By Donald C. Fry
Outside of Maryland, the War of 1812 does not get the same degree of mention as the other military conflicts our country has engaged in throughout its history.
It’s a war that, most of the time, gets marginal attention and generally less respect than it is due. But for the next two years, that won’t be the case as our nation and state celebrate the war’s bicentennial.
The recent Sailabration that launched both the national and local festivities honoring the war drew hundreds of thousands of visitors and residents to Baltimore’s waterfront.
The commemoration of what was, in effect, our nation’s “second war of independence” and the 1814 Battle of Baltimore that preserved the young nation offers the country and the world the opportunity to take another look at history and at Baltimore.
The British forces attacked Baltimore two years into the war as part of a campaign targeting the seat of American government as well as a major hub of commerce and trade. The assault on an unprotected Washington, D.C., which destroyed the White House, the Capitol and the Navy Yard, was a deep embarrassment to Americans.
The greatest military power of its time then turned its attention to Baltimore. As the British fleet moved up the Patapsco River toward Fort McHenry, some 4,500 British troops approached by land from North Point.
What happened here was a pivotal event in U.S. history.
Through heroic efforts of the mayor, citizens at Patterson Park and soldiers at Fort McHenry, the invaders were turned back. During the battle, Francis Scott Key, who had boarded a British ship under a flag of truce to seek the release of a prisoner, wrote “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” inspired by the flag raised over the fort, a flag described by commanding officer Major George Armistead as “so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.”
Americans took great pride in their victory over the British at the Battle of Baltimore, which fueled a sense of nationalism among citizens of the new nation, who at the start of the war were divided in their loyalties. The flag that inspired Key on that tumultuous night, created by Baltimore City flag maker Mary Pickersgill, became an iconic national symbol and is now on permanent exhibition at the National Museum of American History. Key’s poem was set to music as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and eventually became the National Anthem.
It is because of this significance that the national bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812, which will feature events at historic sites throughout the U.S. and Canada, was kicked off right here in Baltimore.
The crowds at the harbor during Sailabration enjoyed Baltimore at its very best. The bicentennial offers Baltimore an unparalleled opportunity to bolster public perception of the city and to rebrand itself.
It also reminds us of our waterfront heritage and its importance to the city and the region. After all, Baltimore’s harbor – a natural inland link from the ocean to the mid-Atlantic and to the midwest – was the reason the city was founded. The harbor and the rivers feeding into it supported agriculture, powered manufacturing and spawned all manner of industry and trade on their shores.
The Sailbration weekend reinforced, for any who might question it, the enduring value of Baltimore’s waterfront from an economic development perspective.
The waterfront remains our city and region’s crown-jewel as a premier venue of recreation and entertainment for residents, an attraction for tourists, and a location for businesses. It’s critically important we keep this incredible asset fresh and vibrant, building on its remarkable value to our region’s economy and quality of life.
That realization is a major driver of current Greater Baltimore Committee proposals to develop a new arena, hotel and expanded convention center near the Inner Harbor, make Rash Field a world-class urban park, and establish a year-round water and light spectacular at the harbor.
Our waterfront areas are major elements of Baltimore’s identity and contribute to our city’s “wow” factor – the surprise often voiced by first-time visitors who say “Wow, I had no idea Baltimore had so much to see and do.” That same sentiment was echoed during Sailabration by many returning visitors and residents of the region who proclaimed “Wow, I really should come downtown more often.”
The tens of thousands more from near and far who will flock to the harbor next week for July 4th fireworks and to events planned over the next two years will experience the fun and culture of Baltimore and Maryland that prompted the enduring 1960s tagline: “Land of Pleasant Living.”
Bicentennial events will culminate in September 2014 with 10 days of festivities marking the Battle of Baltimore, including parades, battle reenactments, living history and the return of the Blue Angels.
For Baltimore, the War of 1812 bicentennial is not a celebration contrived from a historical footnote. It’s a reaffirmation of our city’s inestimable value to the nation both then and now.
The world recognized Baltimore’s vital significance in 1814. The bicentennial festivities are Baltimore’s chance to deliver the same message of vitality to America and the world in the 21st century.