By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A parade of naval vessels and square-rigged sailing ships made their way on Tuesday up the Mississippi River to New Orleans under threatening skies, kicking off a national bicentennial commemoration of U.S. victory in the War of 1812.
Often called the second War of Independence, the conflict is best known because much of Washington, including the White House, was burned by the British before the United States prevailed.
On Tuesday, Coast Guard helicopters hovered low above the river as the boom of a cannon and pops from a 21-gun salute by Navy seamen greeted three majestic tall ships. They included the U.S. Coast Guard Barque Eagle, and six modern military vessels entering the Port of New Orleans.
The vessels will be open for public tours through April 23 as part of New Orleans Navy Week, before traveling to New York; Norfolk, Virginia; Baltimore; Boston; and New London, Connecticut. Events to commemorate the war are planned in Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio; Detroit, and Buffalo, New York.
In the war American forces, with its small naval fleet, prevailed against the British and the vaunted Royal Navy. The victory was instrumental in establishing the United States as a formidable military force and solidified the country's claim to the Louisiana Purchase, effectively doubling the size of the nation.
It might seem strange that the United States began its commemorations in New Orleans, the site of the war's final battle in 1815.
"It's only fitting that we begin the bicentennial commemoration of the War of 1812 in New Orleans to honor the exceptional war fighters, history and traditions that emerged during this battle and laid the foundation for today's versatile naval force," said Rear Admiral Ann Claire Phillips.
Though it came to a close near the Gulf Coast, the war in which the United States sought to end Great Britain's interference in U.S. trade relations and internal affairs began to the north, with Americans battling both British and Native American forces in the Great Lakes area of the Canadian border and along the Atlantic coast.
AMERICAN SEA VICTORIES
On a cloudy, windy day in August 1812, according to the Naval History & Heritage Command, the U.S. Frigate Constitution devastated the British Royal Navy's HMS Guerriere off Nova Scotia, in the first of several American victories at sea.
The United States suffered its share of defeats along the way, with Americans suffering heavy losses at Fort Detroit. Much of Washington - including the White House - was burned.
But Americans prevailed in major battles at Lake Erie and Lake Champlain, and a turning point was a victory in the Battle of Baltimore - when Francis Scott Key composed "The Star-Spangled Banner." The bloody battle in New Orleans in January 1815 - fought weeks after a peace treaty was signed but not ratified by the respective governments - solidified the young nation's stature.
The war had been unpopular among many citizens, particularly in New England, and talk of secession surfaced at the Hartford Convention in December 1814. But as word spread that Major General Andrew Jackson's troops and militiamen had prevailed in a land battle along the Mississippi River, celebrations erupted along the Atlantic Seaboard, said Jason Wiese, assistant research director at the Historic New Orleans Collection.
"The victory had a galvanizing effect on the whole country," Wiese said. "The aftermath of the War of 1812 is when you first begin to see a cohesive sense of national identity."
The war's final battle also changed the nation's view of New Orleans, having seen the city as "exotic" and separate because of its European and African cultural roots, said Tulane University professor Lawrence Powell, author of the new book "The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans."
"After that battle, the city was viewed as recognizably American, even though it was different," he said.
(Editing By Corrie MacLaggan, Greg McCune and Philip Barbara)