200th Anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore

coloredAfter the news of the burning of Washington, the 45,000 people of Baltimore knew it was only a matter of time before they too, would see the British ships in the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore was the third largest city in the United States during that time. It was also a place where privateers captured or collected bounty from over five hundred British ships, as well as fanned the war with Britain.

Since 1813, Baltimore had already built up their defenses for a possible British raid. The city officials called upon Major General Samuel Smith, commanding the Maryland Militia Third Division to defend the city. Aside from the Maryland militia, Major George Armistead commanded the Fort McHenry garrison. There was also a naval presence at Baltimore too.

On August 27, 1814, Major General Smith ordered Brigadier General Stansbury’s militia to Baltimore, but due to the fighting at Bladensburg, his brigade was still scattered. Major General Smith had decided that Baltimore will not end up as another “Bladensburg Race.” The citizens were told to find and gather any tools, such as pickaxes, shovels and wheel barrels. The next day, all people would begin digging or improving entrenchments.

Militia from Virginia and Pennsylvania also reported to Baltimore. Major General Smith began to look at the area of what might become a battleground. He became interested in North Point Peninsula. It was here, at the tip, where the Patapsco River emptied into the Chesapeake Bay. It was a perfect place for the British to land their ground forces. Major General Smith would send Brigadier General John Stricker to deploy his command there, and buy as much as time as he could to stall the British advance.

As Maj. Gen. Smith made his plan, he was given more authority, including commanding all forces in Baltimore over Federal Brigadier General William Winder. This made Brig. Gen. Winder very upset. On September 5, Brig. Gen. Winder received his orders defending Ferry Branch. Brigadier General Winder kept pleading to Maj. Gen. Smith about changing his orders, but Smith ignored him, as he had a city to defend.

On September 10, the British navy moved down the Potomac River where they concentrated on the Chesapeake Bay. From there, they began sailing to Baltimore. By this time, Maj. Gen. Smith had about 10,000 troops, mostly militia, to defend the city.

On September 11, signal guns fired announcing the arrival of the British. Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane made plans to attack Baltimore using a two prong attack. He was unaware that Baltimore was waiting for the British to arrive. He ordered Major General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral George Cockburn to advance on the city by way of North Point, while the British navy continued by sea to Baltimore, and attack Fort McHenry.

On September 12, at 4:00 a.m., the British ground forces were on American soil. By dawn, 4,700 soldiers, marines, and sailors began their advance on Baltimore, twelve miles away. Later in the morning, Brigadier General John Stricker discovered the British advance. He readied his men for the battle ahead. But after a few hours had passed, Brig. Gen. Stricker decided to force Maj. Gen. Ross’ hand, and draw him into a fight. By 1:30 p.m., the first shots were exchanged by the men of Ross’ and Stricker’s commands.

The wounding of Maj. Gen. Ross. He would die from his wounds suffered at North Point.
The wounding of Maj. Gen. Ross. He would die from his wounds suffered at North Point.

Major General Ross quickly ordered up two of his regiments to the front. As the British infantry arrived with Maj. Gen. Ross at the head, a bullet stuck his right arm and went into his chest. At the same time, Maj. Gen. Stricker’s skirmish line fell back to the main line. British Colonel Arthur Brooke took over for the fallen Ross, and within an hour, advanced on Brig. Gen. Stricker’s main line. As two British infantry regiments charged the center of the main line, and after twenty minutes of heavy fighting, Stricker’s men fell back. Stricker lost 163 men killed or wounded and another 50 taken prisoner. For the British, the battle of North Point wasn’t as costly in numbers, but they lost Major General Robert Ross, as he died later from his wounds. For those at Baltimore, the battle of North Point bought them time to finish their defenses.

At dawn on September 13, British Colonel Brooke began his advance on Baltimore. As the British approached Hampstead Hill, they were faced with an earthwork that was about three miles wide. The interior featured one hundred cannon and about ten to fifteen thousand troops, all ready to defend the eastern approach to Baltimore. The rain fell upon Colonel Brooke’s men. Colonel Brooke attacked the position on the right, which he was able to overrun, but he knew a frontal assault would be devastating to his rank and file. After meeting with his officers, Colonel Brooke decided to withdraw before dawn the next morning.

While Colonel Brooke was advancing toward Baltimore, British Vice Admiral Cochrane, with about nineteen ships, began testing the defenses of Fort McHenry. At about 6:00 a.m. Congreve Rockets and mortar shells began screaming and flying through the air. The British ships were just out of range of fort’s guns. The one thousand man garrison under Major Armistead would have to wait for the British ships to move in closer before they would return the fire. For the next twenty-five hours the British bombarded Fort McHenry.

Francis Scott Key had been aboard the British vessel HMS Tonnant. He met with British commanders and the Prisoner Exchange Officer Colonel John Stuart Skinner to help release Dr. William Beanes, who had been arrested after the Burning of Washington. The British agreed to let them go, but they would have wait until after the battle of Baltimore was decided to be released. During the night, Key watched the “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” as the rain fell.

The bombardment of Fort McHenry.
The bombardment of Fort McHenry.

During the night’s bombardment, a shell had landed in the powder magazine, but the shell failed to explode. Major Armistead quickly ordered the powder to be moved to a safer location. The British landed a small force on shore to try and pull some of Maj. Gen. Smith’s men away from the harbor opening, but the British force was unable to fool Maj. Gen. Smith. The British ships moved in closer and the Americans were finally able to open their artillery.

By dawn, the storm had passed and the British bombardment came to an end shortly afterward. They had fired over 1,500 rounds at Fort McHenry with no success. As the defenders of Fort McHenry took down the tattered storm flag and raised the garrison flag that was used for reveille, a portion of the British land force fired at the flag.

The American flag which was seen by Francis Scott Key.
The American flag which was seen by Francis Scott Key.

By sunrise, Francis Scott Key anxiously waited for the fog to lift, so he could see which flag now flew over Fort McHenry. With much relief, he saw the American flag flying over Fort McHenry. Key became inspired by the site, and would write the poem “Defiance of Ft. McHenry” that would become our National Anthem on March 3, 1931. The poem was based upon the British song “To Anacreon in Heaven.”

With Fort McHenry still in American possession, and Colonel Brooke falling back from near Baltimore, Vice Admiral Cochrane ordered his ships back. He was running low on ammunition and to retry to take the city by force would not prove anything. During the battle of Fort McHenry, the Americans had four killed and twenty-four wounded. The British had one man wounded that was on the vessel which took a hit from Fort McHenry’s artillery.

After the American victories at the battle of Plattsburgh, Baltimore and New Orleans, the War of 1812 officially came to an end by the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. The U.S approved the treaty on February 16, 1815, and by February 18, the War of 1812 was over.

Resources:
Gleig, George Robert (1827). The Campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans, 1814-1815. London: J. Murray,
Herrick, Carole. August 24, 1814 Washington in Flames. Falls Church, VA: Higher Education Publishing, 2005.
Lord, Walter. The Dawn’s Early Light. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1972.
Muller, Charles C. The Darkest Day. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
Pitch, Anthony S. The Burning of Washington. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998.
Vogel, Steve. Through the Perilous Flight Six Weeks that Saved a Nation. New York: Random House, 2013.
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