During the War of 1812 the citizens of Baltimore knew their city was a big target. With the powerful British navy sailing up the Chesapeake Bay toward them, they were scared. The
Committee of Vigilance and Safety chose Major General Samuel Smith, a Revolutionary War veteran, to take command of Baltimore’s defenses. Smith knew the British could attack by land or sea or both. One road led into the city from the east, and the likely place for the ships to unload was North Point, fourteen miles away at road’s end. If the navy attacked by sea, the city’s prime defense was the star-shaped Fort McHenry completed fourteen years earlier.
The British did decide on a two-pronged attack. The naval bombardment of Fort McHenry is well-known since a lawyer named Francis Scott Key witnessed the attack and penned what became the lyrics to the National Anthem. But I find the North Point landing site just as interesting. The British landed almost 7000 men and began a march up Patapsco Neck toward the city. But they were stalled by American forces in the Battle of North Point, one of their commanding generals was killed by sharpshooters, and they realized the defenses were stronger than they anticipated.
Much of the peninsula today is part of North Point State Park, a park layered with history. The landing site is located at Fort Howard, a former military installation set to undergo major development in the near future. In the early 1900s the area was the location of the popular Bay Shore Amusement Park. Today the old pier, a restored fountain and trolley station, are all that remain. The road from North Point winds through a variety of landscapes including fields and both industrial and residential areas. Monuments along the way memorialize the actions of the various skirmishes that halted the British land attack. Battle Acre Park, a 1-acre site, commemorates those who fought in the North Point campaign.
No visit to Baltimore is complete without a trip to the well-preserved Fort McHenry, a property owned and interpreted by the National Park Service. The thick brick walls of the fort remain as a reminder of that ferocious bombardment and on calm days, a visitor might see a huge flag on the fort’s flagpole. The view of the shimmering Patapsco River from the artillery posts at the corners of the fort is spectacular on a sunny day. One can just imagine the incoming bombs. The rockets, new technology of the day, proved inaccurate and rarely hit a target. But the bombs fell for hours at the rate of one per minute. No matter what time of day or year a person visits, it is not difficult to imagine the moment described by British midshipman Robert Barrett, a witness to the bombardment: “As the last vessel spread her canvas to the wind, the Americans hoisted a splendid and superb ensign on their battery, and at the same time fired a gun of defiance.”
Have you been to Fort McHenry or North Point? What did you think?
Young visitors present at closing time on a day that the full-sized banner is flying (weather contingent) are invited to help Park officials properly fold the large flag. This provides a hands-on experience of the respectful handling of the flag as well as an indelible understanding of its’ size.
As a former Baltimore native and someone who started his museum career at the home of Mary Pickersgill I have a very complex relationship to the interpretation of the War of 1812 and the place of that war in American and Maryland’s memory and history, but I haven’t been back in 10 years so I am not sure it is legitimate to go into too much detail until I reacquaint myself with the sites.
However, last night I attended a reception for the new graduate students in history here at the University of Florida and because two of my class mates are from Canada we started a brief discussion of how the two countries might differ in their celebrations of the centennial of this war, since both countries repulsed invaders and we were on opposite sides but now friends. It was short conversation, but one I want to return to.
Since you just posted this, I now ask you. Are you familiar with how Canada will handle this centennial? Have you been to sites in Canada analogous to Fort McHenry, battles that stymied US advances into Canada and frustrated our attempts to annex land?
In between teaching and dissertation writing I might try to look into it, but would be interested in other people’s initial thoughts.
Hey Matt – I didn’t know you started out at the Flag House. Did you see my blog post about it? https://historyplaces.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/mary-not-betsy/
What a great question you raise. I have no idea what is planned in Canada. I do know there are one or two sessions at the AASLH conference coming up in Richmond (American Association for State and Local History) that will address the bicentennial. I’m guessing Canada’s perspective won’t be included. My focus with 1812 has been mostly the Battle of Baltimore and the SSB story. Does anyone out there care to comment on this great question?
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