Baltimore Prepares for War

A view of the Presidents house in the city of Washington after the conflagration of the 24th August 1814

"A view of the Presidents house in the city of Washington after the conflagration of the 24th August 1814." Library of Congress.

Battle of Bladensburg and the Burning of Washington

On August 24, 1814, British forces defeated American forces at Bladensburg and marched into Washington, DC, burning major public buildings and forcing President James Madison to flee the city. Letters from Bladensburg started arriving that afternoon. Riders from Captain Henry Thompson’s First Baltimore Horse Artillery operated a horse-telegraph line along the Washington and Baltimore turnpike, with relay riders racing letters north to General John Stricker in Baltimore. James Carroll, Jr., a member of the Maryland militia, and resident of Mt. Clare in today’s Carroll Park arrived at McCoy’s tavern just after midnight with a confirmation of the terrible news:

Aug. 25th. 1814
McCoys Tavern ½ after 12 o’Clock
Thursday Morning.

I left Vanhorns about 8 o’clock when on the Road to McCoys Tavern an hour after I heard two or three heavy Explosions, it was considered by the Company with me as a Renewal of the Engagement but in a little Time a Light appeared in the Horizon in the Direction of the City of Washington which encreased until the Smoke and Flame were distinctly seen this Light continues to encrease to the present Hour & I have no doubt but that the British are burning the public Buildings at Washington.

James Carroll

From the report of several Horseman come in during the night who left our party after the defeat at Bladensburg, it seems they fled mostly on the Montgomery road some stragglers of our army are progressing this way.

R. Patterson

12 ½ o’Clock
Brig. Gen. Stricker, Baltimore

Edward Johnson (1767-1829) [Portrait]

Mayor Edward Johnson, c. 1817-1818. Maryland Historical Society.

Committee for Vigiliance and Safety prepares the defenses

During the War of 1812, Baltimore formed the Committee of Public Safety, later the Committee for Vigilance and Safety, headed by Mayor Edward Johnson. The Committee supplied the local militia and sailors tasked with defending the City, coordinated the defensive efforts, and raised funds for the war. On the military side, Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith coordinated the defensive planning for the Maryland Militia.

On August 26, two days after the British burned Washington, the Committee authorized the construction of earthworks on Hampstead Hill. Thousands of people worked tirelessly them over the next couple weeks. The ranks included men, women and children of all ages, races, and wealth. In fact, the Committee ordered all citizens exempt from militia duty to join the efforts, and directed all slave owners to supply their slaves to help. Work focused on the east approach to Baltimore as that was assumed to be the most likely British route; a correct assumption as it turned out.

“I was delighted with the scene on the hills & high grounds above Fell’s Point, & to the Eastward of this city. - They are completely covered with tents, cannons & troops of all descriptions. I was particularly pleased with the Marine Corps under Capt. [George] Stiles, the multitude collected around them saying ‘These are the men on whom we can depend.’ Coms. Rodgers, Porter & Perry are on the field, and on every spot were corps & regiments & artillery busily exercising. …Yesterday, [August 28] from 7 in the morning to 6 in the evening, a vast entrenchment, at least a mile long, was raised, as if by magic; vast numbers were busily at work, old & young, black & white. It was a most cheerful & animating scene…”

—George Douglas to Henry Wheaton, August 29, 1814, John Hay Library, Brown University

The finished defenses were an impressive sight, running from the harbor northward for more than a mile, with the high ground of Hampstead Hill standing out as they key to Baltimore's defensive position.

Sketch of the Entrenched Position of the American Forces Near Baltimore on the 13th Septr. 1814

"Sketch of the Entrenched Position of the American Forces Near Baltimore," September 13, 1814 by British naval officer Sir Pulteney Malcolm. William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

Completing the Defenses

The work erecting the defensive line went on at a feverish pace and Baltimoreans waited to see what the British would do after burning Washington. 

“The entrenchments go on with surprising speed. They already extend from the hill above Fell’s Point to the [Jones] Fall’s river near the gaol [jail]. Another week will complete them from Howard’s Park [today’s Mount Vernon District] quite round to the Patapsco [River].…Against veteran troops I have no great faith in this extensive ditch, but it keeps a number of men employed, gives a fancied security, & will be a shelter for our Militia men, if they will fight at all.”

—George Douglas to Henry Wheaton, September 1 and 3, 1814, John Hay Library, Brown University

By September 9, Major General Smith reported that he had 15,000 militia and federal troops in Baltimore and 48 cannon. Smith and Commodore John Rodgers established their headquarters in Hampstead Hill at Laudenslager’s Tavern. From this location they oversaw the final preparations for battle.

“I have at present encamped about 100 men, together with traveling [field] 12 pounders completely equipped for movement. The camp is in a salubrious, and commanding situation; calculated, from its elevated site, to hold a wide range of country in check.”

—Robert T. Spence to William Jones SN, September 2, 1814 “Letters Received, Secretary of the Navy, from Commanders, M147, National Archives.