The sweep of events that began in 1807 with the British takeover of a ship named The Chesapeake figured seven years later in Baltimore with the rebuff of British ships and land forces. The scrappy port of merchant wealth and shipyards, then America’s third largest city, witnessed and participated in many key moments during the final months of the struggle. Soon after, Baltimore erected America’s first War of 1812 memorial, the 52-foot-tall Battle Monument on Calvert Street, now depicted on the city’s official shield and flag.
1812 The United States, enraged by British plunder and impressment of sailors, declares war against Great Britain. Baltimore, with no interest in a peace accord, immediately identifies itself as an anti-royalist hotbed. Citizens’ schooners seize British ships and cargo and earn the city a nickname—“nest of pirates.” JULY 26 A Federalist newspaper editor, opposing war, becomes the target of a pro-war Republican mob. After two nights of murder and mayhem, a citizen militia quells the riots.
1813 When British warships invade the Chesapeake region and burn towns and plantations, even pacifist Americans experience a change of heart. Baltimore’s citizens dig trenches around the eastern outskirts, load guns onto harbor barges and offer speedy, civilian ships as armed “privateers.”
A Baltimore merchant, politician and Revolutionary War veteran Samuel Smith, as newly minted Major General, leads the defense preparations.
Seamstress Mary Pickersgill, following Lieutenant General George Amistead’s instructions, sews a flag “so large that the British will have no trouble seeing it from a distance.” Pickersgill’s daughter, two nieces and Grace Wisher help her stitch the 30-by- 42-foot banner that troops later raise at Fort McHenry.
1814 The Battle of Baltimore AUGUST 14 Baltimoreans see a red glow in the southern night sky. The British have set widespread fires in the capital of Washington. AUGUST 27 The British schooner Jane, sounding channel depth, sails into the Patapsco River within sight of Fort McHenry. Citizens ready for a British navy attack. SEPTEMBER 11 Cannon fire three shots from Federal Hill to warn the city that the British have landed at North Point, the mouth of the river. On this vantage point today rise monuments to Major General Smith and Fort McHenry commander Armistead. SEPTEMBER 12 British Major General Robert Ross, who ordered the capital burned, engages in battle. His 5,000 men overwhelm 3,000 Americans, but he falls from a sniper’s bullet, his death attributed to Daniel Wells and Henry McComas, young militiamen who died in the same skirmish. In east Baltimore’s Ashland Square, an obelisk rises above their graves.
POW agent John Skinner and Francis Scott Key, a 35-year- old Washington lawyer, sail under a flag of truce on a mercy mission to a British flagship anchored in the Patapsco River, their goal: rescue captive William Beanes, an American physician who had nursed wounded British prisoners. With letters of petition from those soldiers, Key wins the doctor’s release but is detained, because the British assault begins. SEPTEMBER 13 Shortly after midnight, 19 vessels with apocalyptic names like Terror, Volcano and Devastation launch nearly 2,000 cannonballs at 1,000 soldiers defending Fort McHenry. For more than 25 hours, through thunder and rain torrents, the scene resembles, in one local’s words, the “portals of hell.”
SEPTEMBER 14 In predawn gloom and eerie quiet, Key and Skinner peer toward Fort McHenry to determine which flag flies. A brief wind lifts and a streak of sunlight illuminates the Stars and Stripes.
1815 MARCH 10 The last of the British war ships, the HM frigate Orlando, leaves the Chesapeake Bay. MARCH 18 Citizens post signal flags on Federal Hill and gather to watch the sleek schooner Chasseur return to the harbor.
The famed high-seas predator is soon rechristened The Pride of Baltimore. Since 1988 that name graces its near replica (above), a goodwill ambassador often docked at 1801 South Clinton Street.
1931 Key’s words, described by John Philip Sousa as “soul-stirring,” become the national anthem.
2014 At a press conference, Governor Martin O’Malley reminds, “In Baltimore, we’ve been doing homeland security since 1814.”