When I began working on my "Free Men and Dreamers" series eight years ago my goal was to have the series on the shelf before the launch of the Bicentennial of the events it described. Book five, the final volume was released last November, and when the New Year rolled around lighting up the date 2012, I breathed a sigh of relief that I had met that goal, and I prepared to enjoy the festivities. Well, they're beginning!
I don't know all the wonderful historical offerings being presented across the country, and there are many scattered across Canada and down to Louisiana, but I can tell you that the Baltimore/Washington corridor is ground zero to the most dramatic events of that period, and both cities are preparing to make history come alive for visitors.
The research for books one and two, "Dark Sky at Dawn" and "Twilight's Last Gleaming," introduced me to the players in this pivotal period of history--presidents past and then present, military giants who rose to political power, a courageous naval genius who took on the British behemoth with little more than scrap wood barges and brawn, and the religious leaders who were struggling to steer a confused citizenry through the spiritual void created when the break with Britain and the Church of England left them without a king--their previous conduit to heaven.
Following two years of conflict along the Canadian border, and a seige of the Chesapeake region, the nation's capital was set aflame in August of 1814 when the British war machine landed troops along the Patuxent River and marched them from Benedict, Maryland, through Upper Marlboro and on to Bladensburg. It was here that a few brave marines and a heroic team of flotillamen stood with a rag-tag team of under-trained and under-armed militiamen in an attempt to halt the British advance on Washington. In a bloody rout that left hordes of dead soldiers on the battlefield, the Americans were defeated and the British prepared for the push to the capital.
The personal stories and details of that conflict, and the ensuing attack on the emerging but still swamp-like Washington City, as it was then known, are dramatized in book three, "Dawn's Early Light." Researching and writing that story has been one of the most enlightening, and humbling experiences of my career. My love of Washington, and my personal connection to that city have been deepened by that experience. I love that city so personally now.
Washington's big part in the Bicentennial will peak in 2014, the bicentennial of the attack on the capital when President Madison and Dolly were forced to flee for their very lives, but even in these early days of the celebration, Washington's doors are open to showcase her amazing history.
The burning of the capital left America stunned as her citizens worried about the fate of their republic and government. Her citizens rose from their knees and headed for Baltimore, the next target on the British list of prizes, knowing that this port city might be the last stand in the defense of full liberty.
History books today often refer to it as a nothing war. No great amounts of land were exchanged. No leaders were conquered. No government usurped another. But if one reads the accounts of those who lived through the two year seige of America, the terror of lost liberty, and the destruction of democracy was real as they lived in the shadow of Britain's bruital might.
It was just three weeks later when Baltimore came into the British cross-hairs. She boasted the third largest port in the nation, and was the womb of Britain's naval nemesis--the swift and deadly Baltimore Clipper ships. Britain's leaders were clear in their desire to take that city, and unlike naive, undefended Washington, who most believed was too protected and unimportant for Britain to bother, Baltimore spent years preparing for war. Local military and militia leaders drilled their troops, built trenches and barriers, to reinforce the perimeter of the city against a ground attack. Baltimore had cause to worry less about a water atttack. She was guarded at the confluence of the Patapsco River and the mighty Chesapeake Bay by the brilliantly-designed star-shaped fort known at Fort McHenry, whose mighty ramparts had been fortified and who now stood under the leadership of two trusted men--Major Armistead, and Captain Joseph Nicholson, brother-in-law of Francis Scott Key.
Book four, "Oh, Say Can You See," weaves our characters through the preparation for the Battle of Baltimore, the real story behind Francis Scott Key and the Star-Spangled Banner, and the aftermath of the battle. And Baltimore now wants to being all that history alive for you and your family.
Balitmore's kick-off begins June 13-19 in a stellar week of exciting events dubbed "The Star-Spangled Sailabration." A parade of tall ships and military vessels will arrive in the harbor and dock in Baltimore's many ports where visitors can visit. Concerts, children's activities, a Blue Angels air show, and a host of other activities are planned. As always, Fort McHenry and the Flag House museum will be open and at their best to provide a real glimpse of Key, the making of the Star-Spangled Banner, and the Battle.
Then travel south to Washington and visit the Smithsonian's American History museum and its magnificent Star-Spangled Banner exhibit. It's wonderful. Then head to the National Archives and visit the "Charters of Freedom" exhibit where the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights are viewable in a magnificent display. These documents would have perished during the conflict, were it not for the warning of James Monroe to a tirelessly diligent civil servant named Stephen Pleasanton who secreted them to safety. (Also in "Dawn's Early Light.")
For those who can't attend the events, you can pick up a few lovely historical souvenirs on the "Sailabration" site. Bicentennial coins have been minted, and replicas of the fifteen-star flag that flew over Fort McHenry are available. Proceeds from these products benefit bicentennial efforts.
So come east and visit! But if you can't, pick up "Free Men and Dreamers" and immerse yourself in this great American history. Thanks!
“A nation which does not remember what it was yesterday, does not know what it is today, nor what it is trying to do. We are trying to do a futile thing if we do not know where we came from or what we have been about.” -Woodrow Wilson