On June 18,1812, the United States declared war on England, then the greatest power on earth, to preserve "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights." The British, while at war with France, had interfered with our trade and had boarded American ships, pressing our sailors into service on their ships.
It was not until 1814, after England had defeated Napoleon, that the British would test a stubborn, determined people in Baltimore. To attack the city successfully, the British first had to seize the key to the city's defense, Fort McHenry. Patriots were ready to risk their fortunes and their lives.
Late summer 1814 was a critical time for the United States during the War of 1812. After two years Canada still remained unconquered. One newspaper called the attempt "an unbroken series of disaster, disgrace, ruin and death." The British blockade was taking effect and trade was critically diminished. To make matters worse, war weariness had set in. Some segments of the country, particularly New England, proposed settling on a separate peace with the British. Not surprisingly, the British were looking for opportunities to inflict a major morale blow to the Americans. Such an outcome would bring a speedy end to the war in England's favor.
Of the many possible targets, Baltimore appeared the most likely. The city had openly proclaimed its hawkish anti-British stance days after war was declared. When the Federal Republican, a Federalist newspaper, criticized America's going to war an angry mob destroyed the building where it was printed and severely beat the editors. Baltimoreans also struck at the British directly. During the war years the city's economy was sustained through privateering. Swiftly sailing schooners seized British merchant ships and transported limited cargoes to foreign ports. Other cities adopted this practice, however Baltimore alone accounted for about thirty percent of all British merchant ships captured by the US during the war. Baltimore earned the nickname "nest of pirates." Although initially successful, the privateers were no substitute for the city's thriving pre-war trade. The blockade resulted in stockpiles of goods along the city's wharves. Shipbuilders avoided bankruptcy by building blockade runners and vessels for the US navy. A large frigate, the USS Java, was nearing completion in the Fell's Point Naval Yard. Potential to strike a decisive morale blow, capture goods, a frigate and settle a score may have influenced the British decision to attack Baltimore.
The city fathers foresaw a possible attack. Preparations were made as early as 1813. A committee of public supply was established to raise funds for various construction projects. Citizens began digging a huge earthen entrenchment along the outskirts of the city facing east. Large gun barges were constructed for harbor defense. The city militia was called out for periodic drill. The regular army assisted also. Col. Joseph G. Swift dispatched Capt. Samuel Babcock to supervise improvements at Fort McHenry. The improvements included: mounting a battery of 32-pound cannon along the water's edge, construction of hot shot furnaces, fortifications at Lazaretto Point, and additional gun batteries along the Patapsco River.
Unfortunately, little was done to protect Washington, D.C. General William Winder was assigned the task to mobilize the defenses. Unfortunately, he had no support from Armstrong, the Secretary of War. Armstrong prohibited Winder from calling out the militia for practice. Winder was also given no administrative staff He spent much of his time traveling from place to place inspecting outposts and discovering that the number of actual defenders was far smaller than the number on paper. The most effective fighting force in the area was the squadron of gunboats of the US Chesapeake Flotilla. The flotilla had harassed enemy ships in the Patuxent River and the British were eager to neutralize this force. It was the British attack on the flotilla that resulted in the overland campaign to seize Washington. By the time the Americans concentrated their force, it was too late. British forces defeated the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg. Although the US troops were put to route, a stand was made by the US Chesapeake Flotilla and about 100 Marines. Following their Washington victory, the British turned their attention to Baltimore. An outline and map of the Baltimore campaign is included in the packet.
On the morning of September 12, 1814, the British landed over 3,000 troops at North Point. They marched north and west to attack the city. That night, after the Battle of North Point, they reached Hampstead Hill where 10,000 Americans blocked their path. British troops waited for the navy to subdue Fort McHenry and sail into the harbor to shell the city.
At first light on September 13, British ships of war began firing bombs, rockets and cannon balls at Fort McHenry. Above the Star Fort flew our young flag, its 15 bright stars and broad stripes waving proud defiance. The British hoped the Americans would panic, evacuate the fort and leave Baltimore defenseless. For 25 hours, as lightning flashed and rain fell, they bombarded the fort, firing between 1,500 and 1,800 rounds, causing but four deaths and 24 wounded. Major George Armistead and the 1,000 patriot defenders fired back with their cannons when the British ships sailed within range.
Realizing their attack had failed, the British sailed down river to North Point to pick up their retreating soldiers. The Battle of Baltimore was over. In this most dangerous period following the Revolutionary War, patriots faced and defeated a vengeful foreign power on our shores. The War of 1812 has been called our second War of Independence because it forged our national character and demonstrated that Americans would unite not only to win liberty, but to keep it. The courage Francis Scott Key witnessed inspired him to write the words we sing today as our National Anthem. Fort McHenry, home of the "Star-Spangled Banner," still flies the 15-star flag proudly every hour of every day above its ramparts.
To assist you in interpreting the events leading up to the capture of Washington and the Battle of Baltimore you may wish to read:
The Dawn's Early Light by Walter Lord, ISBN 0-393-05452-7
The Battle for Baltimore 1814 by Joseph A. Whitehorne, ISBN 1-877853-23-2
The Rockets' Red Glare, The Maritime Defense of Baltimore in 1814 by Scott Sheads, ISBN 0-87033-363-1
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