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Naval Museum Brings Light to War of 1812 Artifacts

Adriel Bettelheim/CQ Roll Call
The Chambers swivel gun, from the War of 1812, is capable of firing 175 rounds in two minutes using a series of charges. The lack of documentation surrounding the weapon suggests the military treated it as a secret weapon.

It’s called a Chambers swivel gun and it’s a nasty piece of work, capable of firing 175 rounds in two minutes using a series of charges that work like a Roman candle and can’t be extinguished once ignited.

The primitive seven-barrel machine gun dates to the War of 1812 and was prized by U.S. naval commanders, who hoped to position such weapons in ships’ rigging to strafe opponents’ decks and repel boarding parties.

The only surviving intact specimen is a centerpiece of a new exhibit at the Washington Navy Yard that commemorates the bicentennial of the conflict with rare battle artifacts and stories of soldiers who were drafted to fight.

The muskets, pistols, swords and boarding pikes assembled for the show, “1813: Don’t Give Up the Ship,” will look familiar to anyone who’s seen the movie “Master and Commander” or the “Hornblower” television series.

They’re arrayed alongside seldom-seen congressional medals and ornate swords presented to battle heroes, furnishings from captains’ quarters and unusual documents, such as a court petition from a New Hampshire ship’s crew seeking to recover its share of booty from a seized British vessel.

“Coming to this exhibit gives you a really good idea of what the forces were using against each other,” said Edward Furgol, deputy director of the National Museum of the U.S. Navy and curator of the exhibit. Many items are on loan from private collections, including the Chambers gun, which belongs to the state of New Jersey.

The war was born out of a British blockade of Napoleonic France that kept U.S. exports from reaching European markets and violated its right to remain neutral. It is primarily remembered today for iconic moments such as the burning of Washington, D.C., the bombardment of Fort McHenry that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Battle of New Orleans.

Though it helped launch the political careers of four future presidents — James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison — and settled the question of who would dominate the heartland of North America, the military conflict didn’t have a clear-cut outcome, petering out after England’s victory over France. The most decisive victory, at New Orleans, was actually fought after a formal peace treaty was signed. The costs of the war drained the U.S. Treasury and bankrupted hundreds of businesses.

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