Battle of Baltimore

The Battle of Baltimore, from 12-15 September 1814, was a British defeat against American forces in the War of 1812. The abdication of Napoleon in April 1814 allowed the British to reinforce North America and to contemplate a series of offensives against the US, aimed at securing the frontiers of the Canadas. While the main attacks were to be launched from the Canadas, a series of raids in the Chesapeake Bay area were to create a diversion. The forces allotted to these raids included Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane’s North American Station flotilla and a brigade of troops under Major-General Robert Ross. Rear Admiral George Cockburn also led a portion of the fleet.

Following the British occupation of Washington in August, Cochrane decided to descend on Baltimore, Maryland, the third-largest city in the US and a centre of transhipment and industry. Previous British raids in Chesapeake Bay prompted the local government to improve the militia and to enhance the fortifications. Major-General Samuel Smith of the Maryland militia took command of these preparations.

Preparations for War

Baltimore lay at the base of the harbour formed by the northwest branch of the Patapsco River. Access to the harbour was through a narrow inlet that was blocked by a boom and several barges. A flotilla of 11 barges, each with two guns, also guarded the entrance. Fort McHenry, which was originally built in 1776, was the cornerstone of the defences and was on a point to the west of the entrance. It was armed with 36-42 pounder guns and garrisoned by 1000 men commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel George Armistead. A battery was also placed on the other side of the entrance. The landward approaches west of Fort McHenry were protected by three forts. In anticipation of the British attack, a series of trenches were prepared on the east side of Baltimore at Hampstead Hill. The trenches stretched over two kilometres, connecting eight batteries with a total of 62 guns. The Third Maryland Brigade led by Brigadier General John Stricker was assigned to this sector.

The British fleet appeared at the Patapsco River on 10 September, and in the early morning of 12 September the troops began landing at North Point, near the tip of Patapsco Point, about eight miles from Baltimore. Altogether, 2500 soldiers and 1300 Royal Marines and Royal Navy personnel came ashore. While the landings were under way, Ross moved ahead with the light infantry, halting after four miles. The heat and humidity were oppressive. At mid-morning, the march resumed and the British light troops encountered American infantry. Around 2:00 pm, Ross and Cockburn rode forward to see the action and Ross was mortally wounded. Colonel Arthur Brooke rushed forward to take command and pushed the column forward.

Battle of North Point

Stricker had formed his brigade across the width of Patapsco Neck and continued to resist the British. What followed was the 15-minute-long bloody Battle of North Point, at the end of which the Americans withdrew. Brooke reported losing 38 dead, with an additional 251 wounded and 50 missing, while Stricker claimed 24 dead, 139 wounded and 50 captured. The next day, Brooke advanced and came within sight of Hampstead Hill, which he declared to be a strong position.

Bombardment of Fort McHenry

Meanwhile, the famous naval bombardment of Fort McHenry had begun around 8:00 a.m. on the 13th. During the previous evening, 16 of Cochrane’s shallower draft vessels came to within five miles of the city and by the next morning, five bomb vessels and a rocket ship had moved to within two miles of the fort and commenced firing. The Americans returned fire, and the British vessels moved out of range before resuming a tremendous bombardment that lasted until the next morning. It is estimated that between 1500 and 1800 mortar rounds alone were fired, 400 of them falling directly on the fort. At 3:00 am on the 14th, a 1200-man boat assault of the shore west of McHenry was readied. However, fire from the auxiliary forts made a landing impossible.

Baltimore After the Battle

While the bombardment continued, Brooke remained near Hampstead Hill. Cochrane had sent Cockburn a note questioning the value of attacking that position. When Brooke was shown the letter, he called a council of war and decided after considering the state of the defences to order a withdrawal. The British marched back to North Point, and were re-embarked by mid-afternoon on the 15th. Cochrane returned to Halifax, while Cockburn and the army troops went to Bermuda to prepare for the next phase of the campaign. Following the bombardment, Francis Scott Key wrote a poem about the action, which was eventually set to music and became the American national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The British had not anticipated the strength of the defences around Baltimore. For the Americans, the Battle of Baltimore served to re-establish their confidence and influenced the peace negotiations in Ghent (See Treaty of Ghent), while tarnishing the reputations of Cochrane and Brooke.

Author: John R. Grodzinski