In the early 1800’s, Baltimore was a fast growing harbor city. The population was close to 50,000. Many of the men worked in the city at skilled jobs such as sail maker, ironworkers, shipwrights and merchants. Successful shipbuilding and the city’s central location for trade helped to make Baltimore an important international seaport.
Meanwhile, France and Great Britain, at war with one another, had set up economic blockades to keep each other from getting important supplies. As a neutral carrier for both countries, America’s merchant ships sometimes were caught in the blockades, and all of the goods would be confiscated by one or the other of the two countries. In addition, the British frequently captured American seaman and forced them to serve in the royal Navy. Also, the Americans thought the British were encouraging the Indians in the West to attack frontier settlements. Shortly, the Americans became so angry about the way they were being treated that the United States declared war on Great Britain in June 1812 to protect “free trade and sailor’s rights,” and American rights on land.
When news of the Declaration of War reached Baltimore, some ship owners began turning their vessels into privateers. These privately owned ships were given permission from the government to capture British merchant ships. Soon, Baltimore was described as “a nest of pirates,” and the British were determined to put an end to privateering.
Expecting a British attack, the people of Baltimore strengthened the city’s defenses at Fort McHenry.