It was a motley crew, hon, that bested Britain’s finest 200 years ago.
The Charm City of 1812 was a far cry from the Baltimore of today—in fact, it was not a city at all. Picture the 250-year-old waterfront section of Annapolis, and it gives you a pretty good idea. That’s been tidied up for the tourists, of course, so think a bit grimier. And though the juirisdiction of Baltimore at that time included what is now the county, the developed part, like old Annapolis, was tiny: Urban sprawl hadn’t been invented yet, so forget the sports bars in Towson, the malls in Owings Mills, even the rail lines. The first of the historic mills along the Jones Falls in Hampden and Mt. Washington had just started production, but except for such small outcroppings of civilization, the farmland and forests started roughly north of Fayette Street, west of Howard Street, and to the east at Patterson Park, which wasn’t yet a park.
The railroad hadn’t come yet, so Baltimore existed purely as a seaport. Nearly all of its 50,000 inhabitants (today, there are 690,000) owed their livelihood to the merchant ships that plied the East Coast, the Atlantic to Europe and back, and the waters of the Caribbean.
The Inner Harbor and Fells Point were bristling with the masts of dozens of sailing ships, unloading goods—yes, including slaves—and loading things like cotton, grain, and tobacco. The noisy, dirty, cobblestone streets between the wooden houses reeked of horse manure, rotting marine life, livestock, open sewers, and wood smoke from the fireplaces and blacksmiths’ sheds. And no, you wouldn’t have wanted to swim in the harbor then, either. Walking through that rich pall of smoke and smells, you’d hear the metallic sounds of hammer and anvil, ships’ bells, and the clattering of horses and carts. And in the crowded streets would be a lot of leathery, tough-looking merchant sailors with bad teeth: a mix of American-born whites, free blacks (there were 10,000 here then, more than anywhere else in the republic), plus English, Irish, and Scottish immigrants.
These real-life Jack Sparrows knew a thing or two about muskets, knives, cannons, grappling hooks, and, given the opportunity, boarding ships. Paying their wages was the occasional portly, well-dressed gentleman in the crowd, who either owned ships, built ships, or invested in maritime trading ventures. And the few women in fine carriages wearing the latest European fashions? The wives and daughters of the fat cats, of course.
So what greater threat to our survival could there be (other than cholera, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and smallpox, of course) than a war that cut off our life blood, the seaborne trade?
The now 2-year-old war with the British wasn’t going particularly well, either. Most of the fighting so far had been along the Canadian border, with American forces, including many from Maryland, sparring with well-trained Redcoats and their hired Indian tribes over forts, territory, and waterways. Remember that the United States had a very small professional army at this point, and relied on citizen-soldiers who, at the start of all this, had little more experience than a mall security guard. Apart from Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s defeat of British naval forces in Lake Erie (a third of his men were free blacks) and some isolated victories by individual American warships on the open sea, the Americans were outgunned by a British army and navy with seemingly endless resources and years of combat experience in Europe.
For those portly businessmen of Baltimore and Fells Point who wanted to salvage something from all this economically, the answer was clear: become privateers. The new republic had virtually no navy, either, so once war was declared, Congress invoked a little-known clause in the constitution that allowed them to create an instant navy of privately owned ships with seasoned, money-motivated crews: With a so-called “letter of marque” from the government making them privateers, these now-legal pirates could put cannons instead of cotton bales on their swiftest ships and ravage British merchant shipping, legally enriching themselves with whatever goods or ships they could capture and bring back to Baltimore. And Baltimore produced some of the swiftest of these lightly armed ships, with designs similar to the reproduction topsail schooner Pride of Baltimore II. So it was that Baltimore became a “nest of pirates” to the British traders, who put increasing pressure on Parliament and the British Navy to shut the place down.
So, let’s face it, we invited the wrath of the British. But when it came, the remarkable defense of the city, was, to a large extent, carried out by these same Baltimore merchant sailors. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
British warships were in the Chesapeake as early as February 1813, but it wasn’t until August of 1814 that they built up a really large fleet. Troublesome Baltimore was the primary target, but the new capital, Washington, D.C., was conveniently on the way, so they headed there first. And while he was at it, British Rear Admiral George Cockburn’s fleet, with its thousands of marines landing in longboats, ravaged the small towns and villages along both shores of the bay if they were suspected of lending any support to the American war effort. As the fleet sailed up the Potomac River toward Alexandria, 4,000 British troops under Maj. Gen. Robert Ross marched for Bladensburg outside Washington in temperatures near 100 degrees.
There was no shortage of American volunteers, but the communications, organization, and training of the American militia under Gen. William Winder were all disastrously bad. At the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, the citizen-soldiers of the American defense fled before the Redcoats in what one observer called “The Bladensburg Races.” Word was sent to President James Madison that all was lost, and he, his wife Dolley, and cabinet members hastily tried to rescue documents and artwork (including Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of George Washington in the White House, which was rolled up after being ripped from its frame) before fleeing the city, along with most of the city’s 8,000 residents. Lacking today’s motorcade and Secret Service detail, the aging President Madison wandered the countryside for days on horseback trying to rally scattered American forces. But the capital might have been spared had it not been for the frightfully bad manners of the Americans.
Lt. George Gleig was part of Gen. Ross’s British force nearing Washington after the Americans fled at Bladensburg. Glieg wrote later: “Such being the intention of General Ross, he did not march the troops immediately into the city, but halted them upon a plain in its immediate vicinity, whilst a flag of truce was sent in with terms. But whatever his proposal might have been, it was not so much as heard, for scarcely had the party bearing the flag entered the street, than they were fired upon (by Americans) from the windows of one of the houses, and the horse of the General himself, who accompanied them, was killed. You will easily believe that conduct so unjustifiable, so direct a breach of the law of nations, roused the indignation of every individual, from the General himself down to the private soldier. All thoughts of accommodation were instantly set aside.”
After eating dinner in an empty White House, British admiral Cockburn ordered the city set on fire, including the White House, the Capitol, and many other public buildings.
In Baltimore, the word spread quickly, and alarmed citizens could watch the glow of the Washington fires on the southern horizon on the night of the 24th from atop Federal Hill, notes Scott S. Sheads, author of The Rockets’ Red Glare.
Much has been written about this so-called “forgotten war,” but Sheads, 60, a long-time Locust Point resident and regular at the Hull Street Blues Cafe, has unique experience as an 1812 historian. The winner of the National Park Services’ Special Achievement Award, he’s served as a ranger-historian at Fort McHenry for 30 years, and scoured hundreds of historical documents to research his authoritative book.
“When they heard what happened in Washington, Baltimoreans were basically thrown into a panic,” says Sheads. “Two thousand Baltimore militiamen had been at Bladensburg, so families were anxious, and as the survivors straggled back to Baltimore at night, in the rain, rumors spread that the British were right behind them. Some people even loaded all their belongings in carts and fled to the countryside.”
Most everything important back then was done on the local, not the federal, level. So try to imagine Stephanie Rawlings-Blake overseeing the defense of the city against an imminent attack by aliens. (If Michael Bay makes this into a movie, remember you heard it here first.)
It fell, then, to the Baltimore mayor’s defense committee, which had already been working to bolster defenses, to go into double time, knowing they were next on the British fleet’s to-do list.
While we’re at it, let’s also debunk this myth that the whole ruckus was about Fort McHenry—yet another historical half-truth. There were two guys named Smith and Stricker who were as important to the way things shook out, but they get very little press. Stricker’s tale is coming up, but it was Gen. Sam Smith—a respected veteran of the Revolutionary War and former U.S. congressman and senator—who, after some internal bickering over who was really in charge, was made commander of the city’s defense. And that made him the superior officer to Maj. Gen. George Armistead in the fort. At the last minute, Gen. Smith even got the Maryland governor to promote him to the rank of major general lest he have to answer to the discredited Gen. Winder of the Bladensburg debacle. This was no simple task since, as Baltimore historian and professor Bob Mullauer notes, the governor at the time was Levin Winder, the uncle of Gen. William Winder of Bladensburg.
There were very few regular army units at hand, so Gen. Smith went looking for volunteers to bolster the city’s defenses. Answering the call were farmers, shopkeepers, apprentice laborers, and tradesmen—some in their teens and others grizzled veterans of the Revolution, who would have been in their 40s, 50s, or 60s—as well as free blacks, who the city also urged to join the volunteers. But though they couldn’t be made to march straight, it was the sailors, mechanics, and gunners of the privateer fleet in Fells Point who formed the backbone of the city’s defense.
And the city and its fat-cat merchants were determined enough to protect their ships and warehouses full of goods that they paid the citizen-soldiers well: $8 a month (close to $400 today). After all, they had heard about the burning, looting, and seizures the British had inflicted on the ships and packed warehouses at the harbor in Alexandria.
Gen. Smith knew the British wouldn’t try to pass through the narrow channel into Baltimore's harbor until Fort McHenry was pummeled into submission. But, just in case, he had the volunteer sailors, which included a great many free blacks, block the entrance to the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River—which leads to the inner harbor—with masts and booms linked together with chain. Cannon batteries were set up by the volunteer sailors along the inlets and harbors of the western shore, and the volunteers developed a system of colored flags manned at intervals along the coast to relay any sighting of British ships.
Improvisation was the order of the day: Maj. Armistead’s troops at the fort mounted additional longer-range cannon from a French warship that had limped to Baltimore after being damaged in a storm. Likewise, a great many of the cannon used in the defense were naval guns mounted to carriages by the volunteer merchant sailors, whose ships were bottled up at Fells Point not just by the British navy, but by their own cross-channel boom as well.
At noon on Sunday, September 11, 1814, the British fleet of 50 ships appeared on the horizon, just beyond where the Key Bridge is now. Some of them moved to North Point, too, signaling they weren’t just going for a frontal attack on the fort. They were going to land troops to the east and try to do what Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf in the first Iraq war called the “Hail Mary”: A frontal naval attack would provide distraction while a land attack would come through the back door.
The signal cannon on Federal Hill sounded the alarm, church bells pealed, and militiamen poured into the streets to join their units, assembling at Pratt and Light Streets.
In Rockets’ Red Glare, Sheads describes the scene: “At 3 p.m., Brigadier [General] John Stricker’s well-trained Third Brigade, a total of some 3,185 men, marched out of the city. . . . With regimental flags flying, marching to the martial beat of fifes and drums, the Americans set forth upon the North Point Road. By early evening they had marched the seven miles down to the Old Methodist Meeting House, to a planned line of defense, and encamped for the night.” Their orders were to delay the British advance while the city finished preparations.
Back in the harbor entrance on Monday morning, a volunteer sailing master named Beverly Diggs and his crew were ordered to block the channel with sunken ships—no matter whose they were.
“We took three vessels, towed them out, and sunk them agreeably to orders,” he wrote later. “Such was the haste in which they were required to perform this duty that no time was taken or any attempts made to . . . ascertain to whom the vessels belong.” (Release the lawyers: Lawsuits against the government filed by the ships’ owners dragged on for years afterward, notes historian Mullauer.)
About the same time, the British moved in toward the fort, with 16 ships, including rocket and bomb ships, forming a semi-circle two miles below Fort McHenry. They then fired their first shots to check their range.
From their anchorage, the Brits could see Fells Point and the ships of the merchantmen and privateers who had caused them so much annoyance and expense and must have licked their chops at the prospect of seizing, sinking, or burning the lot of them.
With their nearly 300 guns firing 190-pound explosive shells and barrages of rockets (with their frightening whizzing sound, they were good for shock and awe), the British started a 24-hour pummeling of the fort, just out of range of the fort’s cannon.
The whole town had a front-row seat on the harbor attack, which was described by Baltimore's Salem Gazette newspaper: “The attack on Fort McHenry, by nearly the whole British fleet was distinctly seen from Federal Hill and from the tops of houses which were covered with men, women, and children. The night of Tuesday and the morning of Wednesday until about 4 o’clock presented the awful spectacle of shot and shells, and rockets, shooting and bursting through the air. . . . As the darkness increased, the awful grandeur of the scene augmented.”
Go up to some stranger walking their pit bull in Patterson Park or some family from Pennsylvania touring Fort McHenry in matching Steelers T-shirts and ask what they know about the War of 1812, and they’re likely to react with blank stares, or some vague stuff about the national anthem. But the story is different in Edgemere, a blue-collar community on the bay near the end of North Point Road.
The peninsula looks close enough to Baltimore City on a map, but drive all the way down it, past the auto body shops, shady bars, and used-car dealers, and you’re in another world. Gradually, the scenery on both sides of the road becomes much like it would have looked 200 years ago, with marshes, woods, fields, and frequent glimpses of the bay between the stands of timber. This is probably the only place in Maryland where you can be assured of finding locals who know something about the War of 1812, in part, perhaps, because of the placards denoting the British land assault that punctuate the lower half of the road.
Near the end of the peninsula, we found the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, North Point No. 4, (they do good deeds, mostly for kids) where members were preparing a shrimp dinner in memory of a deceased colleague.
Among them was Joe Labuda, 66, retired after 36 years at Bethlehem Steel and a self-described “historical nut.”
He’ll tell you, correctly, that on the 12th, British marines and soldiers under Maj. Gen. Robert Ross of Bladensburg fame landed, and Stricker and his men were waiting for them a few miles up the road, with two lines of defense, about four miles north of where Sparrows Point High School now sits. (There’s a plaque outside the school, too.)
Back then, Labuda says, there were a few large farms along the road, and that morning, while eating breakfast at the home of one of those farmers, Admiral Cockburn and Gen. Ross listened to the interrogation of three American cavalrymen who had been captured. The dragoons wouldn’t reveal the strength of Stricker’s unit waiting for Ross’s force up the road, but did tell them that a total of 10,000 to 15,000 men awaited them under Gen. Smith’s command. But when he heard they were all militia, and not professional soldiers, Ross famously quipped, “I don’t care if it rains militia.”
Labuda remembers another great quote, too, one he picked from Dawn’s Early Light, by well-known historian Walter Lord. “The farmer who owned the house asked if the general planned to be back for dinner that evening,” Labuda says. “‘No,’” said Ross. “‘I’ll eat in Baltimore tonight—or in hell.’” They were all words he would not live long enough to regret.
After breakfast, while Ross and Cockburn rode forward to check progress against Stricker, Ross was struck by a sniper’s bullet, shots credited to two teenage leather-trade apprentices, Daniel Wells and Henry G. McComas, who were part of a volunteer unit that had fought at Bladensburg. They were teaming up as shooter and spotter, Labuda believes, as snipers do today. British troops immediately charged the boys’ position and killed them both, but the British general would die shortly thereafter, with the command of the land forces going to his subordinate, the less-experienced Col. Arthur Brooke.
After artillery and musket duels on the road, Striker’s men pulled back as planned to a second position, escaping a British effort to outflank him, and felled trees along the way to slow the advance and buy time for the defenders back in Baltimore.
Now go to the far eastern end of Patterson Park. It’s just past the Burger King on Eastern Avenue. Stand in front of the monument to Polish Gen. Pulaski. (Sorry wrong war—he helped Washington’s army in the Revolution; his reward was to get one of the ugliest stretches of strip zoning in Baltimore named after him.) Then look to the northwest, and you’ll see a line of low hills rising up to 80 to 100 feet high at the center, which at the time was called Hampstead Hill. It’s amazing what you can see from the top of Hampstead Hill, even with the thousands of row homes and commercial buildings that have replaced the woods and fields of 1814. (Looking to the east from here, it was all water, woods, and farmland, except for a solitary house near the water.) Even today, with all that modern clutter, you can see Key Bridge, (which, of course, wasn’t there then), the huge cranes of the Port of Baltimore (also not there), and the mouth of the harbor itself. (Okay, that was there.)
As Stricker’s men slowed the British advancing up North Point Road, defenders put slaves and freemen to work digging fortifications along a line of defense, with Hampstead Hill at its center, that would eventually stretch over a mile, from Canton to Bel Air Road.
The highest point at Hampstead Hill, where the pagoda is now, was called Rodgers Bastion, after Commodore John Rodgers (Aye, maties, another salty dog, but from the regular Navy), who was at the center of a line of more than 10,000 Americans and dozens of cannon. Some of the guns are still there.
When the British Col. Brooke, turning off North Point Road west onto Philadelphia Road, saw what he was up against, he sensed it was pretty futile, but didn’t want to get on the bad side of Adm. Cockburn. First, he tried to outflank the Americans to the northwest, but was checked by troops under Stricker and by the now-subordinate Gen. Winder (thereby redeeming himself somewhat). Then Brooke sent a message to the fleet that he planned a night attack, but needed British ships to set up a diversion of gunfire from shallow-draft barges closer to shore than the main fleet. But the merchant sailors manning gun emplacements along the waterfront spotted the approaching British boats and repelled them in a pitch-black, pouring rain.
Brooke, who had already suffered heavy losses and was outnumbered 3-to-1 by entrenched defenders, knew that he was outgunned and that the American position was being reinforced every day by volunteers from all over Maryland and neighboring states. He withdrew back down North Point Road to rejoin the ships.
The ships stopped their bombardment of the fort on 7:30 a.m. on the 14th.
It was, of course, about this time that Francis Scott Key, a Maryland-born lawyer being detained by the British fleet during the attack, was inspired to write the lyrics that would later become the words to our national anthem.
With the death of Gen. Ross, the land invasion turned back, the fort’s flag—with its 15 stars and stripes—still flying after the long bombardment, and the harbor blocked, British signal flags ordered the departure of the fleet. By 9 a.m., all were under sail.
The fort had two flags, both made by seamstress Mary Pickersgill. She had been paid $574.44 (over $20,000 today) by the town fathers to make two flags, a massive 30- by 42-foot ensign and a smaller storm flag. The fort had been flying the storm flag through the bombardment and rain, but just as the British raised sail to leave Baltimore, Armistead ordered the mother of all flags raised and cannon fired.
In his book, Sheads quotes a letter written by a midshipman on a British ship recalling the scene: “Thus, after bombarding the forts and harbour of Baltimore for twenty-four hours . . . it was a galling spectacle for British sailors to behold. And, as the last vessel spread her canvas to the wind, the Americans hoisted a most superb and splendid ensign on their battery and fired at the same time a gun of defiance. It was with the batteries biding us defiance—the weather scowling with a thick drizzling rain upon our proceedings whilst our hearts and spirits were depressed in the extreme—that we retired down the Patapsco River with far different sensations from those we experienced on entering it . . . ”
Though there were subsequent defeats of British forces in New York State, the victory at Baltimore fired up national pride and abruptly changed the demands the British were making in peace talks in Belgium. In fact, a treaty favorable to American claims along the Canadian border was signed before the British fleet’s next humiliation—at New Orleans. (Word of the peace took weeks to cross the Atlantic.) In New Orleans, future President Andrew Jackson, defeated a larger British force with a crew that was at least as motley as Baltimore’s: In addition to a few regulars, it included frontiersmen, Native Americans, pirates (no, the really nasty, illegal kind), both free blacks and slaves, and Creoles.
So, what did the Battle of Baltimore change about America? Our sense of being American, says Sheads. “In 1814, the nation was only 36 years old, and people thought of themselves first as Marylanders or Virginians,” he says. “Merchant ships flew company flags, not the U.S. flag, which you’d only see at coastal defenses and on Navy ships.” But all the painted depictions of the victory and of the huge flag at Fort McHenry, Key’s song, and the great press Baltimore got after 1814 changed that. “The Battle of Baltimore really raised the role of the flag in the American consciousness. And it was the first time people started calling it the star-spangled banner. You started seeing the flag everywhere.”