War in the Chesapeake

Black and white nautical map of the Patapsco River with an inset of the Severn River.
The Chesapeake's extensive network of navigable waters helped to make the region a vital location for international trade, maritime-related commerce, and shipbuilding.

"This Survey of the River Patapsco and part of Chesapeake Bay," by Lewis Brantz and Fielding Lucas, Jr. 1819, Library of Congress

At the time of the war, the Chesapeake Bay region played a pivotal role in international trade, maritime-related commerce, shipbuilding, and government, much as it does today. Furthermore, the excellent soil, favorable climate, and extensive network of navigable waters provided the foundation for a thriving agricultural and slave-based economy. Because of the region’s prominence, it was selected for the site of the Nation’s Capital, which was relocated to Washington, DC, in 1800.

The Chesapeake region was viewed by the British as a hub of decision-making, political power, and hostility—making it a strategic target. British warships moved into the region in February 1813, first shutting down much of the commerce by blockading the mouth of the Bay. For the rest of the war, British raids devastated the region’s economy, especially in Southern Maryland.

With a growing population in general, and the second largest population of African Americans in the country, Maryland was torn between a slave-based economy and the free states to the north. The British recognized and took advantage of this vulnerability. They liberated an estimated 4,000 enslaved people and used several hundred in their army in a special unit known as the Colonial Marines. Many of the former enslaved were taken to freedom in British-held colonies in North America (now Canada) and the West Indies. Southern Maryland and tidewater Virginia especially felt the effects of the British strategy to lure enslaved African Americans away from the tobacco plantations.

The British also eyed Baltimore. The growing city, with its versatile deep-water port, developed an international reputation as a center for privateering. Ship captains based in Fell’s Point operated privateers—private vessels licensed by the government under a “Letter of Marque” to attack British ships. Many privateers were built in Baltimore shipyards, and because of their significant presence, the British viewed them—and the city—as a military and commercial threat.

Learn more about the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake Bay below.

Last updated: January 15, 2021

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