New Orleans was fought in January 1815, a month after the treaty was signed. In the aftermath, everything that each country had before the war was handed back. Even Detroit.
None of which is to say that the memory of blood spilled and lives lost in Maryland and Virginia was for naught: Britain, Canada, and the U.S.A. have been great and friendly allies ever since. And that is a good thing. Canada has given us Tanzers, C&Cs, Alberg 30s, Nonsuch 26s and 30s, Whitby 42s, and Hinterhoellers, not to mention Albacores and Grampians, Celine Dion, lacrosse, and the Polar Vortex. Britain of course has exported everything from Westerly bilge keelers, Camper & Nicholsons designs to luxurious Oysters, but also Pusser’s Rum, Piers Morgan, and cars with crummy electrical systems.
Once more, Baltimore Harbor will welcome a million people to watch the tall ships converge as they did in 2012 to mark the bicentennial of Baltimore’s great battle of September 1814. 2012’s Sailabration marking the beginning of hostilities was big, attracting more than a million people to the harbor.
Star Spangled 200
Perhaps because of the Star Spangled 200 theme, which as everyone knows was penned aboard a ship in Baltimore Harbor on the morning after the attack, this one promises to be even bigger. It begins on September 11 and runs through September 15, with the big concert, parade of ships and fireworks bash on the night of September 13. For sailors wanting to get close to the action before, during, or after the celebration, here are a few important tips from the organizers at Sail Baltimore:
Security: Expect it to be enhanced. Nobody is saying anything officially just yet, but given the date in recent history, anything of this magnitude around September 11 is going to be closely monitored. Boaters should respect restricted zones or security
boxes for the airshow, the fireworks, and around gray hull and commercial vessels. Assume that enforcement will be swift and uncompromising.
On foot or bike: Spectacular walking and biking routes will be clearly marked between the Inner Harbor and Fort McHenry. Ample bike parking will be available (at Latrobe Park and at the Inner Harbor Spectacular shuttle stop). Bring your locks for security. The walk between the Inner Harbor and Fort McHenry is 2.3 miles/45-minutes; the bike route between the Inner Harbor and Latrobe Park is two miles/10-minutes.
Have fun: Get there early, watch where you anchor, and enjoy the festivities. After this month, once the last skirmish has been reenacted, America’s forgotten war might be forgotten again, but while it’s here let’s celebrate one more time with a big bash.