Volume 12, Issue 39 ~ September 23-29, 2004
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End the War of 1812 at Jefferson Patterson Park’s Tavern Night
The British came to Chesapeake Bay in January 1813 and stayed until April 1815. During their uninvited stay, they burned many towns along the Chesapeake.
by Louise Vest

Fame has eluded many places and players of the War of 1812. On the national marquee of famous war sites, only two shine for non-historians: Ft. McHenry, because of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and “The Battle of New Orleans” because of that old jingle. “In 1814, I took a little trip ... .”

There are, however, 350 sites in Maryland where the War of 1812 played out. At one of them, Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum, twice a year the war is reenacted.

Spring and fall, the events put an exclamation point on the Battle of St. Leonard Creek as Maryland’s largest naval battle.

“The history of the battle isn’t learned in high school,” says Ed Chaney, the park’s librarian. “Most people, both students and teachers, even here in Southern Maryland don’t really know about it.”

To renew the battle’s fame, camps are set up, tactics are demonstrated at the beach, weapons fired and sea chanteys sung. Kids play historic games, and everyone can watch artisans. The war returns to St. Leonard’s Creek on the last Saturday and Sunday in September, and on Saturday night the tavern opens.

“The British are Coming ... and Going”

It’s the seventh year for reenactments, which pump up interest in the park, battles and Maryland’s unsung players in the War of 1812.

One of those is the Paul Revere of the War of 1812, John Stuart Skinner, a Southern Marylander and owner of the property that is now Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum.

While Revere’s cry of warning made him famous, John Stuart Skinner’s did not. Nevertheless, his 90-mile warning ride alerted citizens that the Brits were headed up the Potomac, allowing many to escape before the Brits burned D.C. and the White House.

For Skinner’s warning ride, and for the use of his plantation by American navy and Marine units fighting against them, the Brits retaliated by burning buildings on Skinner’s Leonard Creek property.

“Many people don’t know about Skinner, but he was a cool guy, an unsung hero,” says the park’s executive director, Mike Smolek. “He was someone swirling around everywhere then, very influential.”

In 1814 Skinner, an attorney, joined Francis Scott Key in negotiating a prisoner exchange. Over one long night, Key penned a poem that would became our national anthem.

During the war, Skinner was a purser in the navy, including the flotilla that harassed the Brits at St. Leonard’s Creek. After the war, Skinner became Baltimore’s postmaster, started a farming periodical supported by Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson and managed General Lafayette’s land grant in America.

Joshua Barney, another unsung patriot of the War of 1812, fought valiantly at Bladensburg and was wounded there. For the Battle of St. Leonard, Barney assembled the gunboats that fought on June 26, 1814. American guns mounted on a hill overlooking the creek fired on the Brits, as did the guns in the American flotilla.

“The British made landfall and tried to get around one of the guns. After the battle, the Americans escaped upriver, while the British retreated down river to Solomons,” explains Smolek. And Skinner made his Revere-esque ride to the nation’s capital.

“At the time of the battle, American cannons may have been placed where they were because it was John Skinner’s property and he knew the lay of the land,” says Smolek.

With both sides coming and going, Smolek said it’s a wonder they weren’t more aware of each other. “I’m amazed that 4,000-pound cannons could be brought in with wagons and horses and put in place and the British couldn’t hear anything,” he says.

Bad Guys Needed
Pride of Baltimore II sails in for the reenactment. In their assigned role of bad guy, they’ll be acting as a British naval vessel laying off shore and bombarding American guns.

Another enemy is the unit of local Marylander reenactors who portray members of the 1st Company 2nd Battalion of the British Royal Navy.

“The British came to the Chesapeake Bay in January 1813 and stayed until April 1815. That’s a long time,” says company member Ed Seufert of Baltimore. During their uninvited stay, the Brits burned many towns along the Chesapeake, including Leonardtown, which was rebuilt in a different location.

Because nobody wants to play bad guys, singers from the Ship’s Company Chantymen sometimes double as Royal Navy. Ship’s Company are locals who portray musically inclined American seamen, singing songs of the sea, primarily from the 19th century.

“We’re the bad guys, but we’re all friends,” says Seufert. After one reenactment on the beach overlooking the Patuxent River, the British and American commanders stepped out of the 19th century for a moment, shook hands and agreed to meet later at the pavilion for a mug of ale.

In the Spirit
The reenactment events cover many historical bases, but unscripted moments such as these bring visitors in as participants.

In another of those moments, visitors followed the battle-tried troops back to the camp for another view of war. On a hot, dusty trek back to the camps, there was nothing surrounding the troops but green fields under a globe of blue sky. It was a landscape of both beauty and isolation and a reminder that during that 1814 summer there were no automobiles for transport, phones for communications, hospitals, fast food or assurances of clean water. The troops had only each other to depend on when, after the battle and scuttling of the fleet, Barney’s men covered many miles on foot traveling to D.C. to again engage British forces.

At the park after the short march, everyone was glad to get back to camp shade and kiosks offering up turkey drumsticks, grilled vegetables, crab cakes and lemonade.

As the Ship’s Company Chantymen sang songs of the sea under a shade tree, on a hammock hung between two trees a reenactor told kids about shipboard life. Nearby, others watched the shipwright dressed in period 19th-century clothing working steadily at making wooden shingles — until his cell phone rang.

“This doesn’t look so good,” he told his 21st century caller. “Let me call you back!”

Then he told his audience how “kids see how much work this is and ask me why I just can’t go to Home Depot and get ready-made shingles.”

What Ales You
The 1800s’ theme continues at Tavern Night, an evening of music and ale in a rustic, post-and-beam pavilion on park grounds. Sponsored by the Friends of Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum, last year’s fall Tavern Night drew between 350 and 400 people.

As a rosy sunset gives way to stars strung across the Southern Maryland sky, the Sea Chantymen take to the stage with foot-tapping 19th century oldies, including an ode to ale — “I luvs you in the early morn” and “What do you do with a drunken sailor?”

No tavern customers seem to care that the places and players of the area’s 1812 battles are absent from glossier pages of history.

See Eight Days a Week for September 24 (10am-5pm & 6-10pm) and 25 (10am-5pm).

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.