The War of 1812 can seem like little more than a series of tickler questions from 10th-grade history class. Impressment? The sacking of the White House? Francis Scott Key?
It’s a challenge of memory, and of resonance, that’s evident at the Maryland Historical Society’s new exhibit “In Full Glory Reflected: Maryland During the War of 1812,” which opens Sunday in Baltimore. With 5,000 square feet of displays and more than 100 artifacts, it is Maryland’s largest bicentennial exhibit, which feels about right given the psychic ground it has to cover.
“It’s one of the most understudied wars in America’s history,” says Alexandra Deutsch, the exhibit’s chief curator. “We don’t study this war to the depth it defines us as a nation and, in many ways, solidifies us as a national power.”
The War of 1812, which was largely carried out as a series of naval battles that extended into Canada and lasted until 1815, has no easy shorthand. We fought the British over issues of trade and their seizing of American sailors, and those issues became a proxy for bigger questions of national will and expansion: What are our new national proportions? And do we have the collective will and might to fill them out?
The exhibit begins with a history of Baltimore’s merchant class. This war was “as much about the era as it was about the war itself,” says Burt Kummerow, president of the Maryland Historical Society. It was “Baltimore’s golden age,” he says, when it was the nation’s third-largest city, with a thriving port that placed it at the center of U.S. commerce, trade and information. This, combined with access to the Cheseapeake Bay, made the city one of the most important fronts during the war and a prime target for the British.
The “Peace, Plenty and Prosperity” section highlights prominent Maryland families — the Carrolls, who were old-money landowners, and the first generation of Pattersons, who invested in shipping and trade. Baltimore was ready for finer things, and craftsmen borrowed from British designs to come up with high-style furniture and goods. An 1810 dressing table with faux marble domes, gilded accents and painted glass designs “ was the height of fashion,” says Deutsch.
The run-up to war is chronicled in portraits of newspaper publishers such as William Pechin and Hezekiah Niles. A ship’s wheel juxtaposed with a map of the world demonstrates the reach of U.S. shipping.
The Wall of Impressment documents how British captains stopped 400 American ships, seizing their cargo and declaring 6,000 U.S. sailors to be British citizens to provide manpower for the Royal Navy in Britain’s war against the French.
The debate about whether to go to war turned brutal, and in Baltimore’s bloody riot of 1812, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, father to Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee, who opposed the war, had hot wax poured into his eyes.
The exhibit features large murals, some original and some historical re-creations. Exhibit designer Charles Mack says paintings from the period were often too stylized or intent on propagandizing to accurately render events.
One such mural depicts the Battle of Bladensburg, a U.S. military debacle that became known as the “Bladensburg Races” for the way the Americans high-tailed it and ran. Another shows Joshua Barney’s Mosquito Fleet, which stayed to fight and included Charles Ball, a fugitive slave who enlisted in the war.
A reproduction of a neoclassical chair and settee is featured along with a painting of the British sacking and burning of the White House, which Deutsch calls a pivotal moment for citizens of Baltimore, who watched it happen and redoubled their own preparations for battle.
Alfred Jacob Miller’s wall-sized painting of “The Bombardment of Ft. McHenry” is an exhibit centerpiece. An enduring part of the war is an original manuscript of Francis Scott Key’s poem describing the American victory at Fort McHenry. It was later set to music and became “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
For generations, heroes of the War of 1812 were celebrated in Baltimore. An 1889 photo shows “Defenders of the City” who were given a huge parade, and the 1912 centennial was marked by flag-draped buildings.
There will be much less fanfare with the bicentennial celebration. In some ways, it’s a historical reckoning that seems in concert with the fortunes of the city, which declined after its golden era and never quite regained its national centrality.
The war “was fought to determine [whether] are we just British citizens who have become Americans and are still joined at the hip with Britain. Or are we going to become something brand new?” says Kummerow.
In undertaking the challenge of telling that story, “In Full Glory Reflected” calls new attention to a largely forgotten era and again raises enduring questions about the apportionment of history and the vagaries of national memory.
opens June 10 and runs through January 2015 at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St., Baltimore.