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Last Update September 13, 2014

The Battle of Baltimore


Samuel Smith, more than anyone else, was responsible for the successful outcome of the battle of Baltimore. In early 1813, Smith, commander of the Third Division of the state militia, was directed by the governor to improve the defenses of Baltimore. Over the following fifteen months, Smith completed the construction of Ft. McHenry, installed 56 powerful, long-range cannon, directed the construction of four other waterside fortifications, and trained the defensive force intensively. State and federal money was scarce, so Smith repeatedly went to the citizens of Baltimore for contributions and got the large amounts he needed.

Well before the attack, Smith somehow got inside the minds of the British commanders and correctly predicted where they would land and the route and tactics they would use. Thus he was able to start preparing field fortifications for the battle of North Point in advance of the British landing. As a result of his planning, the attackers were blocked at every turn - on land or water - by a superior defensive force, equipped, trained and directed by Smith. The superpower that had defeated Napoleon was completely buffaloed.

The attackers' final effort was to be a pre-dawn bayonet attack on the defensive line atop the ridge in what is now Patterson Park, a tactic they had perfected in Europe. But the council of war the night before could not agree. The defenders had dug in and fortified the crest of the mile-long, rain-soaked ridge with at least three times as many men and a hundred cannon. As long as Ft. McHenry held, the British infantry would have no support from the guns of their navy. The young colonel in command decided not to bet his career on taking Baltimore, according to his personal journal. The British withdrew. (But suppose they had attempted an attack?) With a total of about a hundred battle deaths on both sides together, Sam Smith had concluded a military engagement that (says Walter Lord, author of "The Dawn's Early Light") changed history entirely.

And, Smith wasn't even entitled to the command! As a militia officer, he was subordinate to the ranking regular Army commander, the inexperienced political general who had failed to defend Washington from being sacked and burned. Three weeks before the attack, a committee of Baltimore leaders asked Smith to take command. He agreed - if they would get the governor to federalize his appointment. The governor, the uncle of the political general, did so. Smith, a major general, immediately put the astounded regular under his command in a non-critical spot, where he served faithfully - after he got over the shock.

Smith used the time to construct fortifications on Loudenslagers' Hill (now Patterson Park) and near Bread and Cheese Creek on North Point. Citizens of all social levels turned out in shifts to dig together. These fortifications, as we have seen, turned out to be absolutely essential to the defense.

How important was this victory? On September 11, a superior British force had been soundly defeated at the battle of Plattsburgh, on the Canadian border. News of the two defeats arrived in London a day apart, wiping out the euphoria from the British victory at Washington and replacing it with shock and gloom. The British government found itself in a costly quagmire and facing a hostile public. The treaty negotiators were told to relax their terms. Previously, historians say, they had insisted on punitive terms that would have made an example of the United States and limited its sovereignty. (Specifically, they had demanded a quarter million square miles as a reservation for their Indian allies - part of Ohio and all of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, along with sole military control of the Great Lakes.) Within a few weeks, the British negotiators caved completely to American stubborness and agreed to abandon Great Britain's war aims and put everything back as it was before the war. When the superpower climbed down, the United States was transformed from what Walter Lord called a "semi-nation, almost a freak" into a real nation with a real future.

As we celebrate Defenders Day each year, we should recall that without Samuel Smith (and his counterparts at Plattsburgh), we wouldn't have as much to celebrate. We might even be singing a different tune, under a different flag.

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