1768 replica schooner the S.V. Caledonian sails on Lake Ontario
1768 replica schooner the S.V. Caledonian sails on Lake Ontario
Back in 2007 when local boatbuilder Charles Wilton came across a half-scale replica of a 1768 schooner left derelict in Rockport, his goal was to restore it, then resell it. Then the economy hit its downturn and there weren't many likely buyers, so instead he decided it might be a good boat to do some re-enactment work, and, as it turned out, Canada had some big plans under way for the bicentennial of the War of 1812.

That bicentennial hasn't received too much attention on this side of the border, but the Canadian government has committed $28 million toward its bicentennial celebrations. This June, Wilton, who is Canadian, finally decided to hitch up his boat, the S.V. Caledonian, and set out for Kingston, Ontario, to take part in the re-enactments.

"For Canada, the War of 1812 really planted the seeds of Confederation," says Wilton.

When the war broke out, Canadians, still governed by Great Britain, at first relied mostly on local militias to defend their territory, before reinforcements arrived in 1813.

As Thomas Jefferson famously said, taking Canada would have been a "mere matter of marching." But Jefferson was proven wrong, as Canadian militia regiments were able to hold their own defending the Northern border. With Great Britain preoccupied with the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, the War of 1812 instilled in Canadians a sense of unity, and it is widely credited with creating the pathway to independence in 1867.

For Wilton, the War of 1812 is not about patriotism, but rather connecting with a fascinating period in history.

"Battles were won and battles were lost, but no one won the war," he says. "It was really about commerce. The real winners were whoever was prevailing with the biggest contracts. Everybody lost family, and the prison ships that Americans were interned on were terrible. There were atrocities on both sides."
Before taking part in the Toronto and Niagara on the Lake re-enactments, Wilton and an old school friend took the S.V. Caledonian from landlocked Lake Simcoe down the Trent canal system "Huckleberry Finn-style" to Lake Ontario. When they arrived, he describes a gathering, "like a rock show," of 40,000 people. Wilton then raised the stars and stripes and represented the United States in a series of mock naval battles.

Wilton hopes that the War of 1812 is not forgotten and that Mainers will also take a moment to remember our own connection to this important period in history. He mentions the many cemeteries along the coast of Maine where veterans of that war are buried and the famous Battle of the Boxer and USS Enterprise off the coast of Pemaquid. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "My Lost Youth" memorialized the battle with the words:

I remember the sea-fight far away, How it thundered o'er the tide! And the dead captains, as they lay In their graves, o'erlooking the tranquil bay Where they in battle died. And the sound of that mournful song Goes through me with a thrill: "A boy's will is the wind's will, And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

When Wilton was sailing the S.V. Caledonian on Lake Ontario, he says he received several comments from Canadians who were surprised to see a schooner registered in Maine so far from home. He thinks this is an opportune time to learn about Maine's rich wartime history.

"Penobscot Bay probably has the largest concentration of schooners in the world," he says. And he would like to enlist the support of local schooner captains in staging a commemoration of the War of 1812 right here in midcoast Maine.