- 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
“General Winder has in a manner much to his honor I conceive, consented to waive his prétentions to rank for the present,” Commodore John Rodgers wrote approvingly to Secretary of the Navy Jones later that day. Rodgers had been present during the whole confrontation, and as a regular himself he agreed with Winder’s legal position. But he had been in Baltimore since the night of the twenty-fifth, had seen the panic firsthand, and knew how desperately a strong leader was needed. Somehow he managed to give his sympathy to Winder and his support to Smith without alienating either of those sensitive warriors.
He himself was a tower of strength these trying days. As senior officer of the U.S. Navy, his presence alone gave new heart to Baltimore, while his three hundred seamen from Philadelphia were the first tangible evidence that help was on the way. By combining them with the five hundred flotilla men in town- plus Captain David Porter’s force, soon down from New York Rodgers put together a makeshift “brigade,” which he made as conspicuous as possible.
But there was so much to be done. The best of the Maryland militia had been at Bladensburg, and on the twenty-seventh they were still hopelessly scattered. When Sam Smith issued a call to Stansbury’s men to report, only six hundred of the approximately 2,200 who had served at Bladensburg showed up. His somewhat imperious order telling Winder to bring on Stansbury’s tents and equipage was ludicrous—everything was still lost in Virginia. Even Sterett’s elite 5th Regiment seemed to have vanished. Want ads blossomed in the Patriot and Evening Advertiser pleading for William Pinkney’s Riflemen and the American Artilleryists routed at Bladensburg to reassemble. An even more revealing ad summoned to the courthouse “elderly men, who are able to carry a firelock, and willing to render a last service to their country.”
It was a situation made for Sam Smith, and every Baltimorean soon knew it. On the twenty-seventh the citizens were told to collect all the wheelbarrows, pickaxes, and shovels they could find. On the twenty-eighth they started digging. A line of fortifications gradually took shape along the eastern edge of the city—the side most exposed to a British landing.
Smith seemed everywhere, and into everything at once. He quickly proved a dynamo of energy and a volcano of temper. On August 29 the Pennsylvania and Virginia militia began coming in; he wanted no more “Bladensburg Races” and drilled them mercilessly from reveille to 7 P.M. On August 30 Commodore Rodgers and the Naval contingent left briefly on a futile attempt to stop the British squadron on the Potomac; Smith fumed and stormed, urged Rodgers to come back “immy.” On August 31 Quartermaster Paul Bentalou announced he had no money and could get none from the War Department. Smith charged over to the Committee of Vigilance and Safety and engineered an immediate loan of a hundred thousand dollars from the Baltimore banks.
That same day he scored an especially characteristic stroke when the War Department ordered five i8-pounders at Fort McHenry to be transferred to Washington. “The guns belong to the u.s.,” he wrote the Committee of Vigilance and Safety, “but the carriages are the property of the City. I have therefore not conceived myself at liberty to deliver them without the consent of your Committee. I consider these guns as indispensable. …” The committee took the cue and told the War Department that it could have the guns but not the carriages. That way, they were of very little use to anybody, and Washington quietly capitulated.
On September 1 the units crowding into town began battling over the few available wagons—Smith intervened and divided them up: one wagon for every one hundred men. Arbitrary, but it worked. On September 2 the troops were running out of bread because all the bakers were drilling. Again Smith stepped in, released the bakers from service, told the contractors to hire them and start making biscuits. On September 3 military traffic ground to a halt; the streets were clogged with caissons, carts, wagons of every sort. Once again Smith exploded into action, ordering a bridge of scows across the inner harbor. It looked a little visionary, but in two days thirty scows were in place and the bridge operating.
Sam Smith was not a man to delegate authority, and his headaches came in all sizes. One minute he was straightening out the different countersigns used by the sentries, the next he was trying to dispose of forty head of surplus cattle brought along by a Virginia brigade.
In the hubbub around headquarters it sometimes seemed as if nothing got done, but actually a great transformation was taking place. A week ago Hampstead Hill was a placid green rise to the east of town; now the dirt was flying. “They are throwing up entrenchments all around the city,” an unidentified young lady wrote her brother in New York, who passed her letter on to the Evening Post . “White and black are all at work together. You’ll see a master and his slave digging side by side. There is no distinction whatsoever
The citizens worked in relays, depending on the ward where they lived. They reported at 6 A.M. and toiled till dark. Everybody joined in. When twelve-year-old Sam W. Smith, the General’s nephew, disappeared from home, the family knew just
where to find him - out on Hampstead Hill, digging away with the rest.