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When America Almost Fell

The War of 1812 remains a little-known chapter in U.S. history, but if not for the Guard troops who stood their ground in the battles of North Point and Baltimore, there might not be a history at all.
The invasion of our nation's capital was depicted in the artwork "Capture and Burning of Washington by the British, in 1814," by Richard Miller Devens.
The invasion of our nation's capital was depicted in the artwork "Capture and Burning of Washington by the British, in 1814," by Richard Miller Devens.

At 8 p.m. on Aug. 24, 1814, the British invaded Washington, DC. It was the height of the War of 1812, and they had just routed American forces at Bladensburg, MD, five days after landing in nearby Benedict with some 4,300 seasoned troops. The U.S. forces that were sent to Bladensburg, consisting of some 6,000 Active Duty Army Soldiers and militiamen from Maryland, Virginia and DC, were unprepared and proved no match. After the defeat, the nation’s capital was defenseless and open to attack. Before Bladensburg, the U.S. didn’t think the capital would be a target because it seemed strategically unimportant. The British decided otherwise.

The city evacuated. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were rushed from the city in homemade, course-linen bags, and the federal government fled into Maryland and Virginia. After entering the capital, British troops under the command of Major General Robert Ross (shown left) broke into the Capitol building and set it on fire. At 10:30 p.m., they moved on to the White House, pillaging the building for souvenirs, then torching that, too. To the British, the acts were fitting revenge from the previous year when American troops plundered and set fire to the Canadian town of York (now Toronto), a principle British supply line and capital of upper Canada.

The next morning, the British destroyed the U.S. Treasury and the Navy Yard. After a hurricane hit the capital, Ross and his invasion force returned to Benedict, where they boarded their ships and prepared for their next attack: Baltimore.

As the nation celebrates the bicentennial of the end of the War of 1812, the conflict and its complicated causes remain unfamiliar to many Americans, other than some of the icons who emerged from it: Andrew Jackson, Francis Scott Key and Dolley Madison. And few may realize how close America came to total defeat.

Since declaring war on England on June 18, 1812—the causes were British interference with U.S. trade on the high seas, England’s involvement in inciting attacks on the frontier and illegal impressment of U.S. Sailors into the British navy—America had been fighting the British in several theaters. On water, U.S. ships (including the USS Constitution) engaged British ships head to head. Up north, U.S. troops attempted advances into Canada. Meanwhile, Americans fought the British for control of the Great Lakes and surrounding land.

There were some successes, but overall the war had not gone well. Other than the victory at York, the U.S. lost often and ceded territory in the Northeast. Earlier in 1814, England defeated Napoleon in its war against the French Empire, enabling the British to send thousands more Soldiers to the U.S.

After the British swept through Washington, fears for Baltimore escalated. It was one of the largest cities on the East Coast, and a significant commercial and naval center.

If not for the resolve of militiamen—yesterday’s Guard Soldiers—to stand and defend at this pivotal moment, the outcome of the war might have been radically different.

BRACING FOR ATTACK

While Washington burned, the city of Baltimore prepared. Already fearful that the British could have advanced on Baltimore instead of Washington, Major General Samuel Smith of the Maryland militia continued reinforcing the city’s defenses. By September, Smith had gathered nearly 15,000 troops and citizens from around the city to build earthworks and assist in its defense.

Attacking Baltimore required a combined land and sea assault starting in the Chesapeake Bay. The British would need to land troops and support their advance from the sea. On Sept. 12, Ross’ force of 3,700 British soldiers and 1,000 Royal Marines landed at North Point, 8 miles from Baltimore. They quickly advanced on the city. At the same time, a fleet of British warships advanced down the Patapsco River toward Fort McHenry, which guarded Baltimore and its ports.

Facing the British land advance, Maryland’s Brigadier General John Stricker (shown at right) was charged with defending the city. His 3rd Maryland Militia Brigade, also known as the Baltimore City Brigade and consisting of five regiments of Maryland militia, was tasked with defending against Ross. Stricker, whose aim was to slow the enemy advance, gave the city additional time to prepare.

He marched his forces toward North Point. When he reached the narrowest section of the peninsula, he established three defensive lines blocking Ross’ route to Baltimore. By 9 a.m., Stricker’s 3,100 militiamen were set up roughly 5 miles from the city, ready to fight. Stricker sent out a small expedition to meet the advancing British. They found them, and the Battle of North Point began.

Stricker’s intent was to conduct a delaying action, which turned out successful. The fight (depicted above) lasted most of the day and resulted in the British suffering roughly 330 casualties, with the U.S. militia sustaining about 220. The Maryland militia inflicted significant casualties, including the death of the British commander, Ross, who was shot by a U.S. militia sharpshooter. His death was devastating to the British forces’ morale, command and control. After all, the British had not expected such strong resistance from militiamen, especially after the Battle of Bladensburg.

After the first clash, the British spent the night on North Point, thus giving Smith more time to improve defenses. Stricker's forces retreated to the main Baltimore defenses, constructing obstacles along the roads while falling back. This added to the delay of British forces arriving near the city, still allowing for the strengthening of the current defenses. By then, the American military force was nearing 12,000 defenders, including the Pennsylvania militia.

The next morning, British forces moved toward the outskirts of the city but halted before engaging. The fortifications were extensive, so the new British commander, Colonel Arthur Brooke, intended to wait—hoping to lure the Americans out from their defensive stance or receive British naval support to weaken the militia. However, in order for the navy to get within range of Baltimore, they would first have to get past Fort McHenry.

THE BOMBING BEGINS

As the British land forces waited outside Baltimore, the British navy sailed up the Patapsco River. When they got a squadron of 16 ships within range, they bombarded Fort McHenry. Beginning on Sept. 13 at 6 a.m., the British warships began firing on the fort for 25 hours from roughly 2 miles away, shooting round shot, explosive shells and Congreve rockets. The fort, which contained 60 cannons of various sizes, did not have the range to respond to the British fleet, resulting in little return fire against the British warships. The British fired more than 1,500 shells at Fort McHenry (depicted below), lasting throughout the night.

Inside the fort, Major George Armistead (right) commanded a 527-member composite force, half of whom were militiamen. Their mission was crucial: to defend the harbor at all costs. Should Fort McHenry fall, Baltimore would be destroyed.

By the next morning, very little damage was done on either side due to the range at which the enemy was firing. Having exhausted their ammunition, the British stopped their attack on the morning of Sept. 14 and sailed back out to the Chesapeake Bay, defeated. The Soldiers at Fort McHenry endured a horrific bombardment but never surrendered. At one point, the fort’s main powder room took a direct hit, but luckily it did not detonate. If it had, the results would have been catastrophic. The British army, now unsupported from the sea, also retreated back to North Point and reboarded their ships. Overall, the Americans suffered four dead and 24 wounded.

Once the British determined that they could not enter the port, they retreated and sailed south, intent on attacking New Orleans. That city was key to the Mississippi River, and the British thought it would be fairly undefended.

With no clear-cut victories by either side in the subsequent months, the U.S. and Britain signed the Treaty of Ghent on Dec. 24, 1814, effectively ending the conflict. No territory was won or lost. Because news of the treaty took time to spread, British forces that were pushing into the South were unaware of the treaty, and they fought U.S. troops led by Tennessee Major General Andrew Jackson in the battle of New Orleans two weeks later. That fight, which on the U.S. side was fought by a collection of militiamen, Active Duty Army Soldiers, pirates, Indians and civilians, turned out to be one of America’s greatest victories in the war, which ended on Feb. 18, 1815.

When the War of 1812 began, the militia was poorly trained and equipped, but ultimately, when called, they were key to the United States’ survival. Over the course of the conflict, roughly 458,000 militiamen were called into service, fighting across the nation.

Before he was president, James Madison best defined the role of the early National Guard: “A well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the best and most natural defense of a free country.”

Had the British captured and burned Baltimore, as they had Washington, other major cities would have followed. Without the militia’s bravery—and their victories at North Point and Fort McHenry—our young country may have ceased to exist. Instead, America kept its sovereignty, strengthened the union and defined the identity of the nation for generations to come.


THE GREAT VICTORY: NEW ORLEANS

Major General Andrew Jackson (depicted above), a Tennessee National Guard Soldier, began his role in the War of 1812 as the fierce commander of the U.S. volunteer militia. But with a recent string of victories against the Creek Indians, British and Spanish, he was given command of the 7th Military District and became an Active Duty major general.

When Jackson learned that the British planned to attack New Orleans, the largest and most strategic city in the Southwest, he rushed to defend the city in December 1814. He had 4,700 men under his command, which included Active Duty Soldiers, Choctaw Indian warriors, freed blacks and even a band of pirates. But Jackson’s largest support came from volunteer militia members, including about 1,000 Soldiers from Louisiana, 1,300 from Tennessee, more than 900 from Kentucky and 150 from Mississippi.

The British knew that if they could capture the city of New Orleans—the gateway to the North American interior—they would control the Mississippi and strangle the U.S. By mid-December, roughly 10,000 British soldiers led by General Sir Edward Pakenham arrived by ship and landed near the city. Advancing over the next few weeks, Jackson and Pakenham attacked each other often until the British conducted their final assault against New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815.

On that morning of Jan. 8, Pakenham ordered a frontal assault against Jackson’s main defensive line at the Chalmette Plantation, east of New Orleans. What happened next would become one of the most lopsided victories in American history. In just two hours, Jackson’s men soundly defeated the veteran British Army by attacking the advancing enemy with rifle and cannon fire, killing Pakenham and causing 2,042 British casualties. Americans suffered 13 dead and 58 wounded. The British retreated and never attacked again.

At the time, Jackson didn’t know that hostilities had ended about two weeks earlier with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on Dec. 24, 1814. But that didn’t stop the American public from turning Jackson into a national hero. It was one of the few distinguished U.S. victories during the war, and it helped contribute to Jackson’s election in 1828 as the seventh U.S. president.


THE WEAPONRY

Though there was little technological advancement between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the few changes that occurred had a lasting effect on the iconic weaponry of that period in history.

AMERICAN WEAPONRY

1. Pennsylvania Rifle 

Few rifles were used during the War of 1812, but among the most popular was the Pennsylvania rifle, often mistakenly called the Kentucky rifle. Produced for private use and firing a .45 cal ball with an effective range of 200–300 yards, it was popular with militia members who brought their own weapons to battle. It played a pivotal role in the defeat of the British in the Battle of New Orleans. The U.S. government also produced a .54 cal U.S. Model 1803 Harper’s Ferry rifle, which saw less use.

2. Springfield Model 1795 Musket 

The standard infantry weapon of the war was the smoothbore, flintlock musket—the most common of which was the Springfield Model 1795, the first musket produced by the U.S. The nation made more than 200,000 of these weapons. The musket was 59.5 inches long, fired a .65 cal ball, and had an effective range of 75 yards. A trained infantryman could fire up to three rounds per minute.

3. Bayonet 

Although seldom used in combat because Soldiers rarely got close enough to use them, they were sometimes used to sneak up and silence sentries and pickets. Mississippi militiaman Captain Samuel Dale became famous when he killed several Creek Indians in 1813 during the Canoe Fight, part of the Creek War, using his rifle as a club and his bayonet. However, most commanders had bayonets sheathed during outpost duty or operations in the dense woods because they reflected light and gave away their position.

4. Buck and Ball 

This method of loading a musket utilized a standard round musket ball and two or three buckshot, which greatly reduced accuracy and lethality but increased the chance of randomly hitting something on the battlefield.

 

BRITISH WEAPONRY

1. Congreve Rocket 

Sir William Congreve invented a rocket in 1804 consisting of a hollow iron container loaded with shells, rounds or musket balls. The rockets were cheaper and easier to fire than normal artillery and had a range of 2 miles. Often used as incendiary weapons against ships and forts, they were the most terrifying weapon of the war.

2. Brown Bess 

The nickname given to a series of standard muzzle-loading smoothbore muskets, the Brown Bess was a 55-inch flintlock weapon that could fire a .75 cal lead ball from a range of nearly 175 yards, but it was most accurate between 45 and 90 yards. Loading and firing was a 16-step process, which a trained infantryman could complete two or three times per minute.

3. Shrapnel Shell 

British artillery developed and started using spherical case shot, later known as shrapnel, named after its inventor, Henry Shrapnel. Increasing the effectiveness of grape or canister shot, it would explode in flight, sending balls and shell fragments on the same trajectory as originally fired. It was most effective against troops in the open and had a range of 600–700 yards.

4. Baker Rifle 

Loaded with prepared cartridges for a faster firing rate at an effective range of around 75 yards for the standard-issue musket, the Baker rifle, the nickname for the Pattern 1800 infantry rifle, was the British answer to the U.S. Model 1803 Harper’s Ferry rifle. At over 43 inches in length with a .70-inch bore, it was the first British-issued flintlock rifle and was designed to attach to a 24-inch sword bayonet.


SYMBOLS, ICONS & LEGENDS

The War of 1812 launched the creation of some of the country’s most famous symbols of patriotism that still permeate our culture. Here are a few of the most beloved icons and stories born from that era:

UNCLE SAM

The character of Uncle Sam, a nickname that would grow to symbolize the federal government, began during the war, though the exact origin is the subject of debate. Some believe the name started in 1813 in Troy, NY, when a meatpacker named Samuel Wilson shipped salted pork to the Army in boxes marked “U.S.” for United States, which Soldiers jokingly said came from “Uncle Sam.” Others believe the name first appeared in a newspaper story in 1812. In the late 1860s, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew early versions of the character we know today. During WWI, the “I Want You” recruiting poster with the image became one of the most famous pieces of advertising in the world.

THE WHITE HOUSE

Commonly referred to as the "President’s House," the executive mansion was sometimes also called the “White House” prior to the War of 1812. The British minister to the U.S. referred to the whitewashed mansion as the White House in a letter in 1811, and it is believed the term was also in use prior to that. After the British set fire to the President’s House, the mansion was rebuilt and repainted with oil-based white paint, and in 1817, newly elected President James Monroe moved back into the building. In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt officially changed the building’s name to the White House.

THE CLOSEST CALL

President James Madison came closer to war than any president in history, according to scholars at Montpelier, the presidential home and library of Madison. As the British approached Washington, DC, Madison rode out to the battlefield at Bladensburg and narrowly escaped capture on the way. He met with Cabinet members and the commanding general briefly, then left before the battle began.

DOLLEY MADISON

When the British marched on Washington in 1814, first lady Dolley Madison was at the White House  supervising its evacuation. With no wagons available to transport her private property, she abandoned it all, taking only the mansion’s most valuable items. Dolley was responsible for securing priceless treasures (including the portrait of George Washington below) that still exist and defining the role of the first lady in war and peace not only as a respected public figure, but also as a charitable fundraiser and supporter of national issues.

THE BATTLE OF PLATTSBURGH

This battle in New York, known in some circles as the Battle of Lake Champlain, was considered another turning point in the war. A force of about 5,000 militia members that included a contingent of the famed “Green Mountain Boys” from the American Revolution defeated a force of roughly 14,000 British sailors on Sept. 11, 1814. This ended the British invasion from Canada.

THE FLAG THAT WAS STILL THERE

Amid preparations to defend Baltimore, Major George Armistead, the commanding officer of Fort McHenry, wanted “to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” Two garrison flags were ordered from a flag-maker in Baltimore, the first measuring 30 x 42 feet with a second storm flag measuring 17 x 25 feet. The larger flag, with 15 stars and 15 stripes, flew at the fort on Sept. 14, 1814, when Francis Scott Key saw it and was inspired to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” With help from several assistants, the flag-maker, Mary Pickersgill, spent about seven weeks on the project, according to the Smithsonian Institution.

 

 

"Capture and Burning of Washington by the British, in 1814" by Richard Miller Devens from Library of Congress; Major General Robert Ross from the Fusilier Museum; “Battle of North Point” by Don Troiani from the National Guard; Brigadier General John Stricker by Rembrandt Peale from the Maryland Historical Society; “Bombardment of Fort McHenry” from Kean Collection/Getty Images; “Andrew Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans” by F.C. Yohn from the Library of Congress; Uncle Sam by James Montgomery Flagg and portrait of Samuel Wilson from the Library of Congress; White House photo from the Library of Congress; George Washington, also known as “The Lansdowne Portrait,” and “Mrs. James Madison (Dolley Payne)” both by Gilbert Stuart from Library of Congress; Star-Spangled Banner from the Smithsonian Institution