During the War of 1812, Baltimore was the third largest city in the United States. Forty thousand people resided there, including eight thousand slaves. The city was an important commercial and military target, primarily because of its shipyard, which built and maintained some of the fastest and most powerful privateers of the war.
When the British burned Washington on September 25, 1814, Baltimore residents could see light from the flames in the night’s sky. They knew their city would be the enemy’s next target and were resolved to defend their homes.
Baltimore Prepares Its Defenses
Two days after the destruction of Washington, volunteers from Baltimore as well as Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia labored to strengthen the city’s fortifications. The defense of Baltimore was under the overall command of Major General Samuel Smith, 62, a Revolutionary War hero and gifted leader. His approximately 9,000 men included Brigadier General John Stricker’s Brigade of Baltimore with 5,000 militia and 40 artillery pieces. After the fiasco at the Battle of Bladensburg, General Winder’s men had retreated to Virginia but were now in Baltimore with a mixed brigade of regular troops, militia, and cavalry. Commodore Rodgers commanded naval shore batteries manned by 1,200 sailors, and Major George Armistead and 1,000 regular troops garrisoned Fort McHenry.
On Sunday, September 11, the British fleet sailed up the Patapsco River with 50 warships and more than 6,000 soldiers and sailors on board, intent on assaulting Baltimore, Maryland. That evening, General Smith sent General Stricker and 3,200 soldiers south to reconnoiter and delay the enemy while Baltimore continued strengthening their defenses.
The British Land at North Point
Very early on the morning of September 12, the British infantry took to their boats and landed ashore at North Point, fifteen miles south of Baltimore. By 7 o’clock, Major General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral Cockburn were on Maryland soil again, this time with 9,000 troops, consisting of 5,000 infantrymen, 2,000 marines, and 2,000 sailors.
The Royal Navy fleet prepared to assault Fort McHenry, while the British land army marched north. General Ross and Admiral Cockburn were confident, assuming the Baltimore forces would be as easy to defeat as the Bladensburg militia. Meanwhile, women and children flooded the roads heading north out of the city.
After the British landed, General Stricker prepared to delay their march to Baltimore. He positioned three lines of defense across Long Log Lane (now North Point Road) with his right anchored on Bear Creek and his left protected by a swamp on the shores of the Back River. His first defensive line consisted of six 4-pounders on Long Log Lane, with the 5th Baltimore Regiment to their right and the 27th Maryland Regiment to their left, a force of approximately 1,100 soldiers. Three hundred yards behind the first line was a second line with about 900 men in two more regiments, and a half mile behind that was a reserve regiment of roughly 620 men.
General Ross is Killed
To slow the enemy’s march, General Stricker advanced a small force of 150 infantry, 70 riflemen, a small grasshopper gun, and a few cavalry. They found the British seven miles from Baltimore and began skirmishing with the lead elements. This clash would have been a meaningless preamble to the battle, except that a rifleman managed to shoot General Ross, who died soon after. Outnumbered, the skirmishers returned to the American lines.
As senior officer, Colonel Arthur Brooke now assumed command of the British invasion force.
The Battle of Baltimore Begins
Finding their path blocked by Maryland militia, the British Army moved from their marching columns into battle lines. They began the fight with a furious artillery bombardment that included Congreve rockets. Unlike at Bladensburg, the civilian soldiers did not run away.
While a British brigade engaged the length of General Stricker’s front line, Colonel Brooke sent a regiment to the right, towards the Back River, in an attempt to outflank the Americans’ left. To counter this threat, General Stricker advanced both regiments from his second line. He used the 39th Regiment, with two cannons, to extend his left. He then positioned the 51st Regiment, an inexperienced militia unit, at right angles to combat the British flanking maneuver.
After two hours of heavy fighting with neither side able to gain an advantage, the British charged the full length of the American lines. Facing a frontal attack and threatened with a flank attack, the left side of the American line collapsed. The 51st Regiment fired a ragged volley and ran away. Their flight panicked a portion of the 39th Regiment, which also broke and ran. The remainder of the 39th, the 27th Maryland Regiment, and the 5th Baltimore Regiment held for nearly another hour; however, with his men now outnumbered by the enemy and his line outflanked, General Stricker ordered a withdrawal. The American militia retreated in good order to the outskirts of Baltimore shortly after 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The British camped on the battlefield overnight, resting and preparing to continue the advance in the morning.
Results of the Battle of North Point
The British suffered approximately 46 killed and 295 wounded. American casualties were 24 killed, 139 wounded, and 50 captured.
This opening engagement of the Battle of Baltimore was a tactical victory for the British Army because they held the battlefield after the Americans had withdrawn. The Battle of North Point, however, was a strategic victory for the Maryland militia. They had killed one of Great Britain’s ablest leaders, General Ross. More importantly, they had blocked the road long enough to prevent the British infantry from participating in the assault on Fort McHenry.