By Renée S. Gordon
ABOVE PHOTO: Calvert Marine Museum’s Drum Point lighthouse.
President James Madison sent a war message to Congress on June 1, 1812 listing reasons for the necessity of declaring war on Great Britain. Chief among the reasons was the fact that “British cruisers have been in the continued practice of violating the American flag on the great highway of nations, and of seizing and carrying off persons sailing under it…”
The instances of impressments were numerous and the most famous case occurred in June of 1807 when the HMS Leopard halted the USS Chesapeake. They demanded that they be allowed to search for British deserters. The Chesapeake’s captain refused and the Leopard fired on them, killing two and wounding 18. After the American ship’s surrender the British searched the ship and seized four crewmembers. Three of the sailors removed were black, David Martin, John Strachan and William Ware and they were held until 1811. The fourth man was British and was hung for desertion. This incident led to a diplomatic crisis between the two countries and is considered a major step on the path to war.
On June 18, 1812 the United States declared war on the United Kingdom and the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in North America, would play a pivotal role in the war. The British sailed into the Chesapeake and raided towns and villages, blockaded ports and induced slaves to join their forces with the promise of freedom,” All those who may be disposed to emigrate from the United States, will, with their families, be received on board of His Majesty’s Ships…. They will have their choice of either entering into His Majesty’s Forces, or of being sent as free settlers to British possessions.” The English formed the ex-slaves into three units of Colonial Marines. Ultimately more than 4,000 enslaved individuals would be freed making it the United States’ biggest emancipation until the 1860s.
In July of 1813 Americans proposed a response to British incursions, the establishment of an 18-barge flotilla under the command of Joshua Barney. This tiny armada would be known as the “mosquito fleet” because of the size and speed of the vessels. Stories of their most daring escapades are recounted in the 560-acre Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum in St. Leonard, Maryland where you can view the site of the two Battles of St. Leonard’s Creek. This was the largest naval engagement to take place in Maryland’s waters.
The state of Maryland’s 38,000-sq. ft. Archeological Conservation Laboratory is within the park. The mission of the MAC Lab is to preserve, protect and research the 7.5-million artifacts housed there. The oldest artifacts are 12,000 years old and the lab maintains a collection of comparative artifacts to make identification easier. Guided tours allow visitors to watch conservators as they work. Call for information. 410-586-8550.
Point Farm, the Patterson home and gardens, a contact period Indian village and some of the 125 archeological sites on the property can also be toured. www.jefpat.orh
Sotterley Plantation is a 95-acre Tidewater plantation that dates from the early 18th-century. It is the oldest extant plantation house in the state and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. At the onset of the war it was 7,000-acres and was one of the largest slaveholding plantations in the region. The British raided Sotterley and later the Battle of St. Leonard’s Creek could be viewed from the property. A small militia defended the plantation but they ran away as did 48 of the slaves.
Audio and guided tours of the house and grounds, including an 1830’s era slave cabin, are offered. Highlight of the house tour are the Chinese Chippendale staircase and original pine paneling. “The Choice,” a living history program asks visitors to consider whether or not they would have joined the British had they been enslaved at the time. It will be presented until 2014. Sotterley is part of the National Park Service Network to Freedom. The program is free but reservations are required. www.sotterley.org
The Calvert Marine Museum was founded to interpret regional maritime history and the biological diversity of the Chesapeake Bay. Galleries have displays on estuarine biology, Niocene fossils, touch tanks and colorful murals with hidden objects just waiting to be discovered.
Joshua Barney scuttled the Chesapeake Flotilla to avoid their seizure by the British after they were blockaded in August of 1814. A wreck was discovered in the Patuxent River that is believed to be that of Barney’s flagship the USS Scorpion. The vessel was encased in alluvial sediment that protected some of the recovered artifacts. The museum has an area devoted to the War of 1812 and it showcases several of these articles including a grog cup that belonged to a black mariner, a deck stove and a candleholder complete with candle. www.calvertmarinemuseum.com
Annapolis was already more than 160 years old when the War of 1812 began. In the 1640s a band of Puritans left Virginia for religious reasons and in 1649 they founded a colony they named Providence. They moved their original settlement and in 1694 they named their town Annapolis in honor of England’s Princess Anne and made it the capital of the Royal Colony of Maryland. The city was laid out on a European street plan with streets moving outward from a central circle. Annapolis was the first peacetime capital of the nation from November 1783 until August 1784. www.visitannapolis.org
In 1808 two forts were built, Severn and Madison, to protect the waterway from piracy and British invasion. In 1845 when the forts were to be abandoned it was decided to establish the Naval School at Annapolis on 10-acres at Fort Severn. A prior facility, the Philadelphia Naval Asylum, was believed to have been amidst too many distractions. It was renamed the US Naval Academy in 1850.
Guided walking tours are offered daily and begin at the Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center inside Gate One. The 1.5-hour tour includes Tecumseh Court, the Crypt of John Paul Jones, the Main Chapel, Bancroft Hall and the country’s largest collection of Beaux-Arts buildings. Visitors over 16 years of age must have photo ID.
Bancroft Hall houses more than 4,000 midshipmen in the second largest dormitory in the world. The building has 1,700 rooms, 4.8-miles of corridors, 33-acres of floor space and its own zip code. The first floor features a display with the names of famous alumni and several examples of dorm rooms. This was the first building to have electricity and rain baths, referred to today as showers.
Though Scottish, John Paul Jones is buried in a crypt on the grounds. He died in Paris and was forgotten.
When it was decided to bury him at the USNA no one was certain where he was buried originally. After a search that lasted from 1899-1905 his remains were located and identified by his hat and the fact that he was well preserved. In 1917 he was reinterred and his magnificent tomb was made of 21-tons of Grand Antique des Pyrenees marble donated by France. The tomb rests atop bronze dolphins and is adorned with bronze seaweed. www.usna.edu
Not included on the official tour is the US Naval Academy Museum, a site not to be missed. The museum presents an outstanding interpretation of the history of the US Navy and the Naval Academy on the first floor but in my opinion the second level is even better. Highlights on this floor include dioramas of aspects of the life of a mariner both on and off the ship and the Rogers Collection of ship models created from the 17th to the early 19th-centuries.
One of the most unique displays I have seen is also presented here. During the Napoleonic era French POWs were allowed to sell handicrafts they made to the locals to earn money. Some of them began making ship models from memory out of bones from the food they ate. The largest collection of these models is showcased in this museum. They are exquisite and often contain details missing in other models because men who actually worked aboard the ships made them.
The gem of this gallery is a model of the HMS Victory. Fifteen men were given plans for the vessel and offered their freedom for crafting it in 1807. It was displayed in St. Paul’s Cathedral until Queen Victoria had it stored. During WWII Churchill had it auctioned off for the war effort. E. F. Hutton purchased it and it eventually made its way to the museum.
A first floor section devoted to the War of 1812 features a rarely seen sea anchor with a canvas cover for use in adverse weather conditions. www.usna.edu/Museum
St. Michaels is the perfect place to conclude your visit. The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum not only has galleries devoted to the history of Maryland’s contribution to the war effort and American seafaring but it is also boasts a working boat yard and a total of ten exhibit buildings. The museum also tells the story of how, after the war, some American ships were used in the slave trade because the same characteristics that made them ideal as part of the “mosquito fleet” made them ideal as slave cargo ships. www.cbmm.org
Legend has it that St. Michaels was “the town that fooled the British.” The English blockaded the bay in 1813 and by August their ships reached Kent Island. The townspeople evacuated but put lanterns in the treetops so that the British would overshoot the town.
The Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 was signed on December 24, 1814 though the fighting continued until August of 1815. The treaty essentially returned everything to its status prior to the war. For the enslaved it meant they would not receive freedom and the British were required to pay reparations to owners for any “property” removed or return it.
Maryland always has something extra to offer and there are several trails you can follow from here. The town has sites connected with Frederick Douglass and the city celebrates Frederick Douglass Day on May 5th.
St. Michaels also provides outstanding accommodations. The original house at the Inn at Perry Cabin was built circa 1815. In 1999 the Orient Express purchased the 6-bedroom inn and today the opulent inn is considered one of the best hotels in the world. www.perrycabin.com
The Five Gables Inn and Spa is another wonderful option. The inn is spread out over a series of historic buildings in the heart of the city and most rooms have fireplaces, balconies and whirlpool tubs. www.fivegables.com
The National War of 1812 Bicentennial Launch takes place from June 13-19, 2012. Make plans to celebrate. www.starspangled200.org
I wish you smooth travels!
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