One of the great hurdles so many people face in thinking about the War of 1812 is the simple difficulty of imagining how it looked.
Especially compared to the Revolution and the Civil War, which most of us can conjure up from an enduring visual legacy of blue, gray and red uniforms, the War of 1812 is so poorly remembered today that even people fairly well versed in American history tend to draw a blank.
That's why I visited the Virginia War Museum in Newport News more than 6 months ago when I began looking for sources on the War of 1812 in Hampton Roads and the series of stories that will conclude with a look at the British raids on the James River.
There I found a small but choice collection of orginal uniforms, headgear and weapons far more compelling than the assortment of what are largely reproductions found at Fort McHenry. And after taking a long look, it was much easier to imagine the Virginia militiamen who played such crucial roles in the heroic if futile defense of Hampton, the victory at Craney Island and the crash and dash raids along the rivers.
"Very little material from the War of 1812 has survived. So you hardly ever see it," museum education coordinator Chris Garcia says.
"But we have almost as many original artifacts on display as Fort McHenry. We also have two very rare identified uniforms from the local area -- and one of them is from an enlisted man who lived in Gloucester. Very few of those have survived."
Equally evocative in its way is the the accompanying collection of period small arms and edged weapons, most of them from the Virginia Manufactory of Arms in Richmond.
They bring you back to a time when the state was still an industrial leader in the United States, and one of the few able and willing to manufacture the weapons used by its militia.
Though many militiamen who faced the British during the war were ineffective -- and the units here in Virginia could not fully protect the coast against the enemy's attacks -- they did record an unusually high share of successes.
Smithfield was saved twice by its volunteer infantry and artillery gunners. And though Hampton may have been overwhelmed in the end, the British remembered the sting of the Rutherford rifles that threw their attack into temporary disarray with genuine admiration.
Then there was the Battle of Craney Island, where the militia's performance alongside navy gun crews, a few Marines and a small detachment of regular army troops helped Virginia record a rare victory as well as one of the turning points of the war.
"The Battle of Craney Island was a real game-changer," Garcia says.
"It's why the British decide to leave and go somewhere else."
Here's the link to a photo gallery of images from the museum.
-- Mark St. John Erickson
The Virginia War Museum is located at 9285 Warwick Blvd., Newport News. 757-247-4783; www.warmuseum.org
And don't forget these upcoming Hampton History Museum events marking the Battle and Sack of Hampton:
War of 1812 bus tour and programs, including a gallery tour, children's activities and re-enactors as well as a tour of battle sites. 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday. Free.
"The Rape of Hampton...Or Was There One? The British Occupation of the Town in 1813," presented by Stuart L. Butler. 7 p.m. Monday. $3.
120 Old Hampton Lane, Hampton. 757-727-1610; www.hamptonhistorymuseum.org