The War of 1812 Magazine
Issue 9: May 2008
The Flag was Still There: A Brief History of the Defense of Baltimore 1814
By Dale Pappas
Baltimore, September 1814 – The War of 1812 has raged for over two years and the infant American republic faced a dire situation. Several invasions of Canada have failed miserably, leading numerous veteran officers to resign in disgrace. The mighty British Empire has brought the war to American soil with the burning of Washington, with little resistance just a few weeks earlier. British commanders expect the same from their next target, the thriving port of Baltimore. It is apparent that ultimate defeat is in the near future unless the city of Baltimore could withstand an assault. The city's capitulation would achieve one of Britain's war aims in America. The stage is set for the most decisive engagement of the war to date.
It is difficult to grasp the reasons for war between Great Britain and the U.S. in 1812. In fact, the main cause for war was no longer a factor by 18 June 1812, the day the U.S. declared war on Great Britain. The major issue was the impressment of American sailors into the British navy. England, currently at war with Napoleonic France, desperately needed additional sailors and Americans were obvious choices. During this time, the U.S. had been treated much like a child by the European powers, and Great Britain was no exception. Perhaps the most notable event dealing with impressments occurred off the coast of Virginia in June of 1807 when the HMS Leopard fired on the USS Chesapeake for not allowing itself to be searched for deserters. However, on 16 June 1812 the order permitting the impressment of American sailors was repealed.1 Unfortunately, President James Madison had already asked Congress for a declaration of war. Modern technology might have prevented “Mr. Madison’s War.”
Despite support from the “War Hawks” (young congressmen from southern and western states), the war was unpopular from the beginning.2 The war’s most determined opponents were from New England. The merchants from the area looked to England as their most important ally, not enemy. New Englanders felt that losing their most important trading partner would cripple their economy. The situation became so grave that many in New England favored secession from the Union, almost 50 years before South Carolina would secede. Most in Baltimore were opposed to the war. The city was the site of several violent demonstrations from 1807 to the start of the war. However, two years later, the war would be brought straight to the citizens of Baltimore’s doorstep.
The years 1812 and 1813 were largely British victories in Canada and American territories in the Midwest. Despite being defeated in Canada, the Americans managed to burn the Canadian Parliament in York (present day Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada.3 British retaliation would be devastating for the people of the Chesapeake. Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, the British commander, ordered that the towns along the coast be destroyed. Cochrane wanted to give the enemy “a complete drubbing” before peace was made. Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn carried out these orders with brutal efficiency, raiding the towns along the Chesapeake at will. The situation would continue to worsen for the Americans as Napoleon abdicated in May of 1814, leaving the American war as Britain’s top priority. A veteran force of 4,000 men under Major General Robert Ross was dispatched to put an end to the American war by capturing the city of Baltimore. The city was an obvious choice, as it was the third largest in the nation. One London paper referred to Baltimore as a “nest of pirates.”6 However, Cockburn found a march on the capital itself an interesting way to punish the Americans for having burned York. Ross’ force of 4,000 consisting of the 1st Battalion 4th Foot, 44th, 85th, 21st, 3rd Battalion Royal Marines and a company of Royal Artillery disembarked on 19 August, and began the march on Washington.7
In response to the British threat, Madison created Military District No. 10, which included Maryland, the District of Columbia, and all of Virginia north of the Rappahannock.8 Command of the area was granted to Maryland-born Brigadier General William H. Winder.9 Although this action was taken, the capital was virtually defenseless; the man behind the decision to neglect Washington was Secretary of War John Armstrong. Armstrong believed that the British would ignore Washington and move directly on Baltimore; therefore little action would be taken in preparing the city for an assault. The only defense of Washington took place on 24 August at Bladensburg, Maryland, east of the capital. Winder’s force comprised of detachments from the 12th, 36th, 38th Infantry, Maryland and District of Columbia Militia were exhausted from a combination of marches and the heat of the Chesapeake summer.10
Despite the fatigue, many were filled with excitement for their first taste of battle. Young John Kennedy of the 5th Maryland remembered his comrades were in good spirits before the fighting, describing it as “a day of glorious anticipation.”11 Unfortunately for Kennedy and his fellow Americans, the battle would prove to be a disaster as most fled from the field. However Joshua Barney, the famous naval captain and his detachment of American sailors and marines held their ground. Barney was severely wounded and captured in the battle that became known as the “Bladensburg Races.” The American casualties numbered between 10-12 killed and about 40 wounded. British losses were 64 killed and 185 wounded.12 The road now lay open to Washington, and in just hours the British would arrive at the White House.
Later that evening Major General Ross and Rear Admiral Cockburn arrived at the White House to find the table set for supper. The officers feasted on the meal and gave toasts to the health of “Little Jemmey,” a nickname for Madison. After their feast the officers “voted” on the fate of the White House. There was a unanimous decision to put it to the torch. After a period of looting, the White House was burned as well as most other public buildings in the city. Fortunately for the United States, many important documents and Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington were spared from the British invaders thanks in later part to the Madison’s.13
The President immediately began to plan the defense of Baltimore. The command of the city would not go to Winder, but to Maryland Militia general and Revolutionary War veteran Samuel Smith. As a young man, Smith was given the command of Fort Mifflin in Philadelphia and gallantly held the position until he was forced to evacuate.14 Smith was prepared to meet his old nemesis one last time. As for Winder, the Baltimore native was given a minor command in the city.15 One of the key positions in the city was Fort McHenry on the Patapsco River, commanded by Major George Armistead.16 It was apparent that the fort would have to endure a bombardment by the powerful naval force approaching the city. The fort’s capitulation would result in the fall of Baltimore itself. Another key position was Hampstead Hill, which was fortified with the efforts of many of the citizens of Baltimore.17 The city was now prepared for a British assault from both land and sea.
The first engagement in the battle for Baltimore took place at North Point on 12 September. American Brigadier General John Stricker was determined to keep his militia in the field for as long as possible. Stricker deployed his men in two lines, with the 5th Maryland on the right along with artillery and the 27th Maryland. The second line included the 39th and 51st Maryland with the 6th Maryland in reserve.18 Meanwhile, Ross leisurely approached his opponent, stopping at the farm of Robert Gorsuch before moving on Baltimore. Gorsuch asked the general if he intended to return for supper. Ross answered with a definitive statement “I’ll sup tonight in Baltimore or in Hell.”19 Unfortunately for the general and indeed for the British campaign, he had less than an hour to live.
Major General Ross ordered his light infantry and marines to engage the American force. Early in the fighting, while rallying his men, Ross fell from his horse with a mortal wound from an unknown American rifleman.20 Colonel Arthur Brooke of the 44th regiment assumed command for the remainder of the campaign.21 Stricker’s men fared better than Winder’s men at Bladensburg, despite the rout of the 39th and 51st Maryland. The 27th held their ground allowing Stricker’s men to withdraw in relatively good order. The American casualties numbered 24 killed, 139 wounded and 50 captured. British losses were 46 killed and 273 wounded.22 The death of Robert Ross would truly prove to be devastating as the battle for Baltimore progressed. Brooke’s force reached Hampstead Hill and awaited the naval assault on Fort McHenry.
The bombardment of Fort McHenry would prove to be an arduous task for Vice Admiral Cochrane. The merchants of Baltimore had sunk 24 vessels in the harbor to prevent the British from getting to within an advantageous range.23 Perhaps no one had a better view of the bombardment than the young Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key.24 The British detained Key and Colonel John S. Skinner after they had successfully secured the release of the Dr. Samuel Beanes of Upper Marlboro, an elderly prisoner of war. Admirals Cochrane and Cockburn felt that the three men had heard important information and that they should be held until the end of the bombardment.25 The British opened fire on 13 September and would not cease until 25 hours later. The American detainees looked out to find that the large American flag, produced in Baltimore itself, remained over the fort. Key began to write his poem “Defence of Fort McHenry” which would later become known as the “Star Spangled Banner.” Brooke abandoned the assault on Hampstead Hill and returned to the ships.26
Cochrane felt that any further attack on the city would be futile and ordered a retreat. The citizens of Baltimore had withstood the forces of the most powerful military force in the world at that moment. Not even Napoleon himself could have shared that claim at present. News of the American victory at Plattsburg, New York added to the American momentum. The British reversal at Plattsburg put an end to the invasion of New York.
The two months of August and September 1814 changed the war drastically. If it were not for the battles of Baltimore and Plattsburg, Britain may have been able to negotiate peace from a position of strength. In the end, neither side had the advantage when peace was finally made in late 1814 at Ghent, Belgium.27 The U.S. had truly dodged what could have been a fatal bullet for the young country. In addition to the peace, the situation kept improving for the Americans with the victory at New Orleans on 8 January 1815. The battle, which only occurred because of a lack of communication, gave the United States a new hero, Andrew Jackson.
The “forgotten” War of 1812 produced many memorable events in American history, with the battle for Baltimore being perhaps the most recognizable. Americans truly honor and remember the war every single day, with many never knowing the fact. Whether it be singing or listening to the national anthem or handling a $20 bill, the legacy of the War of 1812 lives on in the unsuspecting minds of every American.
Benn, Carl. The War of 1812. Great Britain: Osprey Publishing, 2002.
Hitsman, J. The Incredible War of 1812. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1966.
Katcher, Philip. The American War 1812-14. Great Britain: Osprey Publishing, 1990.
Lord, Walter. The Dawn’s Early Light. New York: W.W. Norton, 1972.
Patterson, Benton Rain. The Generals. New York: New York University Press, 2005.
Riley, J.P. Napoleon and the World War of 1813. Portland, Oregon: Frank Cass Publishers, 2000.
Swanson, Neil H. The Perilous Fight. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1945.
The Army Historical Foundation. U.S. Army A Complete History. Arlington, VA.: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 2004.
Weybright, Victor. Spangled Banner. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1938.
1 Benn, Carl. The War of 1812. Great Britain: Osprey Publishing, 2002, page 11.
2 Ibid page 16.
3 Riley, J.P. Napoleon and the World War of 1813. Portland, Oregon: Frank Cass Publishers, 2000, pages 403-404.
4 Hitsman, J. Mackay The Incredible War of 1812, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966, page 206.
5 Ibid page 212.
6 Patterson, Benton Rain. The Generals. New York: New York University Press, 2005, page 138.
7 Hitsman, page 209.
8 Swanson, Neil H. The Perilous Fight. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1945, page 18.
9 Lord, Walter. The Dawn’s Early Light. New York: W.W. Norton, 1972, page 22-23.
10 The Army Historical Foundation. U.S. Army: A Complete History. Arlington, VA: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 2004, page 136.
11 Swanson, Neil H. The Perilous Fight. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1945, page 29.
12 Hitsman, page 212.
13 Benn, page 59.
14 Lord, page 230.
15 Ibid page 249.
16 Weybright, Victor. Spangled Banner. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1938, page 119.
17 Lord, page 235.
18 Katcher, Philip. The American War 1812-14. Great Britain: Osprey Publishing, 1990, page 17.
19 Swanson, page 373.
20 Benn, page 61.
21 Lord, page 262.
22 Hitsman, page 212.
23 Patterson, page 140.
24 Weybright, page 42.
25 Lord, page 256.
26 Patterson, page 141.
27 Benn, pages 81-82.
© Copyright 1995-2009, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.