Re-enactor holding down the fort's history

McHenry park ranger readies for Defenders' Day

September 10, 2004|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

He won't eat a decent meal for three days. Or get much sleep. Or change clothes.

And forget about bathing.

We're not talking about the travel woes of some lowly presidential campaign aide. Rather, life gets reduced to those brutally basic essentials when park ranger Vincent Vaise goes on his annual Fort McHenry authenticity bender and refights the War of 1812.

"Once a year I think it's good to get a reality check and go whole hog," he says, even if that entails, yes, smelling like one.

When not guiding tours at the fort, Vaise, 34, slips into period costume and does double duty as head of the living-history program. But he only pulls out all the role-playing stops for Defenders' Day.

"Vince is really Baltimore's citizen-soldier of 1812," says Scott Sheads, a ranger at the fort 25 years.

In this tradition-bound city, you almost have to make an effort to not know the Battle of Baltimore commenced on Sept. 12, 1814, and quickly spread from the streets to the mouth of the harbor.

The next day about a thousand soldiers, sailors and citizens hunkered down inside Fort McHenry and executed the military equivalent of Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope boxing strategy: They let the mighty British navy punch itself out during a marathon shelling of the fort that left five defenders dead and 25 wounded.

As dawn broke on the 14th, the Brits gave up and sailed away, inspiring Francis Scott Key to pen "The Star-Spangled Banner" and his countrymen to turn the tide of the war.

"The national anthem and the flag are intertwined and they're rooted here at Fort McHenry," says Vaise. "To me that story is so powerful, it eventually becomes a part of you."

In Vaise's case, the story seems to have seeped down to the cellular level.

"It's really hard to separate him from the history. He's not a modern-life kinda guy," says his wife, Linda, who once found her husband seated at the kitchen table with several open cans of gunpowder and about 900 freshly rolled dummy musket cartridges destined for re-enactment use at the fort.

Jim Bailey, a 24-year-old part-time ranger, goes a step further: "I would say Vince only visits the 21st century."

Vaise doesn't have cable TV (although he does "respect" the History Channel), got a cell phone only last month because his wife made him, and remains oblivious to the trivialities of pop culture.

He is, however, given credit for almost single-handedly reviving Defenders' Day, successfully recruiting fellow 1812 re-enactors from as far away as Nebraska and Texas. More than a hundred are expected to hit town today for the 190th anniversary celebration.

Vaise also has been instrumental in devising enough 1812-related public events to justify Defenders' Day being expanded to Defenders' Weekend.

This year's highlights include a parade of living-history participants, who will march through Little Italy on Friday night before piling into small boats and crossing the harbor to Fort McHenry.

On Saturday, a fireworks barge will re-create the British bombardment. Mayor Martin O'Malley, all decked out as an American colonel, is expected to be on hand and, rumor has it, on horseback.

Vaise will serve as "captain of the guard," the boots-on-the-ground commander of Baltimore's defenders. He gets to wear a custom-made, historically correct blue coat and jaunty black hat, brandish a 19th-century sword, and tell heavy-footed guardsmen to move with more "celerity," as officers were wont to say back then.

Vaise acknowledges that putting on a captain's uniform "puffs you up" a bit. But he also admits to being naturally theatrical, although noting that's just a byproduct of his bubbling-over love of history: "It's not hamminess for ham's sake."

Indeed, he often seems to be speaking in italics, his sentences so rhythmically and dramatically accented they remind you of a cannonball rolling down a flight of stairs.

Vaise has been brushing up on his War of 1812 reading the past few weeks, though much of its minutiae has long been committed to memory.

He knows, for example, that during the battle Americans drank a precursor of Gatorade: a mix of water, molasses and vinegar that, he insists, tastes pretty good. He also knows that in 1814, Schwartzour's Tavern occupied the ground where the fort's visitors center stands.

"Good history is in the details," says Vaise.

Similarly, perhaps good historical interpretation originates in the genes. Vaise appears to have been born for this job. He grew up in Linthicum, and his father first brought him to Fort McHenry when he was 6 or 7 years old.

It was raining (coincidentally, same weather conditions as during the battle) and he remembers climbing on the cannons pointed down the Patapsco River. Afterward, he played with some bricks in his back yard, arranging them into the shape of "a very crude fort."

Two subsequent influences shaped him. He read Bruce Catton's Civil War books as a teen-ager and encountered a teacher at Mount St. Joseph High who, in Vaise's words, "blew the dust off of history."

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