- Historic Sites
Humiliation and Triumph
The year was 1814, and within three weeks our “young and not always wise” nation suffered acute shame and astonishing victory
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
Baltimore’s postmaster hastily made plans to shift the mails out of town. The banks began moving their specie to York, Pennsylvania. Many members of the Committee of Vigilance and Safety—just formed to organize the city’s defense seemed more interested in arranging capitulation than resistance. One of the committee’s most prominent members, John Eager Howard, desperately tried to stem the tide. Pointing out that he had four sons in the field and as much property as anyone, he said he would rather see his sons killed and his property in ashes than surrender and disgrace the country.
On August 25, Brigadier General John Stricker, commanding Baltimore’s militia, stalked into the council chamber where the Committee of Vigilance and Safety was meeting. With him came Captain Oliver Hazard Perry, in town to take over the new frigate Java ; Captain Robert T. Spence, another senior Naval officer; and Major George Armistead, commanding the regulars at Fort McHenry, which guarded the entrance to Baltimore’s harbor.
Together they called for all-out resistance. Burying the usual service rivalries, they also urged that a single overall commander be appointed for the city’s defenses. The man they wanted was Major General Samuel Smith, commanding the 3rd Division of Maryland militia, the main body of troops in the area. The committee agreed, and Smith accepted the appointment subject to one condition: he wanted Governor Levin Winder’s sanction, including whatever extended powers might be necessary to do the job.
That condition told a lot about Sam Smith, as he was universally known. After twenty years in Congress —first as representative, now as senator—he knew all the pressure points of the body politic. Military authority from some citizens’ committee didn’t mean much, but from the governor himself that was different. Especially if, as here, the governor also-happened to be the uncle of Brigadier General Winder, the Regular Army officer commanding the District. A clash of authority seemed likely, and Smith wanted to cover himself.
This kind of shrewdness, coupled with hard-driving ambition, sound judgment, and a freewheeling style, had carried Sam Smith a long way. Born in Pennsylvania, he grew up in Baltimore, the strong-willed son of a wealthy merchant. In the Revolution he organized a company, joined George Washington, and shared the trials of Long Island, White Plains, Brandywine, Monmouth. For the defense of Fort MifBin he got a sword and a vote of thanks from Congress. Yet even in those dark days he still had a streak of personal ambition that set him aside from the rest of that band of heroes. He somehow got back to Baltimore every winter for recruiting and business, and long before the war was over he resigned his commission and went home to make money.
He prospered mightily —in iron, shipping, banking, land, everything he touched—and was soon in politics, too. Elected to Congress in 1792, he was not so much a legislator as a manipulator.
Now, at sixty-two, he was as shrewd, tough, and ambitious as ever. Maybe not the ideal man for the long winter at Valley Forge, but for the short haul no one had more drive or commanded more respect. Significantly, three of the leaders who proposed him were regulars, who traditionally hated to serve under a militia officer. This time they had no qualms, for here was a man who could get things done.
So an express galloped off to Annapolis, and by the twentysixth he was back with the governor’s blessing. It proved a masterpiece of evasion, for, apart from avuncular considerations, Levin Winder was faced with a most delicate problem. Normally, General Winder, a regular, outranked Smith, a militia officer. But if called into federal service, Smith, a major general, outranked Winder, a brigadier. The hitch was that nobody had called Smith into federal service. Under the Presidential order of last July, General Winder had the authority but never exercised it. On the other hand, Governor Winder had no authority in such matters at all. The governor solved the problem by simply implying that Smith had been called into federal service: “By the requisition of the President of the United States of the 4th of July last, one Major General is required of this state. In conformity to which, you have been selected.”
That was good enough for Sam Smith. “The endorsed copy of a letter from His Excellency Governor Winder was received by me this day, and I have in consequence assumed the command agreeably to my rank,” he quickly wrote General Winder, who was hurrying toward Baltimore to organize the city’s defense himself. And if that didn’t get across the point, the rest of Smith’s message showed the tone of command already creeping into his pen: “Do me the favor to send me information by the dragoon of your situation, the number of troops with you. We want the tents and equipage of Stansbury’s Brigade. …”
General Winder was thunderstruck. Arriving in Baltimore at 3 A.M. on the twenty-seventh, he rested a few sleepless hours, then went to see Smith. It was a stormy session: Winder protesting that he still had command, that the governor had no power to name anybody; Smith insisting he was now in charge and expected to give the orders. In the end Winder got nowhere, but whatever his merits as a general, he was too decent a man—too good a patriot—to sulk or walk out. Swallowing his pride, he said he’d do whatever Smith asked until the issue could be settled by Washington.