1812 Overtures

The New Battle of Baltimore Is Reminding Americans About the City's Finest Star-Spangled Hour

by Brennen Jensen

Michelle Gienow
An exact replica of the flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore waves over the fort's Defenders Day festivities.
Michelle Gienow
The British are Coming!: A column of Redcoats take Inner Harbor at rush hour.
Michelle Gienow
On the Homefront: Joe and Joy Fournelle of Germantown, MD., help re-enact the battle during Fort McHenry's Defenders Day activities. Joe plays a seaman, Joy is a "camp follower," cooking and washing for the troops just as the wives of soldiers did 184 years ago.
Michelle Gienow
On the March: U.S. forces change the guard at Fort McHenry
Michelle Gienow
Family Honor: Rick Peterson Sr. (right) and Rick Peterson Jr., both re-enactors of the Royal Newfoundland Infantry Regiment, cross bayonets while guarding a "captured" cannon at Fort McHenry. The Petersons traveled from their home in Hamilton, Ontario to play British troops.
It's early on a Friday evening, about rush hour, and the area down around Harborplace is a noisy bedlam. Cars clog Light and Pratt streets, all manned by downtown workers possessed with a crushing desire to get home. Meanwhile, shopping-bag-laden tourists and conventioneers pour across the brick pavilion paths, storming Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Café in pursuit of tchotchkes for the gang back in Kansas or Tennessee. A unicyclist wobbles about, juggling balls to the accompaniment of canned music.

Into this cacophony comes another sound: A fife's archaic twittering and the ominous rumble of drums:

Brrrum brrrum brrrum bum bum bum

A line of musicians and soldiers, perhaps 75 in all, suddenly rounds the west end of the Pratt Street pavilion. Most wear long-tailed blue coats, white trousers, and tall black hats accented with jaunty plumes. Some carry bayonet-topped muskets, others have swords dangling by their sides. A collection of women in ankle-length skirts and bonnets brings up the rear.

The unicyclist dismounts. The tourists wrestle out their FunSavers. People point and stare--all while keeping a respectful distance, not quite sure what to make of the display.

One of the lead soldiers speaks.

"What you are seeing," he says, "is a march commemorating the War of 1812 and the Battle of Baltimore, and part of what's the oldest celebration in this city."

He goes on to explain how his troops are taking an American flag (carried by four men in the middle of the procession) across the harbor to Fort McHenry, where a weekend-long program of history-interpreting events are planned, along with a big fireworks show.

A nodding of heads greets his words, but there remains a palpable sense that the explanation, isn't, well, quite good enough. The spectators, brows knitted, seem to be searching their dusty memory banks for relevant facts about the War of 1812--besides the year it started.

"Oh, they're not Civil War soldiers," utters a lady wearing a red convention badge around her neck that identifies her as a Nebraskan.

"I thought it had something to do with George Washington," confesses another women in a flat Midwestern accent. "I never was much for history."

The troops soon load onto sailing ships and proceed across the harbor, landing at the empty Proctor and Gamble soap factory near the foot of Hull Street.

The residents of Hull Street have spilled out onto their stoops--mainly because this what Locust Pointers do on clement late summer evenings when the sun dips behind the Domino Sugar sign and the sky assumes a pinky-blue hue.

Ellen Berry greets the soldiers by waving small plastic American flag. "If you're from this neighborhood you know what the Battle of Baltimore is all about," she says proudly. "We'll be watching tomorrow's fireworks display from a 40-foot houseboat."

But even here in the shadow of Fort McHenry there are folks who seem confused by the sudden appearance of 1812 warriors.

"Are they making a movie?" one man asks as he swings open his screen door. He seems crestfallen to learn it is a camera-free historical re-enactment, and retreats behind his Formstone.

Brrrum brrruum brrrum bum bum bum

The column of soldiers, drummers, and fife-tweeters proceeds up Hull Street and hangs a left on Fort Avenue.

Save for the light-flashing cop car in tow, a similar scene probably occurred here 185 years ago: a procession of soldiers heading off to man Fort McHenry on the eve of what would be the city's finest hour.

Here the old defenders conquered as their valiant swords they drew.

-From the city anthem Baltimore, Our Baltimore
Sept. 12 is a holiday in Baltimore. Not because H. L. Mencken was born on this date in 1880, but because that's the date in 1814 when the town spurned a British land and sea invasion during the War of 1812. It's Defenders Day, first celebrated in 1815 and made an official state holiday in 1908.

"Besides the 4th of July, it's the longest continuously held patriotic celebration in the country," says Scott Sheads, a Fort McHenry park ranger and historian who authored an article outlining the history of Defenders Day for Maryland Historical Magazine. "In the 19th century, tens of thousands of people would celebrate the day. It was the big event of the year."

But to paraphrase from the facade of Memorial Stadium: time has indeed dimmed the glory of their deeds. At the the close of the 20th century, Defenders Day is remembered by few and celebrated by fewer still. True, two years ago, group of dignitaries marked the holiday with a rededication ceremony at the Battle Monument (the marble edifice at Calvert and Fayette streets that honors the 42 who died in the Battle of Baltimore); the event was part of Baltimore's bicentennial events that year. But this year, The Sun's Sept. 12 edition bore no mention of Defenders Day. And had the 12th fallen on a weekday instead of Sunday this year, it would have been business as usual in the city's, banks, schools, post offices, and stores. (Defenders Day was considered a "floating holiday" that state employees could take off at their discretion until 1996, when the state replaced floating holidays with personal leave days.)

"People have other distractions today," Sheads says, explaining the demise of Defenders Day as a civic event, particularly in the last 20 years. "Now we have Harborplace and other things people can do." (And, of course, now we have shiny new stadiums where, for better of worse, athletic battles increasingly capture civic attention.)

There are other reasons we forget. The 185-year-old Battle of Baltimore, in which fewer than 50 Americans were killed, seems almost quaint in the shadow of two World Wars and a divisive conflict in Vietnam. The War of 1812 also gets lost in the historic time line between the Revolutionary War (everyone knows what that was about) and the nation's bloodiest conflict, the Civil War (people still earnestly debate what that was about).

"Boston has Bunker Hill, Gettysburg has its battle in 1863," Sheads adds. "Most Americans are aware of these events. But when you come down to Baltimore and the War of 1812, people are unsure of the importance. Most Americans don't understand what the war was even about."

And so what was it all about? In a nutshell, the War of 1812 was about revenue and respect, and how the British were preventing the nascent United States from having either. Their protracted war with France (and a pesky fellow named Napoleon) interfered with our free trade. (Sundry European ports were being embargoed and blockaded.) Worse still, Britain's Royal Navy, hungry for sailors to man its warships, began boarding American vessels and forcing American sailors to become British swabbies. This total disregard for American sovereignty and citizenship caused the United States to declare war on Great Britain in June of 1812--and it's why some have branded the War of 1812 "America's second war of independence." In lieu of a standing navy (which barely existed at the time), American's shores were defended by privateers. These were privately owned trade vessels that, armed with soldiers and a cannon or two, began to prey on British merchant ships. The light-footed clippers in Baltimore's dockyards turned out to be particularly effective privateers. Meanwhile, open hostilities soon began in the Great Lakes region, where British and American forces clashed along the Canadian border.

Things heated up early in 1814 when Napoleon abdicated as emperor of France (and was packed off to the island of Elba) and the Brits turned their full attention to the American conflict. While British warships had been nuisances in the Chesapeake Bay since 1813, blockading trade and harassing small coastal towns, the local threat increased in August 1814, with the arrival of a 50-ship armada loaded with some 5,000 ground troops. The blackest moments of the war soon followed. On Aug. 19, the British landed at Benedict, Md., routed American defensive forces at Bladensburg, and proceeded to march into Washington and put the place to the match. (This could be seen as a case of tit for tat, as American forces had earlier burned the capital of Ontario, then called York, today called Toronto.)

Baltimoreans could discern the burning of Washington as a faint glow in the southern night sky. But while the sacking of D.C. had great symbolic value, it was strategically inconsequential. (President James Madison--along with important documents such as the Declaration of Independence--had been shuttled out of the capital in advance of the conflagration.) Baltimore, on the other hand, was the country's third largest city (population 50,000), a principal port and shipbuilding center, and, according to The London Times of the day, "a nest of pirates." Clearly, it was next.

Samuel Smith, former U.S. senator and a Revolutionary War vet, was put in charge of the city's defenses. Under his sage command, the citizenry shook off the panic that had earlier gripped them and proceeded to transform their young seaport into a bristling fortress. On Aug. 30, 1814, Baltimore merchant George Douglass, a newly minted member of the Baltimore Fencibles militia group, described the preparations: "Last Sunday at least a mile of entrenchments with suitable batteries were raised as if by magic, at which are now working all sorts of people, old and young, black and white."

I don't care if it rains militia; I'll sup in Baltimore tonight or in hell.

-British Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, Sept. 12, 1814
The tip of North Point is rather quiet today. Where the Patapsco meets the bay lies Fort Howard, a grassy expanse watched over by a brick Veterans Administration hospital. The vast Bethlehem Steel complex puffs and steams across Old Roads Bay, an inlet to the north.

In the wee hours of the morning on Sept. 12, 1814, the British landed nearly 5,000 men here and, following a 7 A.M. bugle retort, proceeded to march down North Point Road. Destination: Baltimore. The British commander, Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, paused for breakfast at Gorsuch Farm (long since buried beneath a tangle of Interstate-695 interchanges). An hour later he was dead, shot off his horse while turning to call a column of men forward in the first skirmishes of the battle. Local lore credits his death to two teenage Baltimoreans, Daniel Wells and Henry McComas, both killed during this early engagement. They became Baltimore's "boy martyrs." (Historians, as they're often wont to do, have since punched holes in the hoary tale, saying Ross' wounds could not have been made by the boys' weapons. Nevertheless, the pair are buried beneath a monument on Gay Street.) Colonel Arthur Brooke then took command of the British invasion force.

Marching down to meet the British was Brig. Gen. John Stricker's 3,000-soldier 3rd Maryland Brigade, comprised mostly of militia men--armed private citizens with perhaps a few weeks of training under their belts. Most of the Battle of Baltimore occurred on a narrow stretch of land between the eastern reaches of Bear Creek and a small Back River tributary called Bread and Cheese Creek. While sections of the American line held valiantly, Stricker's citizen soldiers soon proved no match for the seasoned British troops. Brooke began a flanking maneuver of the American line that soon found a chunk of Stricker's forces beating a somewhat ungraceful retreat. Stricker's order had been to slow the British advance, though, and this he had done. His forces withdrew to near the main American defensive position, a vast stretch of earthen fortifications dug from Belair Road across Hampstead Hill (today's Patterson Park) and down to the Canton shoreline. An acre of walled-off unmolested green, called the Battle Acre, marks part of where the less-than two-hour-long fight occurred. Today at the site you'll find a lone cannon on a granite block, a flagless flagpole, several oak trees, and an army of gray squirrels.

The British camped near the battlefield and proceeded toward Baltimore on the morning of the 13th, establishing their headquarters in an estate called Sterret House that stands today amid the Armistead Gardens housing development. (Completely slathered over in white stucco--windows included--the once-handsome Sterret House looks like a place where BGE might stash power transformers.) Brooke began probing the U.S. lines and didn't like what he saw: 20,000 Americans--Marylanders as well as militiamen from surrounding states--behind an impressive line of trenches.

Brooke concluded that an assault was futile, at least without naval support--leading to the second phase of the battle. The ship-to-shore bombardment of Fort McHenry began the morning of the 13th and continued for some 25 uninterrupted hours. The idea was for the British Navy to neutralize the fort and enter the North West Branch of the harbor to support the ground assault and, ultimately, loot the city. The 1,000 or so Americans holed up in For McHenry, under the command of Col. George Armistead, soon discovered that their cannons weren't big enough to reach the British fleet anchored two miles away. Save for a few instances when the Brits drifted into range, the best the fort's defenders could do was stand by their undersized guns while a slew of bombs (nasty, 190-pound exploding orbs of iron) and rockets (inaccurate but terrifying self-propelled projectiles) rained down upon them. (One bomb pierced the fort's powder magazine but failed to explode; if it had, we likely wouldn't have a Defenders Day or a Fort McHenry.)

A third phase of the battle deserves mention as well. Under the cover of darkness, in a driving rainstorm, the British attempted a diversionary raid up the Patapsco's Ferry Branch west of the fort. Twenty assault ships were dispatched, half of which got lost in the heavy weather and headed the wrong way. The remaining vessels were handily repulsed by fortified gun emplacements along Ferry Branch's northern shore. This failed diversion was too little too late anyway, as Brooke had by that time given up the idea of attacking Baltimore and was already marching his men back down North Point Road.

And then there's the bit every Baltimorean should know something about: How a Frederick lawyer named Francis Scott Key observed the battle and its flag-flapping aftermath from the deck of a U.S. truce ship (Key sailed out to negotiate with the British during the battle) and scrawled a poem about the scene. He called it "The Battle of Fort McHenry," and set the lines to the tune of a popular English drinking song. (Decades later, sports fans from Seattle to Miami would strain to sing its octave-spanning verses.)

Thwarted on both land and sea, there was nothing left for the British to do but get out of town. Five days after their arrival, they hauled anchor and slipped back down the Chesapeake. The Battle of Baltimore was a pivotal victory for the Americans, who soon after won another crucial skirmish in Plattsburg, N.Y. By year's end, sentiment in London had turned against the war. The Brits were again whipped in the Battle of New Orleans in January, 1815, and a peace treaty was ratified a month later.

Even in Maryland, where the anniversary of the [Battle of North Point] is a legal holiday, there exists a notion that the whole thing was a trifling incident, inglorious in action and insignificant in result.

-Historian Neil Swanson, 1945
There's a hodgepodge of historical markers and monuments scattered throughout North Point today. A cement obelisk overlooking a murky culvert alongside Old North Point Road honors a fallen private named Aquilla Randal. HOW BEAUTIFUL DEATH IS WHEN EARNED BY VIRTUE reads the inscription. Perhaps 50 yards away there's another sign--GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS on the roof of Dreamers strip club.

"The War of 1812 was the first war that tested the Constitution of the United States, which was then a young document," Sheads says. "It tested whether we could raise an army, build ships, defend the country. And as for Baltimore, it was the most catastrophic event to ever happen here, with the exception of the great [1904] fire."

The problem is reminding other people of that, and making that information stick. Taking up this challenge is a core group of War of 1812 enthusiasts--a loosely organized collective of authors, researchers, and re-enactors that stay in touch mainly via the Internet, where they dream up re-enactments such as the one at Fort McHenry.

Don Kehoe came to Fort McHenry's Defenders Day weekend from Waynesville, Ind., to take part in an encampment of re-enactors/living historians (i.e., folks who dress in period clothing and sleep on piles of hay beneath cotton tents). "This is a neglected time period," says Kehoe, dressed in the scratchy wool uniform of an 1812 private. "There are not a lot of people that re-enact this era, which is why it appeals to me. It's important that people know that these things occurred and how they occurred. We go to courthouses, state archives, many places to research events, names, and artifacts."

Joel Dale of Muncie Ind., also playing a private in the re-enactment, agrees. "History is being written by the movies now," Dale says. "Often inaccurately."

Both men bristle at the notion they're glorifying war when they parade about in the ancient uniforms ("These things happened," Dale says. "We're trying to keep our history alive.")

Dan Toomey, head of Toomey Press, a Timonium-based publisher of local history books, has another take on Defenders Day.

"If you ask someone from another country what they think of when they think of the United States, they'll probably say the American flag and the national anthem," he says. "And the American flag became famous and the national anthem was born in one place: Baltimore."

His sentiments point out a shift in how Defenders Day is remembered. Last century, the day's festivities were largely focused on North Point. President John Quincy Adams visited the North Point battleground in 1826, and while the Battle of Baltimore veterans were still alive (the last "Old Defender" died in 1894) they frequently took part in ceremonies out on the point.

But in this century, as the battleground was gradually eaten up by Bethlehem Steel, housing tracts, and shopping centers, Defenders Day observances shifted to Fort McHenry. This process accelerated after Key's "Star-Spangled Banner" became the national anthem in 1931 and Fort McHenry was deemed a national historic site in 1939. Key, who didn't actually fight in the battle and never visited Fort McHenry in his lifetime, has emerged as the conflict's best-known name.

"The Battle of North Point has kind of drifted into the shadows," Sheads says.

However, two handsome stonework signs were recently placed along the North Point section of the Beltway, informing motorists that they are zooming through an 1812 battlefield. They are partially the result of the advocacy efforts of Robert Reyes, who calls himself a "volunteer historian." (By day, he works for the U.S. Postal Service's stamp-development office.)

"The total decimation of the battlefield is another example of people forgetting where they come from and how we got our freedom," says Reyes, who has lobbied at the state level to protect what little is left of the North Point battlefield from further development. Last year he helped found the Friends of the North Point Battlefield to continue the fight.

The latest initiative is to try and save a multi-acre tract just south of North Point Plaza where once stood a Methodist meeting house that Stricker used as a headquarters and field hospital. The privately owned parcel may be on its way to becoming a mini-storage facility.

"We would like to see it made into a park to help visitors and the neighborhood alike interpret the sight as a battlefield," Reyes says. "The Battle Monument is on the Baltimore City flag for a reason: The Battle of Baltimore is important."

Though the battle over the Methodist meeting house continues, the Defenders' Day defenders can look toward some success stories. There's a bill currently moving through Congress to fund the creation of a Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail, which would involve placing additional markers throughout the region--the Eastern Shore, Benedict, Bladensburg, Washington, and Baltimore--that would note significant sites of the War of 1812. The Smithsonian Institution is undertaking a multimillion-dollar renovation of the flag that inspired the Key poem (the one Baltimorean Mary Pickersgill assembled on a brewery floor because it was so large).

"The war was a defining moment in history in which Baltimore played a part," says Christopher George, editor of the quarterly Journal of the War of 1812. "What we're trying to do now is build public interest in this time period in advance of the bicentennial of the Battle of Baltimore [in 2014]."

Departed Spirits of the brave,

Behold this Monumental Shroud

With Joys that Angels feel;

T'was yours the grateful town to save,

Methinks, now bending from the clouds.

In whisper say--"Tis well."

-Inscription on the Battle Monument
It remains to be seen whether our resident War of 1812 zealots can successfully shove Defenders Day to the front of the city's consciousness. Their efforts could prove to be a dual-edged sword. It's an American tradition that whenever historic happenings reach a certain level of societal awareness, crass commercialism kicks in. Think of what happens every February on Presidents' Day, when we're treated to shrill used-car salesman marching about in ill-fitting powdered wigs. Free cherry pie with each test drive! Perhaps Defenders Day is best spared the indignity of, say, Sam Smith waterbed blowout sales, or Battle of Baltimore Jell-O shooters down at the local megabar.

In the meantime, even if you're not a inveterate flag waver or minutiae-obsessed history buff, you can probably still find something to celebrate next Sept. 12. For one thing, Defenders Day honors a very Baltimore-style victory. The battle was not marked by flashy individual heroics, but by folks from all walks of life doing their duty when duty called. Not to stretch an analogy too far here, but think about present-day local hero Cal Ripken Jr., honored not for showing off, but for consistently showing up.

The Battle of Baltimore, you see, was really all about showing up. A city pulling together to stare down an invading force bent on destruction. Maybe it wasn't the most dramatic of victories (what with the hasty retreats and useless cannons and all), but it was our victory.

And one thing is undeniable. On the morning of Sept. 14, 1814--when the bomb and rocket smoke cleared over Fort McHenry, when the rain stopped, when the citizen soldiers (shipwrights, shoemakers, brewers, and sailors) emerged from the muddy defenses they'd dug from Belair Road to Patterson Park to the shores of Ferry Branch--well, you know the rest. Our flag was still there.

2014 Baltimore City Paper