The Defense of Baltimore

To celebrate the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 I am posting my "conversations" with my great-great-great grandfather, Commodore 'Fighting Bob' Stockton, here when he was a young Master's Mate. The Commodore's narrative is posted in bold italic.



“I assume then that Secretary Jones issued new orders for your men?”

“Correct. Our orders were then to proceed with all haste with the sailors and marines from Guerriere and the frigate Java to Baltimore where we were to report to Major General Samuel Smith, the overall commander of Baltimorean defenses. Once there we received military training in land warfare to assist in the repulse of the imminent British invasion.”

“Sailors as ground pounders. I would have loved to see that.”

“Commodore Rodgers knew that the British fleet’s support was critical for the success of General Ross’ army on land as it marched on Baltimore. It was therefore imperative to counter the fleet’s entrance to the inner harbor and provide Fort McHenry’s one-thousand-man garrison with protection by creating a barrier line from the sea. I was directed to proceed to the Baltimore inner harbor with a cadre of sailors and commandeer sufficient merchant ships for a sunken blockade between the Fort and Lazaretto Point, thereby blocking the harbor channel entrance. This was accomplished right under the noses of Cockburn and the British fleet. The merchant ships were towed to a line between Lazaretto Point and Fort McHenry and scuttled to form the barrier line, thus precluding entry to the harbor and protecting the Fort’s flank.”

“Having accomplished this I reported our success to Commodore Rodgers who then directed me to accompany a detachment of some well armed one hundred odd men from the Pennsylvania Regiment under the command of Major Randall to take up positions on the Lazaretto Point.  This battalion was drawn from our entrenched bastion on Hampstead Hill where we waited in anticipation for Ross and his brigade. It was at this moment that the Gods of War smiled favorably upon us.”

“It must have been a very broad smile, sir. You are vastly outnumbered and facing a seasoned brigade of well disciplined troops.”

“I must remind you that our overall line of defense boasted more than ten thousand men and one hundred cannon. It is true that the Commodore’s redoubt consisted of little more than one thousand and that our postion would be the first that Ross’ brigade would encounter; nevertheless we were entrenched and ready for the contest.”

“Meanwhile, General Smith had ordered a force of three thousand men under Brigadier Stricker to engage Ross’s army along the North Point Road and delay or defeat their progress toward our position at Hampstead. Rodgers ordered me to courier intelligence reports and orders between the Bastion and the Lazaretto through  the enemy’s lines. One of my first despatches to Major Randall from the Bastion was that - incredibly! - Ross had been shot and killed by a bullet from one of our advance party snipers, thus turning command of his army over to a Colonel Brooke, a man of considerable less skill and bravado than Ross.”

“Let me see if I am getting all this. Ross is killed at North Point on the road to Baltimore, you are risking your life relaying orders through enemy lines, and sailors are manning the Hampstead redoubt ready to face the British Army in a land battle. Am I hearing you correctly?”

“Shuttling though the enemy lines between Hampstead and the Lazaretto was fraught with danger. There was no time for stealth and indecision. I raced through the outskirts of the enemy’s advance units, drawing fire and returning fire when necessary. At one point I happened upon an enemy picket who, upon meeting me raised his musket and fired. The fellow missed his mark, just grazing my left hand and while he was reloading I fired my pistol, sending him to his heavenly reward.”

“It was at this point that Cockburn’s fleet began the bombardment of Fort McHenry. The fort was commanded by a Major Armistead who along with his men bravely resisted a British naval bombardment of nearly two thousand shells over a period of more than a day’s time. As the major had defensive fortifications constructed, the shelling accomplished only minimal damage, and the British fleet withdrew to just outside the fort’s gun range, continuing the bombardment.”

“The entrance to the harbor was blocked by our sunken vessels, the bombardment of Fort McHenry had done little to cause its surrender, and Cockburn now knew that the success of Brooke’s army was heavily dependent on gunnery support from his fleet. He had vastly underrated the size of our forces at Baltimore and had discredited the resolve of our defenders to thwart the British plans for the city and its harbor.”

“In a last, desperate attempt to win the day, Cockburn directed that a large force be sent ashore after dark and in foul weather to slip past Fort McHenry in hope of causing Smith to divert his force to meet this new threat and allowing Brooke to advance into the city. Armistead was not to be caught napping, and his men directed a withering fire down upon the landing party causing many casualties. The diversionary feint failed and the men withdrew back to the ships in the fleet.”

“Colonel Brooke, who had replaced Ross when the latter was killed then decided that without the support of  Cockburn’s fleet there was no chance of besting our brave lads and withdrew from the battlefield, re-embarking on Cockburn’s vessels and departed. The British had been defeated and Baltimore had been saved.”

“Bravo, sir, for a job well executed. Did Cockburn mount another attempt to take the city?”

“He did not, sir. The British regrouped and decided that they would next visit old Andy Jackson at New Orleans with much the same result. Baltimore marked the turning of the war on the ground at a most fortuitous time.”

“What made that battle so ‘fortuitous’?”

“When Napoleon abdicated his throne and the British redeployed their resources to our hemisphere, there were actually some areas of the country that advocated making a separate peace with the British. This seditious behavior was particularly evident in the New England states. The victory in Baltimore gave our Federal Government the resolve to continue fighting.”

“I’ll tell you, sir that I don’t think that much has changed in New England since your time. The voters there seem to relish their independent streak and often take it to the extreme. They like to disagree just for the sake of disagreeing, not to mention that they have an odd manner of speech.”

“There was a gentleman named Key who, while being detained aboard a British ship offshore observed the bombardment of Fort McHenry and penned a most inspiring tune.”

“Yes sir. That ‘tune’ was eventually named the Star Spangled Banner and is now our country’s national anthem.”



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