BALTIMORE -- On a fine day for nautical gallantry, in the wake of a pre-modern, pre-photography, and predominantly forgotten war -- at least down here -- 50 youths in white slacks, blue tunics, and black sneakers climbed down from the rigging of a magnificent sailing ship and began singing The Star-Spangled Banner, but not very well.
This was excusable -- the sailors were Ecuadorians and their stage was the deck of School Ship Guayas, the white-hulled, tall-masted pride of their Amazonian republic's armada, which was racing with the alacrity of a Galápagos tortoise toward her berth in Baltimore's famous Inner Harbor, firing her cannon without hitting anything, and flying a flag that nearly was as big as Ecuador itself.
Tens of people clapped and saluted as the South American cadets finished crooning, hustled to make fast to the pier and, on the third or fourth try, succeeded. Thus began Sailabration 2012, Baltimore's commemoration of the bicentennial of a conflict so ancient, obscure, and misremembered that the best that even Canadian Geographic Magazine can say about the War of 1812 is that it was "an inconclusive series of battles that laid the foundation for today's Canada."
I was up on the bridge of Guayas, translating for the capitán on a media tour. Cruising all around us were equally splendid Class A tall ships flying the banners of the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, and Mexico, plus another three dozen schooners, frigates, destroyers, patrollers, tenders, barques and sloops.
Some of these were replicas and artifacts of the Age of Sail, but others, including several American and British grey hulls, packed enough firepower to reduce the wooden tubs to toothpicks. This was proof that the epoch of maritime violence as national policy still has not ended after 3,000 years, and probably never will.
Even tiny Ecuador was liable at any moment to resume hostilities along its jungle border with Perú, though it was hard to see how Guayas would be of much use 300 miles from the ocean.
"Quién ganó la Guerra de 1812?" I teased our commandant, whose full and operatic name was Amilcar Villavicencio Palacios.
"Well," he replied, "the British came, the British went back to Britain, so the winner was the United States."
As a summary of two and a half years of fierce and deadly clashes along the Detroit, Niagara, and St. Lawrence Rivers, the burning of York and Washington, the heroism of Laura Secord and the deaths of Tecumseh and Isaac Brock, the humbling of the Royal Navy on Lake Erie, the British bombardment of Baltimore that inspired the American national anthem, the enlistment and betrayal of the Indian nations of the Upper Midwest and Andrew Jackson's rout of the British at the Battle of New Orleans -- two weeks after the peace treaty was signed in Belgium -- the officer's statement was irreducible and apt.
Today, the first, fruitless war of choice and conquest declared by the young republic sleeps far less nobly in American memory than in Canada's. So Baltimore spun Sailabration to mark two centuries of Anglo-American amity, rather than recite the names of battles won and lost.
The day after I sailed aboard Guayas, my daughter and I waited in a queue for nearly an hour to tour HMCS Iroquois, the 40-year-old flagship of Canada's East Coast fleet, just to touch her guns and climb her decks and sit in her captain's chair. Then we went aboard a replica of a square topsail Baltimore clipper named Lynx, which was one of hundreds of American fishing and trading vessels that were issued letters of marque in 1812 and given licence as a privateer.
At the stern of Lynx was a young Pennsylvanian named Sean Ott, the schooner's first mate, dressed in period costume.
"Who won the War of 1812?" I asked him.
"Canada," he answered immediately. "To Canadians, the War of 1812 was their 'war of Southern aggression.' "
"The War of 1812 was definitely an expansionist war for America," Mr. Ott continued. "A lot of it was based on a war to protect and expand our shipping and our commerce. Plus, a lot of people in the United States thought that Great Britain was occupied with fighting France, so it would be a good idea to take part of Canada."
That this failed was due as much to American ineptitude as to the bravery and cohesion of the British Regiments of Foot at Chateauguay and Crysler's Farm, or Brock's suicidal gallantry at Queenston Heights. Yet still, exactly two centuries after the War of 1812 began, it had a lesson to teach.
Aboard a tugboat in Baltimore harbour, as I sailed out to join the crew of Guayas, I met a New Yorker named Bill Neubrand. Having served with the U.S. merchant marine, as a claims investigator for Lloyd's of London, and most recently as an executive of a marine insurance firm, Neubrand knew a barge from a battleship.
"Who won the War of 1812?" I asked the old salt. (He was 59.)
"Britain," he replied. "I'm slowly coming to that realization. When I was young, we all were taught that the United States had never lost a war. I seriously thought we won in 1812 because we repelled the British. But no no no no no we couldn't have won -- we don't have Canada!"
(If you're keeping score, I had asked three people the same question and had gotten three different answers.)
Bill Neubrand told me that he was "not a crazy Republican, but still a Republican."
"Do you think that America is going to start any more wars of choice?" I asked him.
"Nobody's going to stand for it," he replied. "I think the rank and file finally understands that there are limits to American power."
"What should Mitt Romney's foreign policy be?" I wondered, looking out at the ships and the sea.
"Laissez-faire," the American said.
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.