SALEM — Old Ironsides may yet return to Marblehead — as part of the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.
"It's a matter of logistics," said Frank Neely, the Navy's USS Constitution spokesman. "The ship is up to traveling." On the other hand, he cautions, no long-term plans have been made. "It's not yes, and it's not no."
A return visit of the Constitution, if it should happen, would be just one event in a series planned to mark a little-known war that had enormous impact here on the North Shore. Tomorrow, a six-week course on the War of 1812 starts at the Salem Athenaeum, taught by Suffolk University history professor Robert Allison.
It was on April 3, 1814, that the frigate USS Constitution was chased into Marblehead Harbor by two larger British warships. They were out for blood, seeking to avenge the Constitution's shocking victories over the British frigates Java and Guerriere in 1812.
North Shore residents had followed the vessels racing down the coast, and when Old Ironsides slipped beneath the protective guns of Fort Sewall, hundreds of cheering patriots welcomed her. Many of the ship's crewmen hailed from Marblehead and surrounding towns.
In 1997, the 200th anniversary of the Constitution's launch, the Navy sent her back to Marblehead to acknowledge the vessel's debt to the town. The event drew extensive national media coverage and tens of thousands of visitors. Ever since, Marbleheaders have longed to see the iconic ship anchored at the mouth of the harbor once more.
"It's still in the works," said Selectman Harry Christensen, who thinks the cost will be the determining factor. "I would love to have the Constitution come back. That was a great event. I was pleased to live long enough to see it, and I would love to see it again."
"We've been very aware of what we did in 1997," Neely said. "And we'd love to do that again. ... But we can't forecast our schedule that far out in advance."
The War of 1812 is major event for the Constitution, the world's oldest commissioned warship. The Constitution Museum has a program already set to mark the event.
"This is our busiest year yet," Neely said.
Ironically, the Constitution was part of a war so hated in this region that before it was over, New Englanders would actively consider seceding from the union, Allison said. "Mr. Madison's War" began on June 18, 1812, with a declaration by the U.S. Congress.
It was fought to keep trade routes free and protect sailors from being impressed into the British Navy. In other words, it was intended to benefit New England's Yankee traders more than any other region.
To press for better treatment, however, President Thomas Jefferson first announced an embargo on both Britain and France. Later came a massive British blockade. Both devastated the local economy, turning most people here against the war.
In the aftermath, Salem, at one time one of the busiest ports in the world, began to be eclipsed by Boston, which had more links to the growing interior of the nation.
Yet the peace was about as good as Americans could hope for, bringing a sense that America was one country and a country that could endure, Allison said.
"The war sparked a feeling, a nationalism that you would not have seen before," he said.
Other organizations intend to mark the anniversary, although some events are still in the planning stage. The Salem Maritime National Historic Site will have a living history program in September, according to Emily Murphy, park historian.
The Marblehead Historical Society and Museum currently has an exhibit on art and fashion that includes the 1812 period, curator Karen MacInnis said. An exhibit showcasing the military is set to follow in the fall and winter.
On April 25, the Beverly Historical Society will host journalist and author Ed Brown, who will speak on the role played by residents during the war. Most participants were sailors, director Sue Goganian said. The North Shore, she notes, was "heavily dependent on the ocean and anything that affected that."
If you go
What: A six-week course, "The War of 1812 — The Second War for Independence"
Who: Robert Allison, Suffolk University
Where: Salem Athenaeum, 337 Essex St.
When: Thursdays, April 12 and 19 and May 3, 10, 17 and 24, 7 to 9 p.m.
Cost: $195/$175 for members
Register: firstname.lastname@example.org or 978-744-2540