The Battling Bastards of Baltimore
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there…
— The Defense of Fort M’Henry, Francis Scott Key, 1814
popularly known today as The Star Spangled Banner
Isn’t it funny how a lot of us rarely seem to go to the biggest and best historical attractions in our own home towns?
Actually, it’s sad, and a little shameful, really.
And I’ll admit it — I was feeling a tad ashamed when I went to the Ft. McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore as part of my Independence Day revelry this year.
That’s because it’s such an incredibly significant site in the history of our nation, and so close to where I live…
Yet I hadn’t been there since sometime back in grade school, approximately 40 years ago.
Setting foot on this great American fortress, which inspired the beloved anthem of this great nation (at least it’s still pretty much beloved for now, who knows for how much longer)…
I felt a great many things, including a little choked up.
One of the things I felt was national pride. I know it’s forbidden to say that in the increasingly unrecognizable morass of one-world political correctness that passes for life these days…
But screw it. That’s a big part of what standing on those ramparts, where the rockets glared red on one of the most fateful nights in America’s history, made me feel.
I felt something else, too. Something I haven’t felt in a long, long time…
I felt a sense of pride in the city of Baltimore — here’s why
It’s no secret that Baltimore has a long and disturbing history of mass violence.
In fact, one of the city’s most prominent nicknames comes from its historic propensity to riot at the drop of a hat. See here:
For more than a century Baltimore was known throughout the nation under the unsavory name of “Mobtown.” The title owed its origin to the speed and frequency with which the citizenry found excuse to riot. The Baltimore tough of the 19th century knew no peer. But there were also times when the best citizens took a conspicuous part in these public disorders.
— From The Amiable Baltimoreans, by Francis Beirne
Now just to be crystal clear: I am NOT trying to glorify or romanticize mob violence.
Especially not the kind that ruled Baltimore’s streets in the 2015 “protests” that injured 20 cops and burned, damaged or looted 300 businesses…
Or the week of deadly race riots in 1968 that brought out nearly 11,000 national guard troops.
I’m simply pointing out that there seems to be something in Baltimore’s very DNA that makes it more willing to fight in its streets — or for them — than almost any other place…
And it’s entirely plausible that this unruly, riotous, and downright lawless community spirit may indeed have helped save America’s bacon at one of the most pivotal moments in our history.
Of course, I’m talking about the Battle of Baltimore, during the War of 1812.
Called by many the “Second War of Independence,” a lot of people don’t realize that the U.S. actually declared this war against Great Britain…
This was mainly in response to England’s forcible impressment of American sailors, their illegal naval blockade to prevent U.S. trade with France, and their arming and support of Indian tribes to prevent our westward expansion.
Being a key port town and major maritime hub, the people of Baltimore took great offense to all this. And in response, they fought back in every possible way — including piracy, at which they excelled with their famously fast schooners.
So when Britain defeated Napoleon in the spring of 1814, and were finally able to concentrate all of their unmatched military might against the United States…
Baltimore was one of their most sought-after prizes — not just for its strategic importance, but no doubt also to pay back the city for its many transgressions against the crown.
But the British should’ve known better than to come to Baltimore
In the summer of 1814, the British went on a tear in North America.
They captured Fort Erie on the Niagara peninsula, near the current U.S./Canada border…
They took Fort Sullivan in northern Massachusetts (now Maine) without a shot being fired…
They routed American forces at Bladensburg, Maryland and Alexandria, Virginia…
And they sacked and burned Washington, D.C., sending president Madison fleeing for the hills.
Then they turned their attention to Baltimore, the third most populous city in the young United States, and a pivotal strategic asset for naval control of the eastern seaboard.
They had the troops — battle-hardened from the Napoleonic Wars.
They had the ships — the biggest, best, and most heavily armed in the world.
And they had the plan — a simultaneous two-pronged “pincer” attack that seemed like it couldn’t fail, from the sea to the south and from the land to the east.
But they didn’t count on the battling bastards of Baltimore.
When the inevitability of invasion became clear, Baltimoreans of every kind joined forces to dig breastworks and construct bulwarks to defend their city — and their nation — against the greatest military power in the world.
“Rich, poor, black, and white,” said one eyewitness, “are working side-by-side with no distinction being made whatsoever.”
And when the land battle commenced at North Point, east of the city…
They took the fight to the British, killing their commander and wreaking havoc on the advance, giving their comrades in town a precious extra day to prepare for the assault.
Most of these 3,000 skirmishers were ordinary militia — citizens soldiers, not regulars…
And though outnumbered and outgunned, they did not run or surrender, like the defenders of Bladensburg and Alexandria had.
Instead, they fought guerilla style, taking cover in the woods.
They sniped the British officers with pinpoint-accurate fire from their hunting rifles.
And lacking rounds of deadly canister shot, they loaded what few cannons they had with horseshoes, nails, locks, and any other scrap metal they could find.
In short, they fought like hell. And though they were ultimately forced to retreat…
They inflicted heavy casualties — and won a crucial strategic victory with their 24-hour delay of the British advance.
Meanwhile, down in Baltimore harbor, a line of merchant vessels was being sunk across the Patapsco river adjacent to Fort McHenry, their masts and hulls forming a jagged, treacherous barrier to incoming British ships, in case the fort fell.
But as we all know, it did not fall.
McHenry and its 1,000 defenders stood up to a merciless 25-hour bombardment, answering in kind with their 32- and 36-pound guns, keeping the British ships at bay, a mile and a half away.
And by the time the advancing redcoats finally reached the east edge of town, a full day late…
The three-mile-long earthworks those brave Baltimoreans had furiously helped to construct bristled with 100 cannons — and teemed with 15,000 soldiers, militiamen, and armed citizens.
This proved too much for the British, and they beat a hasty retreat back down North Point, to be picked up by the very same ships that had failed to conquer Baltimore harbor.
Had Fort McHenry been overcome, or the British invasion force not been delayed a full day, and their commanding general been killed…
Baltimore could’ve fallen.
And historians might say I’m overstating things — but had that happened, I believe it would’ve changed the way the War of 1812 ended in a major way.
With Baltimore in Britain’s hands, they could have used its strategic location and abundant merchant plunder to attack every other major city on the eastern seaboard…
Wilmington, Philadelphia, New York, Providence, and Boston, one after the other.
And those victories would no doubt have emboldened England to pull out all the stops to take back their lost colonial prize.
But that didn’t happen.
Instead, the battling bastards of Baltimore — soldiers, militia, citizens, and city residents of every class, color and stripe — banded together, and won the day. Maybe even the nation.
I learned all this on my recent visit to Fort McHenry, and in my research afterward…
And that’s why every Independence Day from now on, I’m going to tip a hat (or down a shot, more likely) in Mobtown’s honor.
Because as conflicted and maligned as Baltimore may be nowadays, there was a time when it was a very influential, strategic, important — and above all, patriotic place…
And in America’s most desperate hour of need, she came together, rose to the occasion, and held fast in the face of fearful odds, to the betterment of us all.
Freedoms Editor, Whiskey and Gunpowder