Star-Spangled Students

The re-enactors gathering at Fort McHenry this weekend are there to relive 1814, but also to learn more about it.

September 08, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

The Star-Spangled Banner wasn't the only thing "still there" at Fort McHenry on the morning of Sept. 14, 1814. Also visible by the dawn's early light were dead Royal Marines bobbing just offshore, amid the wreckage of barges blown up during an attack hours earlier.

Then there were the bombs bursting in air - 200-pounders, terrifying things that emerged as black dots from gray whiffs of smoke on ships parked more than a mile away. One explosion sent a chunk of metal into the back of a soldier's neck, out his stomach, through 5 inches of oak and, finally, 2 feet into the ground.

Such are the nuggets of information being offered on a much more hospitable morning at the fort 187 years later by U.S. Park Ranger Vince Vaise. He is speaking in his customary bursts of enthusiasm, but his listeners yesterday are even more inquisitive than usual. They're historic re-enactors, some have driven overnight from New England to help re-create events today and tomorrow during Fort McHenry's annual "Star-Spangled Banner Weekend."

Which only goes to show that even historic re-enactors need history lessons, in the way actors needs background information to prepare for their roles.

"It's half the joy of coming to a re-enactment; it makes everything come alive," says Mark V. Hilliard, 40, of Boston, dressed in his whites as a member of the USS Constitution's 1812 Marine Guard. "Very few of these sites have anyone like Vince Vaise. He has that spark. Just an amazing guy."

Indeed, Vaise is conducting his small band of re-enactors like a maestro as they tour the grounds. He points here and there across the Baltimore harbor with a conductor's baton while identifying key points of the battle.

Out toward the Francis Scott Key Bridge, looming distantly in the haze? That's where the British ships arrived. Over by that garbage skimmer just a few hundred yards in front of the fort? That's where a British artillery observer standing in a jolly boat was cut in half by a skipping cannonball from the fort's batteries. And around to the south, where that cabin cruiser is approaching? That's where the flanking barge attack began in the cloaking rain of a midnight storm.

For the moment, Vaise wears the tan shirt and Smokey Bear hat of the National Park Service. Later he'll slip into the uniform of an artillery captain, joining ranks with the re-enactors, who will eventually number about 75 strong. Pretty impressive for a War of 1812 event, where units tend to be a bit thin on the ground,

"For the Civil War, you can easily get hundreds," Vaise says, "but, of course, this is the forgotten war. ... This event is a classic piece of Old Baltimore, and I'm giving these people an orientation of everything."

It's perfect preparation for Hilliard. As a professor of history at Emerson College, he knows the War of 1812 pretty well. But most of the juicier details he's heard concern his home grounds of New England. The same is true for both Louis Crescentini, 38, an electrician from Milford, N.H., and Bill MacFeeley, 52, who works for a photo-imaging company in Fitchburg, Mass. Both are part of the same Marine re-enactment unit as Hilliard.

"At a site like this, it's great to get the background information," MacFeeley says. "When you're in costume, people tend to ask you questions, and it's nice to be able to talk with a little bit of knowledge."

With a group like this one, Vaise can enjoy more give and take than with the average bunch of tourists. Thus, when he points out how unpopular the War of 1812 was in much of the United States - especially in New England - Hilliard answers, "Some of the states were actually talking about seceding."

But it is news to the group what a pro-war hotbed of support Baltimore was. To be a peacenik was to invite the wrath of the mob. Several were trampled to death in riots, and Baltimore's patriotic fervor during and after the bombardment of Fort McHenry helped galvanize the spirit of a young and uncertain nation. It's one reason Key's poem caught on enough to become the lyrics of the national anthem.

The city was virtually an armed camp as the British invasion approached, Vaise tells them, with 15,000 soldiers roughly equaling Baltimore's population of the time. Many of the soldiers took up positions in trenches in the high ground of Patterson Park, hoping to ward off any British attack.

The invaders had already slogged past the outer defense lines at the Battle of North Point, taking about 300 casualties in the process, and the bombardment of Fort McHenry was the naval supporting barrage for the ground attack, Vaise says.

He then points across the harbor to the north with his baton, saying, "The British pushed on, and they got about as far as that red brick building there, the old brewery where they used to make National Bohemian."

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