Random "Jay Walk"ers interviewed by Jay Leno doubtless have forgotten the War of 1812, if indeed they learned about it at all, but Marylanders know all about it, don't we?
Alas, that's about as far as most can go, even here near the geographic center of all the action, which extended from Canada to New Orleans. But just as the bicentennial of the conflict approaches, filmmaker Lawrence Hott comes along with his two-hour documentary production of "The War of 1812," to be aired nationwide on PBS Monday, Oct. 10.
Even luckier, Baltimore is one of a few select markets where a personalized preview will be offered. On Monday, Sept. 26, heralded by the Fife and Drum Corps of Fort McHenry, a one-hour version edited for local interest will be screened at Landmark Theatre Harbor East Cinema, along with promos of other period productions from PBS plus Q&A time with "War" producer/director Hott.
While each expert he consulted felt his area was the most important theater of the war (and Hott is not taking sides), one thing that amazed him is how unprepared the United States was to confront Great Britain, even as the fledgling nation declared war. With only 14 frigates (the battleships of the day) and somewhere between 7,000 and 11,000 soldiers, they were about to take on the nation that ruled the waves, upon whose empire the sun never set.
The U.S. generals were old soldiers left over from the revolution or had no experience, Hott says, and available intelligence led them to believe the Canadians would welcome them, that the French would take their side, that the British were hostile to the Indians.
The War of 1812 "is not easy to get a handle on, but is becoming more so as we consider wars of choice, how we formed as a nation, and the situation of Native Americans," Hott concludes.
Local star of his movie is The Pride of Baltimore II herself, appearing as a privateer, a vessel carrying a letter of marque, by which it could capture enemy vessels without being declared pirate, which was a hanging offense, said Pride's captain, Jan Miles.
As they had done during the American Revolution, privateers roamed the seas hunting for British cargo ships to pounce on, and those of the Baltimore or Chesapeake schooner design were so speedy they could outrun British warships trying to stop them. The Pride is a reproduction of a topsail schooner privateer and the only full-size example in existence, but not a replica of any particular one, emphasizes Miles.
Without these truly swift boats, he adds with pride of his own, the Brits wouldn't have had their reason to head up to Baltimore and its "nest of pirates" after setting the White House afire in September 1814, retribution for U.S. troops burning York (later Toronto), Ontario. The British targeted Baltimore shipyards that built the boats, and Fort McHenry was on the way to one in Fell's Point. The rest, as they say, is history.
No girls allowed
In "The War of 1812," The Pride also provided a setting for general nautical scenes, its sails billowing, its crew climbing the rigging, manning the ship's wheel and standing at attention.
But being a star isn't all grog and lemon wedges. Obstacles did emerge during filming in October 2009, reports Jamie Trost, the Pride's other captain.
"Our crew is over half female, but for historical accuracy they wanted to use only men. We were dressed in period costume — not something we usually do — and had to try to climb the rigging and sail without 60 percent of our crew on a windy day."
The same wind also challenged the filmmakers working from the Pride's inflatable rescue boat. The party had to leave the harbor and head out into the rougher Chesapeake Bay, once almost swamping and losing the camera, in order to locate a period-neutral background.
It was a good time nevertheless, at least in Trost's estimation.
"The real joy is the chance to show off The Pride in any way," he said. "It's fun to bring people on board."
Contrary to some popular opinion, the U.S. frigate Constellation, a successor to which is now berthed at the Inner Harbor, had no involvement in this war, having been trapped in Hampton Roads, Va., by the British blockade.
What did Key see?
While in Hott's film the bombardment of Fort McHenry is shown in animation, and the famed flag is not actually there, the national monument's ranger historian Scott Sheads, who appears as one of the movie's expert talking heads, tells us that the red-glaring rockets and the bombs bursting in air were the ultimate weapons of their time.