WASHINGTON D.C. -- The Americans needed a victory after the humiliation at Bladensburg, Maryland, and the burning of the Capitol. They didn't have to wait long.
The British left a smoldering Washington, D.C., at the end of August 1814, and returned to their transports. They sailed up Chesapeake Bay toward Baltimore, the real prize of the Chesapeake Campaign. The campaign itself was a ploy to divert troops from the Canadian border, known as British North America at the time, according to historian Glenn Williams, U.S. Army Center of Military History.
Baltimore was a prize, because it had a massive seaport and shipbuilding industry and was home port to many privateers that preyed on British merchant shipping. Baltimore was also the third-largest city in the U.S., and it's capture would have damaged the U.S. economy. Some of the U.S. troops stationed along the northern border would likely return to defend nearby Philadelphia and recapture Baltimore, just as the British were launching their own counter-invasion in the north, Williams said.
Image of the Don Troiani's painting, "Battle of North Point in Baltimore During the War of 1812"
Treaty talks were already underway in Ghent, Belgium. The more American territory the British could occupy, the more favorable the treaty would be for them, Williams added.
In the grand scheme of things, the North American campaign for the British was originally an irritating sideshow to the war with Napoleon. The French army had just been defeated at the Battle of Leipzig, and Napoleon had been exiled to the isle of Elba.
The British were war-weary after 20 years of fighting, and wanted to end the war in North America, Williams said. The British admiralty also feared that Napoleon could somehow make a comeback and wanted to prevent a total demobilization of forces, he said.
While the main British fleet waited in the Chesapeake for the return of a squadron that had sailed up the Potomac to Alexandria, Virginia, a small force headed to Maryland's Eastern Shore to prevent militia from reinforcing Baltimore. The British attempted a landing at Caulk's Field, Aug. 31, but were repulsed by the local militia.
Meanwhile in Baltimore, U.S. militia, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines were not sitting idle, and with the burning of Washington fresh in their memories, they undoubtedly felt it was payback time, Williams said.
Maj. Gen. Sam Smith foresaw an attack on Baltimore a year earlier and immediately initiated defensive preparations. By the time the British attacked, the Americans were waiting and ready, Williams said.
Militia from surrounding states, including Pennsylvania and Virginia, joined forces with the regular Army. Many of these were the better trained militia, he noted. Every Soldier was drilling, patrolling digging defensive works. Every able-bodied civilian -- free and slave, white and black -- also helped to dig trenches.
Smith was beloved by the troops and their officers, Williams said. Smith commanded the Third Division of the Maryland militia, while Brig. Gen. William Winder was the commander of Tenth Military District, which included Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia north of the Rappahannock River. Winder had commanded the failed defenses of Bladensburg.
Although Smith outranked Winder, Smith had no authority over federal troops, as he held a commission only in the state of Maryland's militia, granted by the governor, Williams said.
Winder thought he was in charge due to his federal rank, Williams said. But Smith was much more dynamic, and the officers of the regular Army as well as the Navy officers who came to help in the defense, said they'd rather serve under him.
This didn't sit well with Winder, who first appealed to his uncle, Maryland Governor Levin Winder, who said that since Smith and the militia he commanded were in federal service, Smith held rank equivalent to a regular major general. Winder then fired off a letter to Secretary of War James Monroe.
Monroe was secretary of state when he was present at the Battle of Bladensburg just a week earlier (described in Part II of this series). But on Sept. 4, 1814, Secretary of War John Armstrong Jr. resigned and Monroe became the new secretary of war. He also convinced President Madison that he should retain his secretary of state title, according to Williams, so Monroe now wore two hats.
Monroe ended up siding with Smith by not replying to the letter, and Winder ended up serving under Smith, much to his credit, Williams said. Besides being an excellent general, Smith was a U.S. senator, veteran of the Revolutionary War and a successful merchant.
On Sept. 11, 1814, the British invaded the U.S. by land and sea at Plattsburg, N.Y.
The following day, the British landed their forces at North Point in Baltimore, with the aim of capturing the city. North Point would be the biggest battle of the Chesapeake Campaign, but today, Americans mainly recall the bombardment of nearby Fort McHenry, also in Baltimore, because it is where Francis Scott Key wrote the "Star-Spangled Banner," while held on a British ship, Williams said.
At North Point, Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, the British commander at Bladensburg and during the burning of Washington, led some 4,000 men into battle against about 3,200 American militia.
The Americans fought a successful delaying action at North Point. Among the British killed was Admiral Ross. When the Americans finally fell back, the British thought they had fought and defeated the principal American force, until they saw the extensive fortifications outside of the city, full of defenders, waiting for them.
On the following day, Sept. 13, the British fleet began their bombardment of Fort McHenry, which lasted over a day. When their ships could not subdue Fort McHenry and support their main attack on Hampstead Hill, they called off the land attack and retreated to the fleet.
Had the British succeeded in advancing their fleet past the fort and into the inner harbor, they would have been able to outflank the main American defense along Hampstead Hill, Williams said. They would have made that defensive line untenable with an enfilade and the Americans would have had to fall back.
But the Royal Navy never got past the fort; Key wrote his poem, which later became the Star Spangled Banner, and the Chesapeake Campaign was pretty much over.
The strategy of pulling Americans away from the northern border was a failure. The Battle of Plattsburg was also an American victory, arguably of greater military significance.
Meanwhile, the British weighed anchor in the Chesapeake, debating whether to attack Newport, Rhode Island, or go south to New Orleans, Williams said. They chose the latter and the U.S. Army would add more accolades to its illustrious history.
By David Vergun
Army News Service
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