Late in the evening of Saturday, September 10, 1814, warships of the British Royal Navy were sighted at the mouth of the Patapsco River. This was not the first time His Majesty’s Navy had been this close to Baltimore. In April of 1813 British warships had appeared within sight of the city and then sailed away.
But 1814 was different. Three weeks earlier the red glow of the burning public buildings in Washington City were clearly visible in the night sky at Baltimore. With the size of the British forces it seemed certain that their city, the third largest in the nation, and one of the leading ports, would be the next target.
Though the first alarms were sounded in Baltimore on the night of September 10, by late Sunday morning all the residents of the city were aware that the enemy was at the mouth of the Patapsco River. The British fleet of 55 ships, under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, could be seen maneuvering back and forth within sight of Federal Hill and Fells Point.
Under the direction of Major General Sam Smith, the citizens of Baltimore had spent the last three weeks preparing the defenses for a British attack. Smith was also the commander of the military forces defending the city. The city was divided into four zones, with each zone alternating days working on the city’s defenses. Every citizen, regardless of age, sex, or race, including free African Americans and enslaved workers, contributed to the defense of the city.
Baltimore’s main defensive position was in the middle of the city at Hampstead Hill, today’s Patterson Park. It had been three weeks from the time the British had left Washington City until they had appeared in the Patapsco River. Within that time the citizens of Baltimore had built over a mile and a half of well-placed entrenchments.
Maryland, Washington City, Virginia, and Pennsylvania arrived to defend Baltimore. Sailors and marines under the command of Maryland native Commodore John Rodgers arrived from the Philadelphia Navy Yard two weeks earlier to help assist in Washington City’s defense. Now they were added to assist in the defense of Baltimore. With the main base at Hampstead Hill, an estimated 15,000-20,000 soldiers with 60 cannons were now ready to defend the city.
In the mid-afternoon of September 11, the 3rd Brigade of the Maryland militia, made up of eight regiments from the city, marched from Baltimore to meet the British. Commanded by Brigadier General John Stricker, the 3rd Brigade numbered nearly 4,000 men, including troops from Pennsylvania and western Maryland. They would soon have their first encounter with the British at a place called North Point.