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Witness to the War of 1812

Overview

Discover historic places touched by the Battle of Baltimore and the War of 1812! When Francis Scott Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry from on board the British ship HMS Tonnant, he was just one of many who waited anxiously through the night hoping that Baltimore could stand before the British attack. Ship-builders, merchants, enslaved men and women, and seamstresses all played a role in the defense of the city.

In September of 1814, scores of local landmarks stood witness to the War of 1812 – alongside Francis Scott Key, General Samuel Smith, Commander George Armistead, and Mary Young Pickersgill. Some still stand today as testaments to Baltimore’s resilience and survival.

Read on for their stories or learn more through our Witness to the War of 1812 tour on Explore Baltimore Heritage.

Learn more on the project website

Partners

  • Preservation Society of Fell’s Point and Federal Hill

Funding

  • Baltimore National Heritage Area
  • Maryland Heritage Area Authority


1785: Old Otterbein Church and Baltimore’s German Community

Established in 1785 by Philip William Otterbein, Old Otterbein Church one of the oldest churches in Baltimore. Many members of the church joined the city’s growing German immigrant community in working and fighting in the city’s defense together with Baltimore’s native-born citizens. Men like Peter Gold and George Decker volunteered to oversee the construction of fortifications around the city. Most of the enlisted men in the Union Yagers militia did not speak English so their commanders gave orders in German. As British forces prepared to attack the city in 1814, the church bells rang out a warning to the city that everyone could understand. Old Otterbein’s bells, cast in Bremen in 1789, still hang in the church tower today. Learn more about Old Otterbein Church.

1786: Merchants and Mayors at the Westminster Burial Ground

The First Presbyterian Church opened Westminster Burying Ground in 1786 at the western edge of Baltimore. Well known as the final resting place of Edgar Allen Poe, Westminster is also the burial site of many men and women who lived through the Battle of Baltimore. These include James McHenry (1753-1816) – Fort McHenry’s namesake; Edward Johnson (1767–1829) – Baltimore’s Mayor and Chair of “Committee of Vigilance and Safety” during the conflict; and Samuel Smith (1752–1839) – Commander the Maryland Militia during the War of 1812. Westminster Presbyterian Church was built on piers above the cemetery in 1852 to protect the aging cemetery being evicted as the city grew up around it. Learn more about the Westminster Burying Ground at West Fayette and South Greene Streets.

1802: William Price’s Fell Street Row

Like all the crowded blocks around Fell’s Point, in the 1800s, Fell Street was home to men and women who sailed, built and bought ships. The street only occupied a narrow spit of land flanked by the waters of the harbor on both sides. Shipbuilder William Price lived at 912 Fell Street (built around 1802) and owned another row of houses nearby. At his shipyard on the east end of Thames Street, Price employed 100 men and owned 25 enslaved workers making him one of the city’s largest slaveholders. Price’s laborers helped prepare the city’s defense in 1813 when they moved 56 heavy cannons salvaged from a French warship from Price’s warehouse to Fort McHenry and nearby batteries. Learn more about the ship builders and sea-captains of Fell’s Point.

1803: Henry Thompson’s Clifton Mansion

Born in Sheffield, England, Henry Thompson came to Baltimore in 1794 and, in 1803, completed the construction of Clifton Mansion. On arriving in Baltimore, Thompson joined the Baltimore Light Dragoons, a mounted infantry unit, and rose to the rank of Captain in 1809. On the eve of the War of 1812, Thompson turned the Dragoons into the First Baltimore Horse Artillery and drilled his troops on the lawn of Clifton. The horsemen acted as mounted messengers, reported on British troops movements and served as the personal guard to General Samuel Smith who commanded the defenses during the Battle of Baltimore and Fort McHenry in 1814. Learn more about Clifton Mansion in today’s Clilfton Park.

1804: Elisha Tyson’s Falls Road Summer House

As successful merchant, early industrialist, and ardent abolitionist, Elisha Tyson left his mark on Baltimore. In 1790, Tyson established the Woodberry Flour Mill along the Jones Falls. He helped finance the Falls Road Turnpike in 1805 and reportedly established safe houses for runaway slaves along the route. As city leaders prepared for the British assault, they called on Tyson to use the basement of his summer home as a unique treasure chest for Baltimore bankers trying to hide their gold bullion away from the British invaders. Located near Hampden, Tyson’s home remained in use as a residence for the Mount Vernon Mill Company through the early 1900s before being converted to a private residence and restored in 2010. Learn more about the Elisha Tyson House on Pacific Street.

1814: Rembrandt Peale’s Baltimore Museum

Just a month before the Battle of Baltimore, Rembrandt Peale opened “Peale’s Baltimore Museum and Gallery of Paintings” on Holliday Street in a novel building designed by noted architect Robert Carey Long. Just weeks after the Battle, Peale started exhibiting “Rockets, Bomb Shells, &c., of every description thrown into Baltimore during the bombardment” including a 190 lb. cast iron British mortar shell donated by Captain Joseph Hook from Fort McHenry. Baltimore commissioned Rembrandt Peale to paint portraits of five famous “Defenders” including Joshua Barney who led the Chesapeake Flotilla. In 1830, Peale’s Museum borrowed the Star-Spangled Banner from Lt. Colonel George Armistead’s widow Louisa Armistead and put the famous flag on display. Learn more about the Peale Museum at 225 North Holliday Street.