The Chesapeake Campaign

A painting depicting British soldiers destroy a furnace by breaking up wooden planks and setting it on fire.
After destroying Havre de Grace on May 3, 1813, British raiders crossed the Susquehanna River and attacked the old Cecil Furnace, later called Principio Iron Furnace. The fire from the burning complex lit up the sky and terrified Americans for miles around.

© Gerry Embleton, Excerpt from "In Full Glory Reflected"

On Thursday June 18 ,1812 President James Madison signed a Declaration of War between the United States and Great Britain. Many residents in Maryland, especially those in Baltimore, the largest city in the state and 3rd in the nation as well as one of the nation’s leading ports welcomed the news. Trade in the port of Baltimore had been greatly curtailed since the trade embargos with Great Britain and France enacted by Presidents Jefferson and Madison.

During the rest of 1812 and into 1813 trade boomed in Baltimore. This was helped by the growing list of private ships going out to seize British merchant ships, confiscate the cargo and then returning to port then auction off whatever had been seized and keeping the profits. These privateers had an easy time of it until March of 1813.

It was at this time that a fleet of British warships commanded by Rear Admiral George Cockburn sailed into the Chesapeake Bay. After blockading the USS Constellation in Norfolk Virginia Cockburn’s fleet headed north into Maryland. Capturing Baltimore privateers coming down the bay Admiral Cockburn proceeded to attack small towns along the Maryland’s eastern shore. The towns of Elk Neck (Elkton), Gerogetown and Havre De Grace were attacked and burned to the ground. St. Michaels was attacked twice but managed to keep the British form entering the town. In April Cockburn sailed up the Patapsco within sight of Fort McHenry.

Throughout the summer the British forces raided farms for livestock and crops. The British paid them for hat they took- in British Pounds or a promissory note. If a firearm was found the house and all the outbuilding were burned. The reason for this was that all white males between 18 and 45 were required by law to be enrolled in the state militia.

A painting depicting a boat on fire in the water.
Americans set ships ablaze and sent them to impede the British withdrawing down the Potomac River. These “fire ships” failed to ignite any of the enemy’s vessels.

© Gerry Embleton, Excerpt from "In Full Glory Reflected"

Except for a break in the winter of 1813-14 these raids continued non-stop with no force the region able to challenge the British.

In the spring of 1814 the Chesapeake Flotilla, a force of about 20 boats, 45-70 feet long with an 18 pounder cannon in the bow and a 12-pounder in the stern attacked some ships of the British fleet off the mouth of the Patuxent River in southern Maryland. After a promising beginning the Flotilla is chased into the Patuxent and blockaded in St .Leonard’s Creek. The Flotilla manages breakout after tow weeks but can only go up the shallow headwaters of the Patuxent River where they can only wait for Cockburn and the rest of the British fleet to attack.

British troops landed at the town of Benedict on the Patuxent River on August 19 and 20 to begin their advance to Washington. On August 24, they roundly defeated American forces at the Battle of Bladensburg, clearing the way for an assault on Washington that evening. The British marched down Maryland Avenue through the heart of the city to burn the Capitol building, and then headed down Pennsylvania Avenue to burn the White House. As the British entered Capitol Hill they could see the glow in the sky of the burning Washington Navy Yard.

By mid-September, the fleet had advanced to the Patapsco River where about 4,500 British troops landed at North Point and began an 11-mile march to Baltimore. As the land troops made their way toward the city, British warships moved up the Patapsco River toward Fort McHenry and the other defenses around the entrance to Baltimore Harbor.

Last updated: September 11, 2020

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