Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Spoils of War

So many in the naval community have been inside the auditorium in Annapolis' Mahan Hall - certainly every Midshipman who's ever attended the Naval Academy has nodded off there during a presentation or two.  But few that I've spoken to even remember giving so much as a passing thought to the decorative cases that line the actual auditorium, and the corridors around it.  After all, the contents are faded, shabby, and for all intents and purposes trapped for the foreseeable future beneath thick plate glass that was installed to seal the cases as the building was constructed around them.

Lurking inside those oft forgotten veritable glass dungeons are precious and irreplaceable artifacts - spoils of war once heralded at mastheads and paraded triumphantly through American streets accompanied by cheers.  In this year and during the next few, they may warrant an occasional glance, and perhaps a few sparks of recognition.

The US Naval Academy has long been the depository for our service's trophies - that is, the spoils of war taken in victory as remembrances of our great military accomplishments.  Walking "the Yard" one can't beat but a few paces without tripping over a Spanish cannon or a ship's bell.  Masts, torpedoes, field guns, anchors - trophies take on many forms.  But those in the Mahan Hall cases are decidedly more delicate, and arguably more symbolic.

Look closely under the far archways - those aren't windows.
Within the auditorium, and lining the hallway outside it, are the captured British ensigns from the War of 1812.  The battle flags of HMS Guerrierre, Macedonian, Java, Peacock, Cyane, Levant, Penguin, flags taken by Perry at Lake Erie and MacDonnough at Champlain.  They're all there, worn by battle and the ravages of time, the banners that festooned victorious American ships as they returned to port are carefully arranged as reminders of our Navy's accolades.

It's been quite a while since those cases were opened.
The fact that they're trapped beneath their thick glass cases, and have been since the early 20th century, is more than likely the reason that they're not being featured as part of the upcoming War of 1812 Bicentennial commemorations - it is definitely the reason they're so badly faded and in such poor states of preservation.  Most appear to be literally disintegrating - looking into the cases you can plainly make out bits and pieces of them in the bottoms.

Speaking with the professionals at the nearby museum in Preble Hall, it appears they're conscious of the problems, but lacking funds to remove and professionally conserve them.  I suppose that's par for the course lately - with all the hell that's been raised by the recent IG report on the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Still, it's worth remembering, and when in the building pausing for a moment to think about where those flags have been.

Bits and pieces like Lieutenant David Conner stuffing Peacock's tattered ensign into his jacket as he struggled into the boat that floated off Peacock's deck as she sank... makes one pause.

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