Baltimore's "Sailabration" Honors the War of 1812

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Square-riggers, schooners, and sleek gray warships from around the world converged on Baltimore the second week of June for the “Star Spangled Sailabration” commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812’s start.

“It’s finally here,” said Jeffrey Buchheit, director of the Baltimore Heritage Area and one of many who helped plan the week of festivities. “We’ve worked four years on this, and all of a sudden it’s here.”

On a sunny, breezy afternoon, relief was evident on Buchheit’s face as he looked out from the bridge wing of the USS San Antonio, one of four U.S. Navy ships entering the harbor. From this spot in September 1814, 19 British warships poured thousands of cannon balls, exploding shells, and red-glared rockets on Fort McHenry and the nearby town.

It’s easy to see why Francis Scott Key, a lawyer who had been detained aboard a British ship while negotiating a prisoner release, was so concerned. The British had just defeated the combined European forces under Napoleon and were now turning the might of their armed forces, hardened by decades of war, on the unprepared Americans. They had just burned the U.S. Capitol, White House, and other Federal buildings at Washington, and were now focusing on Baltimore, the “nest of pirates” that had sent so many privateers out to capture English shipping.

As Key looked around at the British fleet, he must have wondered how America’s small fleet of frigates and one-gun barges—really overgrown rowboats—could stand up to ships with as many as 80 heavy cannon throwing deadly broadsides of 36- and 32-pound shot. Yet somehow they did, and fighting the British to a draw in our “Second War of Independence” meant the young country kept its freedom, along with large areas of New York, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois that England hoped to add to its Canadian dominion.

“We consider the War of 1812 to be the rebirth of U.S. Navy,” said Rear Adm. Greg Nosal, commander of the U.S. ships participating in the event.  “A lot of the traits we saw then are still evident today—the Navy’s war-fighting spirit, and its role in ensuring freedom of the seas and the global trade that keeps us prosperous.”

Before the British attack, Fort McHenry’s commander Maj. George Armistead had ordered a 30-by-42-foot battle flag—the largest ever flown in the U.S. at the time—made by local seamstress Mary Pickersgill, whose home in Baltimore is now a delightful museum.

After watching 5,000 British soldiers offload to attack the city, and listening to the terrifying sounds of the Naval bombardment for 25 hours, it is quite understandable why Francis Scott Key was so moved to see the huge flag was still waving as dawn broke on September 14, and the British decided to call off the attack.

Today, when the San Antonio arrived at the appointed pier, tugboats snuggled it alongside RFA Argus, which proudly flew a British Union Jack. The irony of berthing next to former enemies, now close allies, was not lost on the American ship’s crew.

“Who really won the War of 1812 anyway?” asked one sailor.

“We both did,” was the reply.