The Battle for Baltimore

by Alan Taylor

Bitter over the American declaration of war in 1812, when the British Empire had faced the emperor Napoleon at the peak of his power, the British sought payback in 1814. The war erupted over American anger at the British for seizing American ships and sailors in an effort to enforce a blockade against Napoleon’s empire. By early 1814 the British had won great victories in Europe over Napoleon’s regime, which collapsed during the spring. That triumph freed up dozens of British warships and thousands of troops to cross the Atlantic to take revenge on the Americans, who seemed easy marks for the veterans who had toppled the mighty Napoleon. Lord Eglinton declared, “The only thing now is those cursed Americans. I hope a sufficient force will be sent to crush them at once, to attack their strongholds, arsenals, shipping, and naval yards, and destroy them.”[1]

During 1812 and 1813 American forces had invaded Canada, where they burned and plundered several towns, including the government buildings in the provincial capital of York (now Toronto). The British commanding general in Canada called for revenge by the naval commanders on the American coast. Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane agreed that “Their Sea Port Towns laid in Ashes & the Country wasted will be some sort of retaliation for their savage Conduct in Canada.”[2]

The powerful British navy targeted the villages and cities along Chesapeake Bay for destructive raids. Begun in 1813, the raids greatly increased during the summer of 1814, with critical assistance from runaway African American slaves, who regarded the British as liberators. Hundreds of escaped slaves joined the British as guides, soldiers, and sailors, enabling the British to push their raids inland beyond the shores of the Chesapeake. That advantage led the British admiral George Cockburn to plan attacks on Washington, DC, and the Maryland seaport of Baltimore.[3]

Admirals Cockburn and Cochrane landed 4,500 British troops on the Patuxent River in southern Maryland in August. Commanded by Major General Robert Ross, most of the troops had just arrived from Europe, but some were black marines enlisted from among the runaway slaves. On August 24, the British advanced inland until confronted by an American force at Bladensburg, just east of Washington. Although the 7,000 Americans outnumbered the British, most of the defenders consisted of raw militia who had never seen combat. The British pushed through the American lines as the militia panicked and fled. One witness recalled, “the militia ran like sheep chased by dogs.”[4]

That evening the British pressed into Washington, DC. Rather than burn the entire city, as they had so often threatened, the British selectively burned buildings with military or political import. Ross assured the civilians that their homes remained safe so long as they stayed peaceably in them. Only a couple of private homes burned as punishment for hosting snipers. In addition to the White House and Capitol, the British destroyed a newspaper office, the War Office, the Treasury, and three ropewalks rich in naval stores. Retreating Americans had already destroyed the navy yard to keep its ships and supplies from falling into British hands. Then, on August 25, the invaders marched back to their ships on the Patuxent, arriving there unopposed late the next day.[5]

The ease with which the British had captured the national capital thrilled the invaders and demoralized the Americans, who felt ashamed of their weakness. Thomas Tudor Tucker, the treasurer of the United States, wrote to his brother: “I feel myself humbled & degraded. I have no longer a country or a Government that I can speak of with pride.” Tucker had hoped that the war would secure “the lasting respect of all Nations. What an Illusion!” It seemed that the war would soon end with the Americans submitting to a humiliating peace dictated by the victors.[6]

After their triumph at Washington, the British withdrew their troops to Tangier Island, a British base in Chesapeake Bay, to recuperate for nearly two weeks before they moved against their next major target: Baltimore. The British officers despised Baltimore as a stronghold for the pro-war Republican Party. Indeed, the city was notorious for bloody riots against the anti-war Federalists and for dispatching scores of privateers to prey upon British commerce. This time Cochrane wanted no selective burning, seeking instead to wipe out the city. Captain Edward Codrington assured his wife: “I do not like to contemplate scenes of blood & destruction, but my heart is deeply interested in the coercion of these Baltimore heroes, who are perhaps the most inveterate against us of all the Yankees and I hope they will be chastised even until they excite my pity.”[7]

Led by Admirals Cochrane and Cockburn, the British ascended the Patapsco River in overwhelming naval force on September 10 and 11. Their fifty warships included ten massive ships-of-the-line, twenty frigates, five bomb-vessels, and a boat equipped to fire Congreve rockets—a British innovation—but they had only 4,200 troops compared to the 15,000 defenders. Although primarily militia, the defenders had the advantages of fighting from behind strong earthworks under an unusually able and active commander in General Samuel Smith and of protecting their own homes and shops.[8]

On September 12, Ross landed his men at North Point to probe Baltimore’s eastern defenses. The militia advanced beyond their earthworks, but the British drove them back into the city. However, the invaders suffered heavy casualties, including General Ross, an inspirational commander popular with his men. His death deflated British morale, especially as the troops lacked confidence in his replacement, Colonel Arthur Brooke. Meanwhile, the civilians of Baltimore still expected the worst. A visitor, John Moore, reported, “I was surrounded with crowds clapping their hands together, writhing with agony, and uttering in loud exclamations their despair and grief.”[9]

Brooke decided that his men were too few, the defenders too many, and their earthworks too strong, so he halted the attack and called on the navy to push into the harbor and destroy its waterfront defenses, principally Fort McHenry. On the night of September 13–14, the warships bombarded the fort with rockets, mortars, and cannon. “The portals of hell appeared to have been thrown open,” Moore wrote from within the terror-stricken city. But the fort held, suffering surprisingly little damage as most of the enemy shots proved loud but errant. In the morning, the British admirals dismissed further bombardment as futile and sailed away down the river, taking off Brooke and his troops from North Point.[10]

Giddy with relief, and eager to wipe away the disgrace of Washington, Americans made the most of their victory at Baltimore. Dr. Philip Barraud exulted, “The Charm is broken, Wellington’s veterans can be cut down like ordinary Militia – nay they can be dismayed by them and made to retire before them. The display of this truth is worth Legions to our Country and will add to our means of defence.”[11]

Patriotism also got a boost from a poem written by Francis Scott Key, who had watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry. Although a Federalist opposed to the declaration of war, Key longed to see the British defeated. Key had ventured under a flag of truce to the British warships to lobby for the release of a friend, Dr. William Beanes, held for seizing some British stragglers on their retreat from Washington. On September 17, another friend published Key’s poem in a handbill with the suggestion that people sing it to the tune of a British drinking song, “Anacreon in Heaven.” Widely reprinted by American newspapers, the poem became popular under the title “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which Congress proclaimed as the national anthem in 1931. We now sing only the first verse, neglecting the rest, which includes (in the third verse) Key’s dig at the British for enlisting runaway slaves:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.
And the star-spangled banner – O! Long may it wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

A slaveowner, Key regarded the land of the free as a white man’s republic—which was the prevailing view among American citizens at the time.[12]

Nothing irritated British officers more than Americans claiming victory after Baltimore. The British howled that, in the words of Sir Pulteney Malcolm, the American newspapers “published lies without end.” In the British version of the battle, they had suffered no defeat, for they had merely probed the city’s defenses, wisely withdrawing once they found the enemy numerous and entrenched, rather than suffer heavy casualties. The tetchy British insisted that the defenders had done nothing but cower within their fortifications. However, the spin of newspapers mattered as much as the spin of bullets in this highly political war. Baltimore gave the Americans something to celebrate, which they made the most of, stiffening their resolve to repel the invaders. That resolve helped them to achieve a favorable peace treaty at the end of the year.[13]

[1] Lord Eglinton to Sir Thomas Brisbane, May 1, 1814 (“The only thing”), Brisbane Papers, folder 1, William L. Clements Library.

[2] Sir Alexander Cochrane to George Cockburn, Apr. 28, 1814 (“Their Sea Port Towns”), and Cockburn to Cochrane, May 10, 1814, and June 25, 1814, in W. S. Dudley, ed., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 1992), 3:51, 64–65, and 116; C. J. Bartlett, “Gentlemen versus Democrats: Cultural Prejudice and Military Strategy in Britain in the War of 1812,” War in History 1 (July 1994): 147–149.

[3] Roger Morriss, Cockburn and the British Navy in Transition: Admiral Sir George Cockburn, 1772–1853 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997), 100–102. For the African American assistance to British forces, see Frank A. Cassell, “Slaves of the Chesapeake Bay Area and the War of 1812,” Journal of Negro History 57 (1972): 144–155, and Alan Taylor, American Exodus, British Canaan: The Slave War of 1812 (New York: Norton, forthcoming 2013).

[4] Ralph E. Eshelman, Scott S. Sheads, and Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812 in the Chesapeake: A Reference Guide to Historic Sites in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 83–84; Charles Ball, Fifty Years in Chains, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: Dover Publications, 1970), 468 (“the militia”).

[5] Eshelman, Sheads, and Hickey, The War of 1812 in the Chesapeake, 270–272; Morriss, Cockburn and the British Navy, 108.

[6] Thomas T. Tucker to St. George Tucker, Sep. 9, 1814, Tucker-Coleman Papers, box 33, Special Collections, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.

[7] Edward Codrington to his wife, Sep. 10, 1814 (“I do not like”), MG 24, F 13, reel A-2076, Library and Archives Canada (Ottawa).

[8] Eshelman, Sheads, and Hickey, War of 1812 in the Chesapeake, 11–12.

[9] Christopher T. George, ed., “The Family Papers of Major General Robert Ross, the Diary of Col. Arthur Brooke, and the British Attacks on Washington and Baltimore of 1814,” Maryland Historical Magazine 88 (Fall 1993): 300–16; Morriss, Cockburn and the British Navy, 110–111; John Moore to Elizabeth S. Moore, Sep. 13, 1814 (“I was surrounded”), Moore Papers, 1 folder, Special Collections, Duke University Library; Eshelman, Sheads, and Hickey, War of 1812 in the Chesapeake, 11–12.

[10] John Moore to Elizabeth S. Moore, Sep. 14, 1814 (“The portals”), Moore Papers, 1 folder, Special Collections, Duke University Library; Morriss, Cockburn and the British Navy, 111–112; Eshelman, Sheads, and Hickey, War of 1812 in the Chesapeake, 12.

[11] Philip Barraud to John Hartwell Cocke, Sep. 19, 1814, John Hartwell Cocke Family Papers, box 17, Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

[12] Anthony S. Pitch, The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998), 191–193; Eshelman, Sheads, and Hickey, War of 1812 in the Chesapeake, 12. For the full lyrics of the national anthem see “Defence of Fort McHenry,” Baltimore Patriot and Evening Advertiser, Sept. 20, 1814.

[13] Sir Pulteney Malcolm to unknown, Oct. 3, 1814 (“published lies”), Malcolm Papers, box 1, William L. Clements Library; G[eorge] R[obert], Gleig, A Narrative of the Campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans (London: John Murray, 1861), 108.

A Professor of History at the University of California, Davis, Alan Taylor is the author of six books, including The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies (2010), which was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize, and William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (1995), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize. Next year he will publish American Exodus, British Canaan: The Slave War of 1812 (Norton, 2013).

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