Wednesday, Nov 9, 2011
With the bicentennial of the War of 1812 only seven months away, the ranger staff at Fort McHenry and the crew of the Pride of Baltimore II have launched a “historical boot camp.”
On November 6th, the crew of the Pride of Baltimore II, under the command of Jan Miles, gave the rangers and volunteers of Fort McHenry their sea legs by sailing for over two hours on Baltimore’s premiere topsail schooner.
“This was a perfect fit,” says Vincent Vaise, Fort McHenry’s chief of interpretation: “Pride II is a replica of the privateer ships that harassed the British during the War of 1812.”
During the War of 1812, over 120 topsail schooners like Pride II sailed from Baltimore. They captured or destroyed over 400 British merchant ships.
“To understand the War of 1812 you have to understand the maritime issues that led to it, you have to understand the importance of sea power,” says Tim Ertel, interpretive ranger and music director at Fort McHenry.
Training on the ship, the ranger staff looked the part. Complete with blue woolen jackets, tar hats and even boarding cutlasses, they looked like they just stepped out of a Patrick O’Brian novel.
For two hours on a sunny, blustery November afternoon, the rangers learned how to set a sail, what terms like “leeward” mean, and how to tack a sailing schooner down the Patapsco River. It was truly a “working” impression, with the rangers straining at the lines as sweat soon beaded under their wool jackets.
“Got blisters yet?” asked Captain Miles as the ship tacked for the fifth time and there was a flurry of activity on the main deck.
“It’s quite a workout!” said Dustin Meeker, seasonal park ranger at Fort McHenry and Educational Specialist at Maryland Historical Society.
Midway through the cruise, with the rigging set, the ranger staff took time to tell the crew and passengers about the critical role ships like Pride II played in the War of 1812 and how that is a major part of the story of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“The crew of the Pride was fantastic, they showed us the ropes, explained everything - and having Jan as captain today was awesome,” said Meeker.
“We are playing to our strengths,” said ranger Jim Bailey, who heads up the fort’s living history unit, The Fort McHenry Guard. “The Pride crew knows a lot about the mechanics of sailing, parts of the ship, and what it is like to live aboard a vessel like this; we know the history, have read letters from the period and talk to the public all the time – putting both together made the experience.”
Robert Stewart, a seasonal park ranger in the SCEP program, portrays an African-American sailor.
“Many people don’t know that Baltimore had the highest population of free African-Americans of any American city during the War of 1812 – many served as sailors aboard merchant ships and in the U.S. Navy, and ships like the Pride II – this is history we weren’t telling a generation ago and we’re telling it now,” says Stewart. “As a teacher, this experience is certainly going into my classroom.”
The ranger staff will tell the stories of the Baltimore privateers to the thousands of visitors who come to Fort McHenry and the Pride crew will share the story of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with the world as they travel to ports-of-call in Europe and South America.
“You can read about this in a book, but this is applied history, you learn by doing,” said Vaise. “Those who are going to be involved in the bicentennial of the War of 1812 have to possess not only the knowledge, they have to have the passion and enthusiasm to deliver that message – this is one way to train for it.”