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The Pride of Baltimore II on the Chesapeake Bay. (Courtesy Greg Pease & Associates/Photographer's Choice)

Star-Spangled Sailing: The War of 1812

By David A. Taylor, co-author of The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy (published by National Geographic). 

This spring brings the War of 1812 bicentennial to life in a most audacious way: with the kind of sailing ships that made the war a test of nerves for a young, unproven navy and civilian privateers. One way to relive that chapter in history is to head for the water.

The Navy has collaborated with Operation Sail, the group that rounded up dozens of ghostly tall ships for the U.S. bicentennial in 1976, to arrange similar spectacles in U.S. cities this year. You’ll be able to experience the extravaganza in ports from New Orleans to Boston — including stops in Norfolk, VA and Baltimore, MD, and New London, CT. If you find yourself in New York City this Memorial Day weekend, you can catch sight of the ships during Fleet Week. Later in the summer, they’ll be making a tour of the Great Lakes.

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure and privilege of boarding the Pride of Baltimore II, built to honor the city’s history of shipbuilding and privateering, to see what she was made of. “You’ve just stepped into the workings of a machine powered by wind and muscle,” Captain Jim Trost announced as we pulled away from the dock with six crew members hauling hard on a starboard line to spread the topsail.

For me, visiting those ships in Baltimore — passing Fort McHenry amid tankers, tugs, and weekend boaters — provided an eye-popping glimpse into life on the sea, then and now.

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A print by T. Buttersworth depicts the 1815 battle between USS President and HMS Endymion. (Courtesy U.S. Navy Art Collection).

The captain reminded us that in 1812 Fells Point, the neighborhood stretching back from the dock, was rife with boat builders. Privately owned ships, commissioned by the U.S. Navy, frustrated the British in their blockade of the East Coast. Eventually a British fleet sailed up the Chesapeake Bay for retaliation and, when they arrived in Baltimore, found the harbor had been blocked by a false reef of wreckage. Amid the bombardment that ensued, a guy named Key jotted down some lines on an envelope that later became our national anthem.

Helmswoman Elizabeth Foretek told me about women who had served as sailors during the war, disguised as men, stories which we included in The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy. When their true identities were revealed, they were ushered off at the next port.

When the ship came about, she turned amazingly quickly (Baltimore clippers were built for more nimble maneuvering on the shallow bay). She felt alive. Later that afternoon, the Pride would challenge a British ship in a choreographed “attack.” And America’s maritime history, forgotten on most days, would come to life.

If you’re planning to travel to any of these once-in-a-lifetime events, there’s a free War of 1812 iPhone app that can help you identify important landmarks from that era along your path. On my route to Baltimore, for instance, it directed me to the White House (pointing out burn scars from the 1814 sacking of the capital), Bladensburg battlefield, and the house where Mary Pickersgil made the huge star-spangled banner.

It’s a useful bit of 21st century technology to take along for your trip to the 19th.

Follow David A. Taylor on Twitter @dataylor1.