Defenders Saved Baltimore in September 1814

The Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812

Painting of the death of General Ross at the Battle of Baltimore.

Chicago History Museum / UIG / Getty Images

The Battle of Baltimore in September 1814 is best remembered for one aspect of the fighting, the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British warships, which was immortalized in the Star-Spangled Banner. But there was also a considerable land engagement, known as the Battle of North Point, in which American troops defended the city against thousands of battle-hardened British soldiers who had come ashore from the British fleet.

The Battle of Baltimore Changed the Direction of the War of 1812

Following the burning of public buildings in Washington, D.C. in August 1814, it seemed obvious that Baltimore was the next target for the British. The British general who had overseen the destruction in Washington, Sir Robert Ross, openly boasted that he would force the city's surrender and would make Baltimore his winter quarters.

Baltimore was a thriving port city and had the British taken it, they could have reinforced it with a steady supply of troops. The city could have become a major base of operations from which the British could have marched on to attack other American cities including Philadelphia and New York.

The loss of Baltimore could have meant the loss of the War of 1812. The young United States could have had its very existence imperiled.

Thanks to the defenders of Baltimore, who put up a valiant fight at the Battle of North Point, the British commanders abandoned their plans.

Instead of establishing a major forward base in the middle of America's East Coast, British forces withdrew completely from the Chesapeake Bay.

And as the British fleet sailed away, HMS Royal Oak carried the body of Sir Robert Ross, the aggressive general who had been determined to take Baltimore. Approaching the outskirts of the city, riding near the head of his troops, he had been mortally wounded by an American rifleman.

The British Invasion of Maryland

After leaving Washington after burning the White House and the Capitol, the British troops boarded their ships anchored in the Patuxent River, in southern Maryland. There were rumors about where the fleet might strike next.

British raids had been occurring along the entire coastline of the Chesapeake Bay, including one at the town of St. Michaels, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. St. Michaels was known for shipbuilding, and local shipwrights had constructed many of the fast boats known as Baltimore clippers that were used by American privateers in costly raids against British shipping.

Seeking to punish the town, the British put a party of raiders ashore, but locals successfully fought them off. While fairly small raids were being mounted, with supplies being seized and buildings burned in some of them, it seemed apparent that a much larger invasion would follow.

Baltimore Was the Logical Target

Newspapers reported that British stragglers who had been captured by the local militia claimed the fleet would be sailing off to attack New York City or New London, Connecticut. But to Marylanders, it seemed obvious that the target had to be Baltimore, which the Royal Navy could easily reach by sailing up the Chesapeake Bay and the Patapsco River.

On September 9, 1814, the British fleet, about 50 ships, began sailing northward toward Baltimore. Lookouts along the Chesapeake Bay shoreline followed its progress. It passed Annapolis, Maryland's state capital, and on September 11 the fleet was sighted entering the Patapsco River, headed toward Baltimore.

The 40,000 citizens of Baltimore had been preparing for an unpleasant visit from the British for more than a year. It was widely known as a base of American privateers, and London newspapers had denounced the city as "a nest of pirates."

The great fear was that the British would burn the city. And it would be even worse, in terms of military strategy, if the city was captured intact and turned into a British military base.

The Baltimore waterfront would give Britain's Royal Navy an ideal port facility to resupply an invading army. The capture of Baltimore could be a dagger thrust into the heart of the United States.

The people of Baltimore, realizing all that, had been busy. Following the attack on Washington, the local Committee of Vigilance and Safety had been organizing the construction of fortifications.

Extensive earthworks had been built on Hempstead Hill, on the east side of the city. British troops landing from ships would have to pass that way.

The British Landed Thousands of Veteran Troops

In the early morning hours of September 12, 1814, the ships in the British fleet began lowering small boats which carried troops to landing spots in an area known as North Point.

The British soldiers tended to be veterans of combat against Napoleon's armies in Europe, and a few weeks earlier they had scattered the American militia they faced on the way to Washington, at the Battle of Bladensburg.

By sunrise, the British were onshore and on the move. At least 5,000 troops, led by General Sir Robert Ross, and Admiral George Cockburn, the commanders who had overseen the torching of the White House and Capitol, were riding near the front of the march.

The British plans began to unravel when General Ross, riding ahead to investigate the sound of rifle fire, was shot by an American rifleman. Mortally wounded, Ross toppled from his horse.

Command of the British forces devolved upon Colonel Arthur Brooke, the commander of one of the infantry regiments. Shaken by the loss of their general, the British continued their advance and were surprised to find the Americans putting up a very good fight.

The officer in charge of Baltimore's defenses, General Samuel Smith, had an aggressive plan to defend the city. Having his troops march out to meet the invaders was a successful strategy.

The British Were Stopped at the Battle of North Point

The British Army and Royal Marines battled the Americans on the afternoon of September 12 but were unable to advance on Baltimore. As the day ended, the British camped on the battlefield and planned for another assault the following day.

The Americans had an orderly retreat back to the earthworks the people of Baltimore had built during the preceding week.

On the morning of September 13, 1814, the British fleet began its bombardment of Fort McHenry, which guarded the entrance to the harbor. The British hoped to force the fort to surrender, and then turn the fort's guns against the city.

As the naval bombardment thundered away in the distance, the British Army again engaged the city's defenders on land. Arranged in the earthworks protecting the city were members of various local militia companies as well as militia troops from western Maryland. A contingent of Pennsylvania militia that arrived to help included a future president, James Buchanan.

As the British marched close to the earthworks, they could see thousands of defenders, with artillery, poised to meet them. Col. Brooke realized he could not take the city by land.

That night, the British troops began retreating. In the very early hours of September 14, 1814, they rowed back to the ships of the British fleet.

Casualty numbers for the battle varied. Some said the British had lost hundreds of men, though some accounts say only about 40 were killed. On the American side, 24 men had been killed.

The British Fleet Departed the Chesapeake Bay

After the 5,000 British troops had boarded the ships, the fleet began preparing to sail away. An eyewitness account from an American prisoner who had been taken aboard HMS Royal Oak was later published in newspapers:

"The night I was put on board, the body of General Ross was brought into the same ship, put into a hogshead of rum, and is to be sent to Halifax for interment."

Within a few days, the fleet had left the Chesapeake Bay entirely. Most of the fleet sailed to the Royal Navy base at Bermuda. Some ships, including the one carrying the body of General Ross, sailed to the British base at Halifax, Nova Scotia.

General Ross was interred, with military honors, in Halifax, in October 1814.

The city of Baltimore celebrated. And when a local newspaper, the Baltimore Patriot and Evening Advertiser, began publishing again following the emergency, the first issue, on September 20, contained expressions of gratitude to the defenders of the city.

A new poem appeared in that issue of the newspaper, under the headline "The Defense of Fort McHenry." That poem would eventually become known as the "Star-Spangled Banner."

The Battle of Baltimore is best remembered, of course, because of the poem written by Francis Scott Key. But the fighting which defended the city had an enduring impact on American history. If the British had captured the city, they might have prolonged the War of 1812, and its outcome, and the future of the United States itself, might have been very different.

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McNamara, Robert. "Defenders Saved Baltimore in September 1814." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). Defenders Saved Baltimore in September 1814. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Defenders Saved Baltimore in September 1814." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).