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Charmed Life

The Worst of Times

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 10/10/2001

The destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 presented the watching world with spectacles of humanity at its worst and at its best. Even as our minds flinched from the horror of the attack, we were moved by stories of rescuers, both professionals and volunteers, who risked their lives saving others. Commentators voiced amazement at the way New Yorkers--stereotyped as tough and indifferent--had suddenly formed a close-knit community.

Here in the provinces, we're left wondering if we too would rise to the challenge of a sudden disaster. Sure, Baltimoreans help each other dig out from the occasional blizzard but how would we hold up under hostile fire? How would we cope with massive casualties, or respond to the destruction of our central city? Oddly, Baltimore's history offers separate precedents for each of these challenges: The city has experienced hostile fire without massive casualties, dealt with massive casualties without coming under fire, and suffered the destruction of downtown without the loss of a single life.

The first great threat to Baltimore was, of course, the British attack of 1814, an event that Americans invoke every time they sing the national anthem. For anyone who knows the story behind the song, the last month's endless choruses of "The Star-Spangled Banner" seemed particularly appropriate: Until last month, the War of 1812 was the last time a foreign power had assaulted the U.S. mainland.

Coincidentally, the British ships entered the Patapsco on Sept. 11, 1814; the famous "perilous fight"--the siege of Fort McHenry--took place two days later. By sheer luck, no British bomb succeeded in exploding the fort's stores of powder. The entire bombardment took just four American lives, and the British never entered the harbor.

While their fleet pounded vainly at Fort McHenry, British land forces marched on the city's eastern flank and encountered Maryland and Pennsylvania militias at the Battle of North Point ("1812 Overtures," Sept. 22, 1999, The Americans retreated strategically, felling trees across roads to slow the foe's advance. When the British finally arrived on the outskirts of the city, 12,000 armed Americans were waiting for them behind a line of earthworks that ran from Hampstead Hill, in present-day Highlandtown, down to the water's edge. The entrenchments had been built over the previous two weeks by civilian Baltimoreans of all classes, laboring shoulder to shoulder. The attackers, who had counted on support from the thwarted British fleet, gave up and marched away. In all, about 220 Americans had died in the defense of Baltimore. The survivors celebrated.

Two generations later, the threat to the city was more complicated. In September 1862, Baltimore was split between Unionists and Southern sympathizers. Fort McHenry was serving as a jail for prominent secessionists, and Union troops on Federal Hill were on guard against a possible pro-Rebel uprising. Word of an impending invasion by the Confederate Army stirred some Baltimoreans into panic. War news was haphazard and slow in coming. Nobody knew exactly where and when Robert E. Lee would cross the Potomac.

The eventual clash took place 75 miles west of Baltimore, close enough that cannon fire could be heard in the city. Four thousand eight hundred men died on the Antietam battlefield, and some 18,000 were wounded--many fatally. Within days, newspaper accounts were calling Antietam the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, and the record stood. Until Sept. 11, 2001, no other event would claim more lives on American soil.

While it didn't suffer the attack directly, Baltimore dealt with the wounded of both armies, who arrived in the thousands by railroad. Charitable groups hustled money for supplies, and hundreds of Baltimoreans, especially women, volunteered in hospitals, churches, and makeshift clinics. Fort McHenry, already a prison, was pressed into medical service, as were public buildings from Westminster to Annapolis. The fort's patients--wounded Rebels--were prisoners of war. Sympathetic Baltmoreans had to leave their gifts and donations at the guardhouse.

The city's third great calamity happened by accident. On Feb. 7, 1904, the Great Baltimore Fire began with a spark in a dry-goods warehouse. Whipped by changing winds, the fire consumed about 150 acres, from Liberty Street on the west to Jones Falls on the east, and from Fayette Street to the waterfront. Some 2,500 businesses were destroyed, but, miraculously, no one died in the blaze and no homes were burned.

The city responded to the disaster with immense good humor. Citizens volunteered to help with demolition and cleanup, and a blue-ribbon panel called the Burnt District Commission set about not merely rebuilding, but redesigning downtown. The new city center would have wider streets, modernized docks, fireproof construction, and a much-improved firefighting system. In retrospect, historians regard the fire as one of the best things that ever happened to Baltimore, enabling a massive renovation that would have been impossible to achieve politically.

Ironically, the fire may have claimed its one victim long after the flames were doused. Mayor Robert McLane had calmly led the city through the disaster, and afterward was so confident of Baltimore's recovery that he refused financial help from the state and other jurisdictions. But on May 30, less than four months after the fire and just 16 days after his wedding, McLane killed himself.

The past can't promise anything about the future. By the standards of 1814, present-day Baltimoreans seem pretty soft. Still, New Yorkers have proven that even decadent East Coast urbanites can deal with sudden disasters. Perhaps it's the slow-motion disasters--the threats that fail to galvanize us--that we really need to worry about.

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