|By Barbara and Ken Beem
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The War of 1812 is not just about The Star-Spangled Banner, Old Ironsides and “Don’t give up the ship.” A new exhibit, Seas, Lakes & Bay: The Naval War of 1812, examines what really happened during America’s “forgotten war.”
Hundreds of rarely viewed pieces of artwork and artifacts belonging to the U.S. Naval Academy, augmented by 86 pieces on loan from Floridian William I. Koch, are now on display in Mahan Hall on the Academy grounds.
The installation, part of the bicentennial commemoration of the War of 1812, emphasizes the significance of the U.S. Navy in a war that helped to define America’s place on the world stage.
Open to the public through Nov. 3, the display of artwork, ship models and artifacts tracks the history of the war and its impact on the development of America. Koch, an enthusiastic collector of naval memorabilia, has a personal interest in the war, in part because he shares ancestral roots with one of its heroes, Capt. James Lawrence. Two items, in particular, from Koch’s collection “blow me away,” said J. Scott Harmon, who coordinated the exhibit. And indeed, it is impossible to miss an imposing carved wooden figurehead from HMS Shannon and an ornate wooden billethead – which took the place of a figurehead – from the USS Chesapeake, the ship on which Capt. Lawrence met his end.
Harmon, now retired, relied on his experience as director of the Naval Academy Museum when charged with the task of selecting what should be on display. He conceded that this assignment was “wonderful fun.” A graduate of the Naval Academy, Harmon pointed out that this exhibit provides a rare opportunity for those seeking to learn more about the War of 1812. Holdings accessioned by the Naval Academy are often kept in storage, and the treasures in private collections such as Koch’s are seldom viewed by more than a handful of people.
The 2,500 square foot exhibit is arranged chronologically, which Harmon considered to be the best way to tell the story. “I wanted this to be an educational experience, but I also wanted it to be fun,” he said.
To capture visitors’ imaginations, he selected a broad range of articles to display, from medals and swords to paintings and prints. Elaborate models of ships are exhibited in Plexiglas cases. Some artifacts that have survived the war and the ensuing 200 years are simple items, such as a humble boatswain pipe.
Commemorative china, snuff boxes and inkwells mingle with axes, pikes and hats, chilling reminders of the ferocity of boarding attacks. One particularly eye-catching artifact is a whimsical figure of a British lion, and a case full of elaborately carved scrimshaw is extraordinary in itself.
The artwork on display includes formal oil portraits of key participants and detailed etchings of battles seen from a variety of vantage points.
“You’ve seen a lot of these pictures in books, but here you can stand in front of the real thing,” Harmon explained. “And when you see an artifact close-up, something personal like a medal, it’s a magical thing.”
The exhibit is one of 10 stops on a War of 1812 bicentennial walking tour of Annapolis, a tour that also includes the U.S. Naval Academy Museum.
Visitors to Mahan Hall, home of the current exhibit, are also encouraged to view the U.S. Navy Trophy Flag Collection, a grouping of 25 glass-encased flags, all of which were seized during the War of 1812. Brought to Annapolis in 1849, these flags were meant to serve as educational and inspirational tools. Included in the collection is the sole Royal Standard captured by Americans during that war.
Not only is Seas, Lakes & Bay enlightening, but the mechanics of the exhibit are worthy of note. In particular, a huge early map of North America serves as a sort of wallpaper for the introductory panel of the exhibit. What makes the treatment of this map amazing from a curatorial perspective is the fact that the image, which boasts precise detail, was enlarged from the page of a book.
Harmon concluded that few contemporaries could foresee that the War of 1812 would be decided on the seas rather than on land. In the end, the focus of the fighting was in the Chesapeake Bay, due to its strategic proximity to Baltimore, Md. and Washington, D.C. As for the exhibit, Harmon believes it gives a “quick overview” of the history of the War of 1812 and the events leading up to it.
“I hope visitors to the exhibit will go away with an appreciation of the contribution the Navy made during the War,” he said. “I firmly believe that our naval endeavors made all the difference.”
For more information on Seas, Lakes & Bay: The Naval War of 1812, go to www.usna.edu/War1812 or call (410) 293-2108.