At the onset of the War of 1812, Samuel Smith began repairs on Fort McHenry, instituted regular militia drills and built fortifications. British Admiral George Cockburn blockaded Chesapeake Bay in early 1813, giving increasing importance to Smith's defensive preparations. Smith established a system of coast watchers and scouts and began a successful search for large cannon.
In April 1813, Cockburn arrived in Baltimore causing an initial flurry of mobilization, but it soon became clear he did not possess the strength to do more than scare Marylanders. However, the following summer brought a British offensive under Admiral Alexander Cochrane and General Robert Ross aimed at the Chesapeake Bay. These forces landed in Maryland, routed a U.S. army at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814, and burned Washington, D.C. The British command then decided to take Baltimore. Samuel Smith, receiving word of the British presence, immediately began preparations, mobilized the militia of Baltimore, defeated a challenge and ordered additional fortifications built. By early September, Smith had 15,000 men under his command.
The British, led by Ross (until his death), landed on North Point on September 12, 1814 with 4,000 soldiers and encountered a delaying force led by Brigadier General John Stricker. Stricker retreated to Hampstead Hill, a fortified position east of Baltimore, where Smith had stationed thousands of militiamen. Smith foiled a flanking maneuver and then positioned his troops so that a British frontal assault would be exposed to crossfire. Convinced the position was too strong to take, the British retreated on September 14th.
At the same time, the Royal Navy attempted to bombard Fort McHenry, which, if silenced, would allow the British to destroy Smith's line at Hampstead Hill. Cochrane bombarded the fort throughout the day on September 13th, but the fort and its covering forts (Covington and Babcock) proved too strong. The following day, Cochrane rejoined the troop transports holding the unsuccessful British army and left for the West Indies.
Although bravery and initiative in the defense of Baltimore were widespread, most of the credit for its successful stand must go to Smith, whose preparations, determination, and direction caused Baltimore to be too formidable an obstacle to British success at arms.
Excerpt from Heidler, David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler. “Encyclopedia of the War of 1812.” Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1997, pp 476-477.
Fort McHenry National Monument
Maryland Historical Society
Westminster Hall and Burying Ground
Sam Smith embodies the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission's theme of Preparedness: Marylanders excel at executing sound plans to ensure the security of the state and nation. Learn more about the Commission and its mission, goals, and themes.