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Setting the Stage

The long conflict between revolutionary France and Great Britain began in 1793 and continued, with only one brief intermission, until 1815.  It was profitable but risky for American merchants.  The French and the British blockaded each other’s ports, trying to cut off supplies.  The United States was neutral, not allied with either party. American traders who could get through the blockades made handsome profits, but they risked confiscation of their cargoes. 

President John Adams had narrowly averted war with France in 1800.  By 1812, the United States was moving close to war with Great Britain.  The powerful British navy stopped more American ships than the much smaller French fleet.  The English also seized any American sailors they suspected of being British subjects, forcing them into service in the British navy.  For most Americans, this practice of “impressment” amounted to kidnapping.  Many westerners blamed the British for inciting Indian tribes, threatening settlements on the western frontier.  Some members of the group of southern and western congressmen known as the “War Hawks” also hoped to seize British Canada and Spanish Florida.  On June 18, 1812, Congress declared war against Great Britain under the slogan “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights.”

For almost two years, the English were too busy fighting the French to bother much with the Americans, although troops already stationed in Canada had little trouble defending that British colony against an American invasion.  With Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814, England was able to send military and naval reinforcements to join the conflict with the young and militarily unprepared United States.  Four months later, a British fleet carrying thousands of army and navy veterans sailed up Chesapeake Bay, intent on giving the upstart Americans “a complete drubbing.”  They did just that at the Battle of Bladensburg and went on to burn the White House, Capitol, and other public buildings in the new federal capital of Washington.  Then they turned their attention to Baltimore.  The city was a hotbed of anti-British feeling.  It was also the home port of many privateers.  For the British, the owners of these vessels, who had grown rich preying on British merchant shipping, were no better than “pirates.”

Baltimore city leaders did a better job of preparing for the invaders than the politicians in Washington had.  A force of about 15,000 men under Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith and several hundred sailors under Commodore John Rodgers manned a line of hastily built fortifications on Hampstead Hill east of the city.  The British landed a force of about 5,000 soldiers at North Point, 13 miles southeast of Baltimore, on September 12.  The city’s defenders slowed the British advance in the Battle of North Point.  An American sharpshooter killed General Ross, the popular British commander, spreading consternation in the ranks.  The invaders stopped two miles short of the American fortifications to await the outcome of the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the key to the harbor and the city.



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