Eastern Shore maritime museum tells story of the War of 1812 on the Chesapeake Bay

The Washington Post

ST. MICHAELS, Md. — Runaway slaves, captured women and children, British officers bestowing suspicious gifts and turncoat plantation owners trading with the enemy under a white flag — it all happened in Maryland on the Chesapeake during the War of 1812, according to a new exhibit at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

“Navigating Freedom: The War of 1812 on the Chesapeake” opened this weekend, beginning with a gala preview and donors party Friday evening.

Historians in St. Michaels have been waiting a long time for these dates to roll around — 2012, 2013, 2014, and a little bit of 2015.

It’s the bicentennial of the War of 1812 — the war that, in a sense, put St. Michaels on the map. The Battle of St. Michaels occurred on August 10, 1813.

Details from that day have become a blend of history, myth, legend and tourism marketing that scholars are generally discouraged from unraveling.

Researchers at the Maritime Museum decided to take a different tack. They would tell the story of the War of 1812 in St. Michaels, the Chesapeake and Maryland by recounting the tales of individuals whose lives were forever changed by war.

The sources for the accounts were a collaborative effort that included the museum’s Center for Chesapeake Studies, the Maryland State Archives’ Legacy of Slavery in Maryland program, Pulitzer-prize winning historian Alan Taylor, and author and professor Jennifer Dorsey, Norman and Ellen Plummer, Bill Dudley and others.

They include the accounts of people like Gabriel Hall, a slave on a farm in Calvert County who escaped with two others to a British squadron moored on the Patuxent River, and eventually moved to Halifax.

Another account would be of four slaves who escaped to a British ship off Poole’s Island in Kent County in 1814. The slaves led the British to an attack at Caulk’s Field and the British were thrashed soundly, leading scholars to believe the slaves deliberately lied and set up an ambush.

Mrs. Dawson, a young Quaker mother with two children was captured by the British with other passengers as she was traveling by commercial sloop between Easton Point and Baltimore. The prisoners were taken to Tangier Island for a few days and entertained lavishly, according to accounts. As Mrs. Dawson was feeding her infant, an admiring officer offered her a silver spoon with his name engraved on it. The spoon is now a family heirloom.

While most exhibits on war focus on famous military figures and battles, there is an effort to draw the visitor into the personal lives of those who lived in the area 200 years ago.

“We decided to focus on people — how it impacted everyday, ordinary people,” said Robert Forloney, who is director of the Kerr Center for Chesapeake Studies at the museum.

Revealing in the exhibit is the number of slaves trying to escape to the British even as slavery had not reached peak historic proportions.

“We want to show the bay as a highway,” Forloney said. “African-Americans try to escape by using the bay as a highway.”

A fascinating feature is a 3D virtual aerial tour of St. Michaels and surrounding areas as it would have looked in 1812-1815.

Plantations, shipyards and historic places in existence at that time are pointed out, along with the miles and miles of shoreline and untouched forests that paint a clear picture of the 1812 Bay Hundred area. The tour was created in Washington College’s Geographic Information Systems laboratory in partnership with the museum.

A team of expert curatorial and design professionals led by Rick Beard, Laura Friedman, and Sally Pallatto translated the research into exhibit.

Funding included more than $110,000 in support from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority and a “Star Spangled 200” grant from the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission.

Other donors include Fred and Leslie Israel, Bob and Kay Perkins, the Plummers, Lesley and Karen Shook and Joan and Clifton West.

The exhibit continues through 2015 and is included in the regular price of admission or free to members.

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