Lara Lutz

Lara Lutz is a Bay Journal managing editor and writer who specializes in the environment, heritage, and outdoors enjoyment of the Chesapeake region. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

War of 1812’s ghost battlefields

Sites hiding in shadows of today’s development

  • By Lara Lutz on July 15, 2014
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Everyone lives on the landscape, in one form or another. Some pause long enough to look at it; a few spend their lives looking deeply through its surface to see what others miss.

Ed Seufert is in the last category. I met Ed during my latest wanderings on the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail. I wanted to trace the Battle of North Point, where the British launched an attack on Baltimore during the War of 1812. A Baltimore native and re-enactor for the War of 1812, Ed agreed to be my guide.

The Chesapeake region has been marking the 200th anniversary of the war since 2012, and I’ve explored many sites along the Star-Spangled Banner Trail to learn more about it.

I’ve been to historic waterfront towns and traveled roads that still smack of an earlier age. I watched archaeologists at work on a shipwreck and walked the deck of a Baltimore schooner. I studied museum exhibits, stood on the grounds where enslaved people escaped to British ships, and lingered on the ramparts of Fort McHenry where the Star-Spangled Banner first rose to the sky.

My tour of North Point was the first to begin in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

This particular Wal-Mart is about six miles southeast of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, sandwiched by two busy roads and about 600 feet from the roar of the Baltimore Beltway. The setting did nothing to conjure up history and heritage.

Then Ed stepped out of his van sporting sideburns, spectacles, and a “Stay calm and beat to quarters” T-shirt; appropriate, because he portrays a member of the British Royal Marines. Suddenly, the ghost of British invaders quavered on the shopping plaza pavement.

It was a strange place to begin, but Ed knew what he was doing. Wal-Mart was really just a stepping stone, an eventual end point for a tour that would actually start like everything about the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake — at the water’s edge. But mapping this story on a landscape that jumbles urban roads, spunky old waterside neighborhoods, farm fields, industrial sites, public parks, a defunct federal fort, a dramatic historic home and a few girly bars tossed in too, well, that’s tricky business.

The Battle of North Point was at one time just as famous as the bombardment of Fort McHenry at the city’s harbor. Now, interpreters at Fort McHenry and local history advocates work hard to remind people that the British attacked both places at the same time. It was a two-pronged attack by a world-class military that aimed to put Baltimore’s notorious shipyards out of business and bring the war to an end.

The British expected a fairly easy job. Just a few weeks earlier, in August 1814, they marched on Washington, DC, and met little opposition. At Bladensburg, MD, the American defense collapsed quickly. Once in DC, the British burned most of the public buildings while the president and most of the town’s residents fled to the countryside. The port of Alexandria, just across the river, capitulated to the British to spare the town from flames.

But as the British sailed north on the Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore prepared. Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith had been working on the city’s defenses for some time, and its soldiers and local militia were joined by other citizen fighters who swarmed in from surrounding areas.

The British planned to take Baltimore by squeezing it from two directions, by land and by water. They appeared off North Point, near the mouth of the Patapsco River, on the morning of Sept. 11, 1814 — 30 British ships bearing 5,000 men. That’s where Ed drove first.

We left Wal-Mart for North Point Road, traveling east of the beltway toward the river and the Bay. Within a few minutes we were among Edgemere’s waterside neighborhoods and then farther on to open fields and patches of woods where the peninsula narrows.

The road ends at Fort Howard Park and Fort Howard itself, which is now mostly defunct. This place is haunted by the past, but not the War of 1812. Remains of military life here are mostly 20th century, boarded-up, rusty and overgrown.

The park is accessible to the public, but the grounds of the fort are not. Ed got permission to enter, though, for tours on the Battle of North Point. From the shoreline, he scanned the water as if he could not only see the ships, but count them.

“This is where the British transports would have been,” he said. “They started rowing their men to shore in the middle of the night. Then they had a 15-mile march to Baltimore.”

The British chose their landing wisely. “They knew the harbor, they knew the river, and guess what? It was shallow,” Ed explained.

But North Point, especially in the area known as Old Road Bay, had deeper waters. Americans used the spot to off-load ships and send goods up to Baltimore on North Point Road. “North Point Road is pretty much the same as it was in 1814, except it was a mostly dirt road back then with logs laid across some places to help wagons along,” Ed said.

By 7 a.m. on Sept. 12, thousands of British troops were making their way down that road. Ed turned his van to follow their footsteps.

The rest of the story is easily found in history books, but has to be coaxed from the modern landscape. Ed pointed toward fields where the British took food and supplies from local families and where, in one case, an officer made an unwelcome move on the homeowner’s daughter. The houses are gone. There is nothing to tour, no paths to walk, but Ed’s.

Todd’s Inheritance rises right on the edge of North Point Road. Shorebirds flocked and fluttered around the white farm house, its shaded graveyard, and the small, gentle slope of land that leads to the water. This house is a direct result of the British attack, because they burned the house that stood on its foundation.

For Ed, it’s a sign of hope and promise. Todd’s Inheritance is owned and preserved by the state, and there are hopes it will become a welcome center and interpretation site for all of North Point. For now, there’s a wayside panel for the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail and a metal fence around the perimeter.

Where North Point Road hit the beltway, Ed pointed out where the Americans had built impressive defensive earthworks. “Of course, everything has been obliterated,” he said.

About one mile from the site of the main battle, Ed pulled over near the intersection of North Point Road and Old Battle Grove Road. We parked by an old baby blue building with pink shutters, known in a former life as the Monument Hotel. The monument is harder to find, but it’s there, masked by brush.

“It used to be on a pedestal, much taller, and it was over by the hotel. But over the years people ran into it and it kept getting knocked over,” Ed said.

This monument is near the spot where Americans killed the British commander Robert Ross in an early skirmish. Comrades of an American soldier who fell there erected it in 1817, making it one of the first military monuments in the United States — and one of the least visited sites from the War of 1812.

Portions of the main battlefield survive, too, but they are small. Battle Acre Park was dedicated in 1839 and served as the focus of large “Defender’s Day” celebrations for many decades.

Across and down the road a short stretch are several more acres of the battlefield, an open green remnant of the farm where about 3,200 Americans made their stand. Park advocates are hoping to improve public access with parking, trails and signs. The first evidence of progress is a recent grant for installing a sidewalk to connect the two parks. Construction is already under way.

“I look at this and feel sorry it’s not better preserved,” Ed said. “But it’s a source of pride that citizens of this state stood heel-to-toe here to defend this city and defend their country.”

Pride once dominated Baltimore and the North Point peninsula every Sept. 12 for Defenders Day, which became a state holiday. “The defenders came here for years. People would come by steamboat, and John Quincy Adams came to visit too,” Ed said. “But as the defenders died away, the focus slowly shifted to the bombardment of the fort and the story of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ especially after it became the national anthem.”

They are, of course, all parts of the same story. The defenders at North Point and farther inland at Hampstead Hill seriously stymied the British attack. When Fort McHenry stood firm, the British land troops had no hope of reinforcements. By land and by water, they retreated the same way they came.

Ed is among a team of people who are passionate about reviving and preserving the heritage along this portion of the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail. Together, they have led tours, installed interpretive signs and sought funds to restore Todd’s Inheritance. Volunteers with a local watershed organization called Clean Bread and Cheese Creek have championed the stewardship of the battlefield creek and helped with seasonal cleanups of the area’s monuments.

The ongoing development of the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail is also drawing more attention to places like North Point, injecting life into stories that risk being erased from the landscape. While the trail includes lots of groomed places with good tours, historic settings, picnic grounds and waterfront views, it also includes less packaged places — some urban and some remote — where the tales of our heritage are not so obvious.

The war’s bicentennial comes to a spectacular close this summer, with events small and large across the Chesapeake region, but the Star-Spangled Banner Trail is a lasting gateway to its stories. Explore its sites and byways, and you’ll find that the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake involves much more than a flag and a fort. Stay open to exploring places like North Point, where you need to bring a little background with you.

In case you can’t find a good local tour guide, it’s worth spending some time with a web browser or history book. They don’t all read like text books. I recommend "In Full Glory Reflected," by Burt Kummerow and Ralph Eshelman. It's a fun read with lots of illustrations that will help make sense of the places you visit.

Special events also offer access and interpretations to areas where self-guided tours are a challenge. And, there are lots of ways to experience less-developed landscapes at public parks close to historic locations, even if the land wasn’t directly a part of the episode you came to explore. Fort Howard Park and North Point State Park are two good examples.

Exploring the Star-Spangled Banner Trail can be a slow journey, spread across days or months — and even years. As the small stories connect with the larger ones, the land beneath your feet becomes their stage. And like Ed, you’ll see far more than meets the eye.

A Star-Spangled Anniversary

  • To learn more about the War of 1812 and places on the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail, visit www.starspangledtrail.net. People with a passion for geocaching should check out the Star-Spangled Banner Geotrail under “Things to Do.”
  • In Maryland, anniversary events for the “Chesapeake Campaign” takes place this summer in Bladensburg (Aug. 23–24), Brookeville (Aug. 30–31), Fairlee/Battle of Caulk’s Field (Aug. 30–31) and North Point (Sept. 6–8). For details, visit www.starspangled200.com.
  • For events in Washington, DC, and Alexandria, VA, visit www.dcwarof1812.org. Events range from a commemorative weekend in Alexandria (Aug. 30-31) to exhibits and music, to American Girl activities and walking tours. For the first time in its history, Francis Scott Key’s handwritten words of the Star-Spangled Banner are paired with the enormous flag that inspired his verses—through July 6 at the Smithsonian Museum of National History.
  • Be sure to check out the Star-Spangled Spectacular, Sept. 10–16 in Baltimore: Tall ships, Navy gray hulls and the Blue Angels will visit the Inner Harbor. Landside festivals include living history demonstrations, a family fun-zone, musical performances and Chesapeake food and beverages. Events on Sept. 13 include a star-studded patriotic concert and extraordinary fireworks display over Fort McHenry. For details, visit www.starspangled200.com.
  • Look for a live broadcast of the Sept. 13 events from 8–10 p.m., produced through a partnership between Maryland’s Star-Spangled 200, Maryland Public Television, dick clark productions and the PBS series, Great Performances.
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Lara Lutz

Lara Lutz is a Bay Journal managing editor and writer who specializes in the environment, heritage, and outdoors enjoyment of the Chesapeake region. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Comments

Rick S on July 19, 2014:

In 1983 I was touring Parliament Bldg. in Ottawa, Canada. Outside one of the Chambers is a plaque stating Battles won by the British in North America. The Battle of North Point is listed. (yes, I've told my brother for the sheer obscurity of it)


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