The forgotten war that turned us into Americans
Chesapeake played ‘starring’ role in 1812
John O’Neill had a fire in his eyes that was unlikely to dim any time soon. He’d fought the British in the Revolutionary War and now the redcoats were at his door again.
The British attacked the Chesapeake town of Havre de Grace just before dawn, rockets blazing from their ships, then continued the raid on foot.
Buildings burned, and people fled inland until O’Neill alone remained, firing his cannon and waving his hat to beckon the retreating American militiamen.
When the British finally captured him, O’Neill had a musket for each hand.
Revolutionary spirit may have been driving his fight, but that war had ended almost 30 years before. The War of 1812 was under way, and the British were trampling the Chesapeake.
The War of 1812 often takes a back seat to two other wars that defined the republic — the Revolutionary War, which created the nation, and the Civil War, which threatened its unity and freed thousands of people from slavery.
But the War of 1812 created “Americans.”
Maryland historian Ralph Eshelman said few people in 1812 described themselves that way. The Revolution had ended just 30 years earlier, and people identified themselves with their states instead of the nation as a whole. Confronting the British a second time resulted in a greater sense of patriotism and unity.
Eshelman calls it the Americanization of the United States. “Prior to the war you would have said, ‘The United States are…’ After the war, you would have said, ‘The United States is…,’” Eshelman said. “To me, that’s a turning point.”
Some of the war’s defining moments took place in the Chesapeake Bay region. As a center of vibrant trade, fast ships and the national government, the Chesapeake was a natural target. The British burned and raided towns, and destroyed the cannon foundry at Principio Furnace, just across the river from Havre de Grace near Perryville.
In Washington, DC, the British burned the White House and other government buildings. They attacked Baltimore a few weeks later, but the Americans repelled them. The conflict gave birth to the Star-Spangled Banner — the enormous American flag that flew over Fort McHenry — and inspired what would become the national anthem, which became the best known legacy of this largely forgotten war.
This June, the war’s bicentennial opens with a roar as hundreds of sites across the Chesapeake region revive stories of the local heroes, invading British forces and dramatic conflicts that tested a nation.
Many can be found along the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail. The trail traces historic troop movements and war events in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia, weaving through some of the region’s best parks, scenic waterways, vibrant city centers and quaint shoreline towns.
Take to the roads or the water, linger on a foot path or travel by bike — you’ll discover great tales of Chesapeake heritage and outdoor fun along the way. To explore British raids on the Chesapeake, you’ll be wandering pleasant waterfront towns and byways on both sides of the Bay in Maryland and Virginia. In 1813 and 1814, citizens of these same places lived in fear. While the bulk of the British fleet anchored at Norfolk, a base on Tangier Island allowed them to raid these communities without warning. When the first rockets screamed through the air, unarmed citizens had little recourse against hundreds of trained marines who burned stores, homes and farms.
“The British admiral, George Cockburn, was the great villain in this thing,” said Burt Kummerow of the Maryland Historical Society. “He was given the task of pushing home the British presence in the Chesapeake Bay.”
Based on comments in Cockburn’s writings, he seemed to enjoy the job.
Without organized troops to protect them, local heroes like John O’Neill stepped forward. At Georgetown in the Upper Bay, an independent young woman confronted Admiral Cochrane herself and successfully saved both her home and that of an aging neighbor, both of which stand today as the Kitty Knight House.
The town of St. Michaels is said to have tricked the British by hanging lanterns in the tree tops, which caused British guns to aim high and mostly miss the town below.
Historic Elk Landing, in contemporary Elkton, also managed to chase off the British. Twice.
Charlestown was the only Maryland community to surrender before the damage could begin. “As a consequence what you have left is this beautiful town, which was never burnt like Havre de Grace,” Eshelman said, “with its quaint homes, inns, a beautiful view of the river and a stone wharf that was there in 1812.”
The British camp at Tangier Island offered refuge to hundreds of enslaved people, whom the British encouraged to escape. Some were transported to the West Indies. Others trained and fought with the British against their former masters.
Commodore Joshua Barney led the only organized defense of the Chesapeake with a flotilla of small gunboats that could move swiftly in shallow Bay waters.
“Barney was one of the great characters of American history,” Kummerow said. “To go up against these huge 74-gun British ships with a 60– or 75-foot row galley or gun barge — it was insanity. On one hand, it was a really brave act. On the other, a fool’s errand.”
Barney’s “mosquito fleet” bedeviled the British and engaged in two battles near today’s Jefferson Patterson Park in Southern Maryland. Eventually trapped upstream in the Patuxent River, Barney scuttled the boats and led his men inland to defend Washington, DC.
The attack on Washington began on a humid August day in 1814, when thousands of British troops disembarked from their ships at the sleepy town of Benedict on the Patuxent River and made a dogged but miserable march to “Washington City.”
“Benedict is a place I can’t help but go back to,” Eshelman said. “Almost 4,500 troops landed there, more than the total white male population of Charles County at the time. What kind of a fear did that put into people, facing an invading force of that size?”
Residents of Mount Calvert, a historic home on Jug Bay, would have witnessed their arrival. Today, Mount Calvert is wonderfully free of modern intrusions — a great place to contemplate the drama, have a picnic or paddle the marsh.
Just upriver, archeologists are hard at work exploring the sunken remains of a gunboat from Barney’s flotilla, possibly the flagship Scorpion.
The Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail pinpoints sites that tell of the fear and confusion surrounding the capital. President James Madison rushed to Bladensburg, where Americans made a short-lived final stand against the British, while government aides scrambled to protect the Declaration of Independence and other state papers.
First Lady Dolley Madison fled to the Dumbarton House in Georgetown, but refused to leave until the famous full-length portrait of George Washington was removed from the White House walls and rushed to safety in the countryside.
By evening, the White House, the Capitol and other government buildings were in flames.
The Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the White House Visitor Center tell the story in detail. At the Smithsonian, a dramatic display features the original Star-Spangled Banner, which rose to fame during the Battle for Baltimore a few weeks later.
The British called Baltimore a “nest of pirates” — and they especially meant Fells Point. A scrappy collection of shipyard workers there cranked out fast vessels that captured British supply ships during the war. While the invasion of Washington was mostly symbolic, Baltimore would be a great strategic prize.
The British attacked by land at North Point and by water at Fort McHenry. Baltimore had defenses ready, and thousands of men from across the region swarmed to the city’s aid. Sharpshooters killed a British leader at North Point, and a bloody battle followed.
The British continued the assault, but stopped when they got to the city’s main defensive line and found a large number of Americans positioned behind well-prepared earthworks. The bombardment at Fort McHenry lasted through the night. In the morning, the fort’s commander raised an enormous American flag and the British began to withdraw.
American Francis Scott Key watched the entire conflict from a ship in the Patapsco River. The experience inspired him to write new lyrics to an existing tune. Dubbed the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the popular song became the national anthem in 1931.
Visitors to Fells Point today can walk the cobblestone streets and lift a drink in the narrow buildings that once served the shipping community. Enjoy a stop at the Flag House, the home of Mary Pickersgill, who made flags for Fells Point ships as well as the Star-Spangled Banner itself.
Or, help to raise the American flag at Fort McHenry, a popular and moving experience for guests of all ages.
The Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail includes inland sites, too, like the Maryland Historical Society.
The Society museum features an exhibit that tells the story of the war and its aftermath. Take a first-hand look at hundreds of rare objects and art from the period, including Key’s original manuscript of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and a blackened tin mug etched with the signatures of men who defended Baltimore.
With a boost from the bicentennial, the War of 1812 is being rediscovered by tourists and site managers alike. Many places along the trail, from parks and museums to historic homes and boat launches, have reconnected with their 1812 heritage with a surge of events and exhibits that bring the era to life.
The stories may be loud or soft, depending on the site and the timing of special events, so make the most of a Star-Spangled Banner adventure by gathering a little background beforehand.
Visit a few websites or download the trail’s mobile app. Better yet, pick up a copy of Eshelman and Kummerow’s new book, “In Full Glory Reflected: Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake” — a beautifully illustrated, reader-friendly account of the war’s great moments and colorful characters, along with a detailed travel guide for the region.
“Don’t just see the fort and the flag,” Eshelman said. “Go see the rest of the places in the region that are just as much what this war was all about.”
The Second War for Independence
After the American Revolution, British forces continued to hassle the new nation. They interfered with American trade and maintained troops along the Great Lakes and Northern Frontier to repel American settlements.
At sea and on the Chesapeake, they boarded American ships to look for deserters and forced thousands of American citizens into their service along the way.
When Americans decided to fight back, the odds weren’t good. Britain was a world superpower, with more than 500 warships. The United States had 17.
The effort was risky, and many veterans of the Revolution argued that it would ruin a country that was barely on its feet. A younger group of southern politicians called the “War Hawks” pressed for action. The nation was deeply divided, but Congress ultimately declared war on June 18, 1812.
Fighting ranged from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, including the Chesapeake region. The Treaty of Ghent officially ended the war, with no clear victor, on Feb. 17, 1815.
Explore & Discover
Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail: www.starspangledtrail.net
Maryland sites & events: www.starspangled200.org
Virginia sites & events: http://va1812bicentennial.dls.virginia.gov/
For the phone: Download a free app for the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail from the iTunes Store, Google Play or the trail website.
- Category: Heritage + History
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