The Washington Post

Tall ships in Baltimore harbor make War of 1812 come alive

Lisa Walker was moving to Brazilian pop music and snapping photos — as was her husband — as they marveled Saturday at the full-rigged Brazilian Navy ship Cisne Branco, one of several huge sailing vessels in Baltimore to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.

The 42-year-old financial analyst from Jessup couldn’t say what the war was about but was sure of this: Just being near the tall ships and naval vessels made her feel connected to the region’s history. It made real “The Star-Spangled Banner,” America’s anthem, whose words were inspired by the bombardment of Fort McHenry, in Baltimore, during the war between the United States and Great Britain.

“It makes the song come alive when you see all this,” she said, gesturing at an Inner Harbor ringed with tall ships. “You can see the scampering across the ramparts.”

The dramatic scale and old-fashioned appearance of the ships was a stark contrast with the wars of today.

One booth at the Sailabration event sold historic weapons; another displayed art from a therapy program for today’s returning veterans. Tables sold “War of 1812” T-shirts next to spoofy foam black pirate hats next to “I got tanked at the Yards” tank tops.

Mixed in among the thousands of people on the sun-soaked park paths along the harbor were military families, looking at a historical war through a contemporary lens.

Sixteen members of the Lechner family were visiting from three cities, honoring a Father’s Day request of an Air Force veteran who wanted to see the military vessels in the morning and the Blue Angels air show in the afternoon.

“We live in the heart of Pennsylvania, so we don’t ever get to see tall ships or Navy vessels,” said Greg Lechner of Harrisburg, who was in a line dozens-deep with his family waiting to board the Cisne Branco.

For many people, Saturday was just a day to be in the bright sunshine, watch some street theater and snap photos of an Inner Harbor crowded with boats, from tall ships to kayaks to ferries carrying people to the aquarium. A tent about sailors’ changing diets listed foods from “then,” including molasses and suet. Standing in for today’s diet, an actor dressed up as a slice of pizza and a chef explained how to cook it.

The waterside paths were jammed with tourists and sailors. Those from the Mexican ships were dressed in starched white, from head to foot, while the Indonesians wore army green. Historic reenactors roamed, including Ron Turner, 69, and Gordy Johnson, 65, both of North East, a town in the most northeast county of Maryland.

Around noon, the two were taking a cigarette break from playing tavern patrons outside the history tent. Normally, the men, who work with their county’s historical society, specialize in characters from the 1775-1783 Revolutionary War period, but on Saturday they were focused on getting people engaged with what Johnson called “our second war of independence.”

“We won our independence in the Revolutionary War, but in 1812 we won the respect of Great Britain. Partly because we had those,” said Turner, gesturing toward the tall ships. “Our gunners were better shots.”

The War of 1812 began 30 years after America had won its freedom from the British but was still struggling against them in land skirmishes and through tensions over trade.

The war brought both setbacks and victories for American forces, but has been regarded as a significant affirmation of American independence.

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.


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