A walk through Annapolis’ War of 1812 history


Models of such War of 1812 ships as the HMS Guerriere, foreground, and the USS Constitution are part of the “Seas, Lakes and Bay” exhibit at the U.S. Naval Academy. Photo credit: United States Naval Academy (United States Naval Academy/UNITED STATES NAVAL ACADEMY)
April 25, 2013

As we continue to celebrate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, the burning of Washington and the defense of Fort McHenry dominate the conversation. Annapolis is largely forgotten, primarily because Maryland’s capital never saw enemy action during the war.

But there’s still plenty of history to be found on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy and the surrounding city. You can see it in a pair of exhibits at the Academy and the Maryland State House, which are linked by an 1812-themed walking tour.

The walking tour begins at the Naval Academy’s Mahan Hall, where the entrance hall is decorated with trophy flags captured from enemy vessels dating to the War of 1812, which lasted nearly three years. The battered Union Jacks make for interesting browsing before heading to the main exhibit, “Seas, Lakes & Bay: The Naval War of 1812,” in an airy space on the second floor. Filled with large model ships, memorabilia and paintings of battles on the high seas, and written with great attention to detail about relative positions of ships and the damage they suffered, the exhibit offers background for people who don’t know much about the importance of naval combat during the war.

Each area is packed with information: You can read wall plaques about the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Shannon and their captains, then look at models of the ships, see large oil paintings depicting the battle and examine the gilded figurehead once affixed to the bow of the Shannon.

A block away stands the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, which traces the history of the Navy. Make this your second stop. There are short videos about battles and heroes of the war, and touchscreens offer re-creations of key battles. After you’ve read wall displays and seen paintings of the ships at the Battle of Lake Erie, for example, a screen shows how the battle actually took place, with animated ships ramming and moving away from each other and retreating.

The museum also displays the second-most-important flag of the war: Oliver H. Perry’s massive “Don’t Give Up the Ship” battle flag, which was flown from the USS Niagara at Lake Erie. (The quotation comes from the dying words of Captain James Lawrence, who was killed during the battle between the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Shannon earlier in 1813.)

The 10-stop walking tour, which is detailed in a brochure available at the Academy, is a great excuse to wander the grounds and through downtown Annapolis, admiring the historic houses and sailboats. (This weekend is the annual Spring Sailboat Show.)

Although there are plaques at each location, the tour feels somewhat superficial outside of the State House and the Naval Academy. Most of the featured buildings somehow involve Francis Scott Key: You walk by the 18th-century Chase-Lloyd House, where Key was married in the parlor; the lawn of St. John’s College, where Key studied; and St. Anne’s Church, where Key attended services. (If we’re being picky, Key never attended services at this iteration of the church, which was built in 1858 after the previous building burned.) One interesting fact that’s not on the walking tour map: At least six veterans of the War of 1812 are buried in St. Anne’s cemetery, which stands a few blocks up Northwest Street from Church Circle.

The sites on the Academy grounds have more to do with the war itself. Across from the entrance to the exhibition is a statue topped by a figurehead of Alexander the Great, which was removed from the captured HMS Macedonian. Nearby are cannons from the captured British warships Cyane and Confiance.

Fearful of attack, sentinels used the State House’s dome to watch British ships sailing on the Chesapeake Bay during the war. The public can’t enjoy the same views, but there’s a small, informative exhibition on the State House’s main floor called “The Enemy Nearly All ’Round Us,” which discusses the war’s impact on Annapolis, including the story of slaves who fled to British warships to guarantee their freedom.

After you’ve tired yourself out, it’s worth heading to one of the taverns that were opened before the War of 1812, such as the 1747 Pub at Reynolds Tavern, a few steps from Church Circle, to talk about battles over a pint of beer, just as Annapolitans would have done.

“Seas, Lakes & Bay: The Naval War of 1812,” runs through Nov. 3 at the U.S. Naval Academy’s Mahan Hall, 106 Maryland Ave. 401-293-6933. www.usna.edu/War1812. Free. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

“The Enemy Nearly All ’Round Us” is open through December at the Maryland State House, 100 State Circle. 410-974-3400. msa.maryland.gov. Free. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m..

Fritz Hahn has written about bars, drinks and nightlife for the Washington Post Weekend Section since 2003, but he also writes about everything from Civil War battlefields to sailing classes. A product of Prince George's County public schools, Fritz majored in journalism at the University of Maryland and lives in the District.
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