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There’s something a little macabre about celebrating the 200th anniversary of an event as devastating as the War of 1812 in Southern Maryland. We’re not talking about “Finding Nemo” here; more like “Reservoir Dogs.”

Much of the historic landscape in Southern Maryland can only be traced back as far as 1814, when “Madison’s silly war” spilled over to the region with cataclysmic results.

On their way to burn the White House, the British left a swath of destruction from St. George’s Island to Chaptico, burning plantations, carrying off livestock, property and slaves, smashing up tombstones in the cemetery at King and Queen Parish in Chaptico and using the church as a stable for their horses. Chaptico citizens were forced to stand naked in the hot August sun in 1814 while the Redcoats threw candlesticks, furniture and other possesions down the town well. Many of the region’s oldest homes were lost to flames as Admr. George Cockburn oversaw the destruction of as many plantations as he could lay fire to.

Following the war, the population of St. Mary’s and Charles counties diminished considerably as many were left destitute by British depravations. Entire communities left the region to settle in Kentucky or Indiana. For many years, visitors from St. Mary’s County to Bardstown would find familiar names on Kentucky mailboxes as many of the region’s oldest families could be found there as well. Some post-War of 1812 pioneers ventured further west into Missouri and Texas. Their hardship became our history.

My mother’s family is tied up in the Bardstown migrations as her great-grandparents headed west on the Ohio Trail along with their neighbors and somehow perished on the journey. Their son my great-grandfather, John Henry Hill was sent back to St. Mary’s County as an infant in a buckboard with some who found life on the frontier too brutal and returned to their native land. My mother and I found him in the 1820 census as a boy of 10 living with the Kilgore family in Mechanicsville. Our search to find who his parents were that perished on the trail is still ongoing. The fact that they left for the wilderness with an infant in tow illustrates how desperate people were after the Redcoats swept through the region.

Time heals all wounds, they say. Yet, the War of 1812 should be remembered not only as a turning point in our nation’s historical record, but for the destruction and suffering endured by our ancestors in one of the most brutal conflicts ever waged on helpless citizens.

History as tourism

Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum at 10515 Mackall Road in St. Leonard has been waging the War of 1812 reenactments for about 14 years on a much more intimate level. Some events have been better attended than others. Last year, when most early 19th-century reenactors were on the Eastern Shore for a huge event, very few ventured to Calvert County for the annual program. With the 200th anniversary of the conflict descending upon us, however, more reenactors are expected for this year’s event, and Erin Atkinson, special events and marketing coordinator at Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum, said they are expecting a much more successful program this year.

“We’re changing the focus of the event to include more every day life,” Adkinson noted. “We’ll still do the battles, but our primary focus will be something that is kid and family friendly.”

Along with the reenactment is a new exhibit at the facility, "Farmers, Patriots and Traitors: Southern Maryland and the War of 1812," which helps visitors learn about the conflict and its local ramifications.

The exhibit, located in JPPM's exhibit barn, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and from noon to 4 p.m. Sundays, as well as during special events at the park. The comprehensive display is quite thorough, giving short vinettes on clothing, household items, battles including a detailed account of Commodore Joshua Barney’s engagement with the British in St. Leonard’s Creek with maps of Southern Maryland detailing the evolution of the destruction.

“The exhibit will be open during the event and shows how Southern Maryland was affected,” Adkinson said.

She added that the large celebration will take place in 2014 which will be the 200th anniversary of the conflict in Southern Maryland will be the much larger event.

“We’re starting to gear up for that,” Adkinson said.

She added the attendance at this year’s event should recover from 2011’s sparsely-attended program.

“We’re hoping for a lot more people,” she said.

Adkinson noted that two weeks prior to the event the museum had approximately 50 reenactors from 10 different groups signed up to participate.

“There will be a larger number than last year,” she said.

There will be a 19th-century dancing group and reenactors wearing clothing worn by the average woman of the early 1800s.

“This will be coordinated with the exhibit on the War of 1812 and its impact on Southern Maryland in our visitors center,” Adkinson stated.

Other features include a blacksmith demonstration, spinners and weavers, corn husk dolls, military drill exercises for children with Simon Spalding. Kids can learn to play a game called “Rounders” and take dance lessons.

“We’re really trying to focus the event to be not just catered to people who like history, but to all aspects of the period, things like not only the reenactors, but the types of clothing people wore, cooking demonstrations things that can appeal to either side,” she said.

James Dowell of Owings will be providing free ox-cart rides throughout the day, as he does every year for Children’s Day on the Farm the first weekend in June.

Adkinson said approximately 30 staff members will work the annual event along with docents and volunteers.

“We get our volunteers from different sources,” she said. “Lately, the Navy has been sending us lots of volunteers the day before the event and the day of the event.”

She added the museum has between 25 and 30 docents. The event generally brings in close to 500 spectators, but added that when the grand tactical was held in 2008, the event saw several thousand attend the reenactment.

jnorris@somdnews.com