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?