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The Battle of Baltimore

The Maryland Historical Society

It was early September in 1814 and Baltimore had about as much difficulty as it could handle. Just two weeks before, Washington, D.C. was burned by the British and the U.S. President was fleeing for his life. A large British fleet and a veteran redcoat army were sailing up the Chesapeake to burn Baltimore. They were bent on burning the city that was building the privateer fleet that had devastated British shipping in the Atlantic. The crisis ended quickly.

Thanks to some great leaders, Baltimore’s “Rock Stars” of the War of 1812, the U.S. repelled the mighty British. The formidable Baltimore defenses met the challenge and the Star Spangled Banner was born. During this anniversary year, two centuries removed from the War of 1812, America’s Second War of Independence, the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) is retelling a dramatic story. With five thousand square feet of displays and more than a hundred historic artifacts, In Full Glory Reflected, Maryland During the War of 1812, is the largest War of 1812 bicentennial exhibit in Maryland, and one of the largest in the nation.

The number one object in the exhibition is the original manuscript of the Star Spangled Banner but others are just as fascinating. “Everything in this exhibition tells a compelling story,” said Burt Kummerow, MDHS President. “The paintings by an immigrant house painter captured the Battle of North Point as no one else could. Then there’s the private at Ft. McHenry who had a bomb land at his feet. He took the unexploded bomb home and it’s now it’s at the historical society. There’s even a 100-year-old musket that saw service in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812 and Civil War.”

In four separate galleries filling an entire floor of the museum, visitors explore the growth of Baltimore as a boomtown, built on shipbuilding and worldwide trade. Next, they can visit a tavern, the information nerve center of the young republic. Following the drift into a war over issues of trade, the conflict with Britain goes from the high seas to the shores of the Chesapeake. An 1814 invasion puts all of Maryland to the test but culminates with victory in Baltimore. The iconic MdHS artifact, the original Star Spangled Banner manuscript, penned by Francis Scott Key soon after the battle that immortalized Ft. Mc Henry and its garrison flag, is featured along with a gallery devoted to the defenders of Baltimore.

The 1814 Battle of Baltimore was a turning point in the War of 1812. The port city had strong defenses both in the harbor and on Hampstead Hill (Patterson Park) where a mile of trenches held 100 cannons and 15,000 militia and regulars. There was no U.S. army to speak of. The Baltimore business community financed the training and equipping of a volunteer militia. After the Americans repulsed a land invasion and killed British General Robert Ross, they successfully defended Ft. McHenry during a 25 hour bombardment and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics to what became our national anthem.

Museum goers will get to see the Baltimore 1814 Defenders, Maryland’s own War of 1812 “Rock Stars.” Rembrandt Peale’s stunning portraits of the five Defenders -  Major General Samuel Smith, Lt. Col. George Armistead, Brigadier General John Stricker, Congressman Isaac McKim and Commodore Joshua Barney – were commissioned by the City of Baltimore almost immediately after the war ended in 1815.

At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Sam Smith was a veteran of the American Revolution, one of Baltimore’s wealthiest merchants, a general in the Maryland militia and a member of the U.S. Congress both as a representative and a senator. Thanks to his leadership as the commander of the Baltimore defenses in 1814, 15,000 militia and regulars repulsed the British and saved the city.

Major (later Lt. Colonel) George Armistead is remembered for commanding the defenses at Ft. McHenry and reportedly commissioning garrison flags from seamstress Mary Pickersgill that were “so large…the British would have no difficulty seeing from a distance.” It was the sight of the 42 foot by 30 foot flag, still flying after the September, 1814, 25 hour bombardment that inspired Francis Scott Key.

General John Stricker, another seasoned veteran of the American Revolution, became a hero during the Battle of North Point on September 12, 1814. Commanding 3,200 Maryland militiamen, Stricker blocked the British advance toward Baltimore and killed British General Robert Ross, buying enough time for the main defenses on Hampstead Hill to prepare for the repulse of the redcoat invasion.

Congressman Isaac McKim served as an aide-de-camp to General Samuel Smith and helped finance the Baltimore defense. McKim was a keen businessman and an investor in Baltimore privateers that attacked the British merchant fleets. He later was an early supporter of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, America’s first.

The last defender, Commodore Joshua Barney, was not present during the Battle of Baltimore. A legendary naval veteran, he commanded the Chesapeake Flotilla that defended Southern Maryland in 1814 and was a hero at the Battle of Bladensburg where he was seriously wounded.

The exhibition will be open to the public for the three years of the 1812 Bicentennial. For more information about the exhibit and The Maryland Historical Society, which was founded in 1844 and occupies an entire city block in Baltimore’s historic Mount Vernon District, call 410-685-3750 or visit online at http://www.mdhs.org.

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