The Battle of Baltimore 1814Today 12 Sept 1814 kicked off The Battle of Baltimore (September 12–15, 1814) was a sea/land battle fought between British invaders and American defenders in the War of 1812. American forces repulsed sea and land invasions off the busy port city of Baltimore, Maryland, and killed the commander of the invading British forces. The British and Americans first met at the Battle of North Point. Though the Americans retreated, the battle was a successful delaying action that inflicted heavy casualties on the British, halted their advance, and consequently allowed the defenders at Baltimore to prepare for an attack properly.
The resistance of Baltimore's Fort McHenry during bombardment by the Royal Navy inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the poem 'Defence of Fort McHenry,' which later became the lyrics for 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' the national anthem of the United States.
Future US President James Buchanan served as a private in the defense of Baltimore.
Until April 1814, Britain was at war against Napoleonic France, which limited British war aims in America. Meanwhile, the British primarily used a defensive strategy and repelled American invasions of the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada. However, the Americans gained naval control over Lake Erie in 1813 and seized parts of western Ontario. In the Mississippi Territory, in an area in modern central Alabama General Andrew Jackson destroyed the military strength of the Creek nation at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814.
Although Great Britain was unwilling to draw military forces from the war with France, it still enjoyed a naval superiority on the ocean, and vessels of North America and West Indies Squadron, based at Bermuda, blockaded American ports on the Atlantic throughout the war, strangling the American economy (initially, the north-eastern ports were spared this blockade as public sentiments in New York and New England were against the war). The Royal Navy and Royal Marines also occupied American coastal islands and landed military forces for raids along the coast, especially around the Chesapeake Bay, encouraging enslaved blacks to defect to the Crown and recruiting them into the Corps of Colonial Marines.
Following the defeat of Napoleon in the spring of 1814, the British adopted a more aggressive strategy, intended to compel the United States to negotiate a peace that restored the pre-war status quo. Thousands of seasoned British soldiers were deployed to British North America. Most went to the Canadas to re-enforce the defenders (the British Army, Canadian militias, and their First Nations allies drove the American invaders back into the United States, but without naval control of the Great Lakes they were unable to receive supplies, resulting in the failure to capture Plattsburgh in the Second Battle of Lake Champlain and the withdrawal from US territory), but a brigade under the command of Major General Robert Ross was sent in early July with several naval vessels to join the forces already operating from Bermuda. The combined forces were to be used for diversionary raids along the Atlantic coast, intended to force the Americans to withdraw forces from Canada. Some historians claim that they were under orders not to carry out any extended operations and were restricted to targets on the coast. However, the British had in fact launched three major operations targeting the three largest ports of America at Baltimore, New York City (via Lake Champlain and the Hudson River), and New Orleans from August 1814 to February 1815 despite the Treaty of Ghent negotiations that started in August 1814. Each of these three expeditions had over 10,000 British Army troops, many of them the best soldiers and officers from the Peninsular War, so they were not just minor diversionary raids. Britain had already captured most of modern-day Maine and re-established the Crown colony of New Ireland in September 1814 and this could have been a blueprint of what they had in mind for New York City, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, West Florida, and the whole Louisiana Territory. Britain and their ally Spain voided all treaties and land deals made by Napoleon after his defeat in 1814, especially the Louisiana Purchase. The original British goal was to annex New Ireland permanently as well as other possible territories from the United States, but they failed to take New York City, Baltimore, and New Orleans. As a result they had to return New Ireland/Maine back to the United States after the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent in February 1815.
An ambitious raid was planned as the result of a letter sent to Bermuda on 2 June by Sir George Prévost, Governor General of The Canadas, who called for retaliation in response to the 'wanton destruction of private property along the north shores of Lake Erie' by American forces under Colonel John Campbell in May, the most notable being the Raid on Port Dover. Prévost argued that,
... in consequence of the late disgraceful conduct of the American troops in the wanton destruction of private property on the north shores of Lake Erie, in order that if the war with the United States continues you may, should you judge it advisable, assist in inflicting that measure of retaliation which shall deter the enemy from a repetition of similar outrages.
The letter was considered by Ross and Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane (who had replaced Sir John Borlase Warren earlier that year as the Commander-in-Chief of the North America and West Indies Station of the Royal Navy, headquartered at Admiralty House in Bermuda) in planning how to use their forces. Cochrane's junior, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, had been commanding ships of the squadron in the operations on the Chesapeake Bay since the previous year. On 25 June he wrote to Cochrane stressing that the defenses there were weak, and he felt that several major cities were vulnerable to attack. Cochrane suggested attacking Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia. On 17 July, Cockburn recommended Washington as the target, because of the comparative ease of attacking the national capital and 'the greater political effect likely to result'.
On 18 July, Cochrane ordered Cockburn that to 'deter the enemy from a repetition of similar outrages ...' You are hereby required and directed to 'destroy and lay waste such towns and districts as you may find assailable'. Cochrane instructed, 'You will spare merely the lives of the unarmed inhabitants of the United States'.
In August, the vessels in Bermuda sailed from the Royal Naval Dockyard and St. George's to join those already operating along the American Atlantic coast. After defeating a US Navy gunboat flotilla, a military force totaling 4,370 (composed of British Army, Royal Marines, and Royal Navy detachments for shore service) under Ross was landed in Virginia. After beating off an American force of 1,200 on the 23rd, on the 24th they attacked the prepared defenses of the main American force of roughly 6,400 (US Army soldiers, militiamen, US Marines, and US Navy sailors) in the Battle of Bladensburg. Despite the considerable disadvantage in numbers (standard military logic dictates that a three-to-one advantage is needed in carrying out an attack on prepared defenses) and sustaining heavy casualties, the British force routed the American defenders and cleared the path into the capital (President James Madison and the entire government fled the city, and went North, to the town of Brookeville, Maryland).
On 24 August 1814, British troops led by Rear Admiral George Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross entered Washington and captured the city with a force of 4,500 'battle-hardened' men, during the burning of Washington. British troops, commanded by Ross, set fire to a number of public buildings, including the White House and the United States Capitol. Extensive damage to the interiors and the contents of both were subsequently reported. The British forces subsequently returned to the ships.
The British also sent a fleet up the Potomac to cut off Washington's water access and threaten the prosperous ports of Alexandria, just downstream of Washington, and Georgetown, just upstream. The mere appearance of the fleet cowed American defenders into fleeing from Fort Warburton without firing a shot, and undefended Alexandria surrendered. The British spent several days looting hundreds of tons of merchandise from city merchants and then turned their attention north to Baltimore, where they hoped to strike a powerful blow against the demoralized Americans. Baltimore was a busy port and was thought by the British to harbor many of the privateers who were raiding British shipping. The British planned a combined operation, with Ross launching a land attack at North Point, and Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane laying siege to Fort McHenry, which was the point defensive installation in Baltimore Harbor.
Baltimore's defenses had been planned in advance and overseen by the state militia commander, Major General Samuel Smith.