Reenactors in 1812 Marine Guard uniforms march in front of the USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned war ship in the U.S. Navy.
The War of 1812 can seem neglected, overshadowed by the American Revolution and the Civil War. But not this summer, when Boston will celebrate the bicentennial with an enthusiasm sure to bring attention to a war worth remembering. “If you ask the average American, ‘Who won the War of 1812?,’ they might say ‘The war of what?’” said Rebecca Crawford, manager of academic and family programs at the USS Constitution Museum, a partner in the bicentennial celebration. “But it’s important because it led to a spirit of nationalism. After the war, people started to refer to themselves as Americans, rather than by the state they lived in.”
This nationalism and pride will be displayed in full force July 4, the centerpiece of a celebration that features public events daily during Boston Harborfest from June 30 to July 4 and continues through the summer into the fall.
These include the annual USS Constitution voyage to Castle Island, a gala, a harbor cruise with a USS Constitution museum guide, tours of tall ships, international naval ships, an 1812 encampment of marines and civilians, children’s activities, lectures and the unveiling of a new War of 1812 Commemorative stamp.
At the center of the action is the USS Constitution – Old Ironsides – the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world. It won the first battle of the War of 1812 against the British HMS Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia, repelling cannonballs with its thick live oak hull, which seemed as strong as iron. It is an enduring symbol of the war, representing the triumph of the tiny fleet of a new nation against the tested, powerful British Royal Navy.
Built in Boston and launched in 1797, it won all 33 battles it engaged in, including two others during the War of 1812. It was restored in the early 1930s and again in 1997, the year of its bicentennial.
The war marks other turning points as well. It’s the last one Americans fought against not just Great Britain, but Canada, a country whose role in the war often is forgotten completely.
In contrast to the war against Great Britain, the war against Canada was a defeat for the United States. It also was an early example of a misguided sense of national superiority.
“We were the aggressors, and felt it would be great to release the Canadians from the British stronghold,” Crawford said. “But many people in Canada had fled the States during the Revolutionary War and sympathized with the British. They didn’t want to be released. Canada sees the war as their victory because they were able to keep us out of their territories.”
Just in time for the bicentennial, the USS Constitution Museum has created a new exhibit, the 1812 Discovery Center. With engaging hands-on and digital activities, the center offers a way for people to explore the causes, course and consequences of the war.
“In the past, the museum has done a good job of telling what the USS Constitution did, but this puts it in a greater context,” Crawford said. “It’s layered information so visitors can get basic information or explore more complex ideas.”
Up to one million people are expected to visit the ship this bicentennial year, most of whom also stop at the nearby museum. A gala on July 2 celebrates both the ship and her crew, whose members daily care for her and tell her story to visitors on board.
The black and white ship with 44 guns and masts up to 220 feet tall is beautiful from the outside and equally so on board, where its brass shines and wood glows.
The gala is from 6 to 8 p.m. on the Commandant’s House Lawn in the Charlestown Navy Yard. Tickets are required.
On July 4, the USS Constitution, guided by a tug boat and with sails unfurled (weather permitting), will pass through Boston Harbor to Castle Island and fire a 21-gun salute. Overhead, Blue Angels and other military aircraft will perform a variety of flyover salutes.
The museum-guided luncheon cruise departs at 10 a.m. from the Charlestown Navy Yard and Long Wharf. After the turnaround, the USS Constitution will be open for public tours from 2 to 6 p.m. at its home in the navy yard.
“It’s a great way to see the ship in motion,” Crawford said. “If the wind is right and the sails fill, it’s awe inspiring.”
Also in the Charlestown Navy Yard on July 3 and 4, Coast Guard members in 1812 period uniforms will perform gun and weapon drills and speak about life aboard an 1812 revenue cutter.
Additionally, the Eagle, a tall ship operated by the Coast Guard, will travel to Castle Island on July 4. It will be open for public tours from June 30 to July 3 at the Charlestown Navy Yard.
During the week, a fleet of international tall ships will be in the harbor. These include: Cisne Bronco from Brazil, Gloria from Colombia, Guayas from Ecuador and Dawaruci from Indonesia. Plus, more than 30 U.S. and international naval vessels, crewed by more than 5,000 uniformed sailors, will be seen in and around Boston Harbor during the celebration.
A ceremony to unveil the new U.S. postage stamp will be held at 10 a.m. Aug. 18 in the Charlestown Navy Yard, and the original painting used for the stamp will be on view in the museum. More than 80 Marines and civilians will recreate camp and civilian life during a two-day re-enactment.
The bicentennial events are planned by the Navy, Coast Guard, OpSail, the National Park Service and the USS Constitution Museum. All are open to the public.
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