“The victorious [British] army are in full march for this city, and will be here in 36 hours…”
For Brig. General William Henry Winder, nephew of the federalist governor of Maryland, the wind-swept stormy night of August 25, 1814 is one of apprehension and decision for his next military move as he rode towards Baltimore. A severe thunderstorm augmented the retreating passage from one of the darkest days of the War of 1812 as the U.S. capitol lay in smoldering ruins and national humiliation following Winder’s defeat at Bladensburg, Md.
At Montgomery County Courthouse, General Winder dashes off a letter to Brig. Gen. John Stricker at Baltimore; “There remains no doubt but the enemy are on the advance to Baltimore …Are the people animated there? Have you any reinforcements from Pennsylvania?” In the immediate crises, Baltimore seemed next as unfounded rumors spread that the British army were on the retreating heels of the Baltimoreans.
On August 25, a Committee of Vigilance and Safety was organized to coordinate Baltimore’s defense. A delegation of military and naval officers presented themselves; Commodore Oliver H. Perry, Major George Armistead of Fort McHenry, Commandant Robert Spence and Brig. Gen. John Stricker who unanimously agreed with three commitee members (Robert Stewart, Col. John Edgar Howard and Richard Frisby) that Major General Samuel Smith “take the command of the Forces which may be called into federal service.” Civilian and military confidence in Winder had diminished over his defeat at Bladensburg.
Outside the City Council Chambers, Samuel Smith is waiting, to be summoned, like Washington on his day of appointment to command the Continental army in 1775. General Smith informed the U.S. Secretary of War on August 27 that he had been “appointed by his Excellency Gov. Winder to the command of the quota of Maryland under the general order of the 4th July 1814 and that I have assumed command conformably to my rank…” of major general in the militia and now being called into federal service outranked Brig. General Winder as commander of Baltimore’s defense.
Smith’s experience as an Revolutionary officer, his leadership in the U.S. Senate and ability as a successful merchant, provided the necessary qualifications. On August 25 the Committee of Vigilance and Safety gathered in the Council Chambers. A committee member Richard Frisby remembered the critical conversation that took place in the council chambers when Colonel John E. Howard entered the chamber and rose to speak:
“Mr. President, I believe that I have as much property at stake as most others and I have four sons in the field of Battle. I had sooner see my Sons dead and my property in Ashes, than agree to any capitulation with the enemy. No my friends never. All my property is here. My Wife, my Children, my friends, and all that is nearest to me on Earth are here, but I had sooner see them all buried in Ruins, and myself along with them, than see Baltimore make a last and disgraceful surrender to the Enemies of our beloved Country.”
His fellow Baltimoreans and gathered officers with” unbounded confidence in his patriotism, judgment, and valor” cheerfully rally around his standard in defense of their homes and firesides. General Smith, after a moments pause, in a most feeling and animated tone of voice answered.
“My friends I have but one life to lose, and that I have at all times been willing to hazard in defense of my beloved country. Tell the members of your convention that I willingly obey their call, and, confidently expect their hearty cooperation in every necessary means of defense….” Soon the General was on horseback animating his fellow citizens to buckle on their armor and prepare to defend their homes and all that is dear to freemen.
Sources: Samuel Smith Papers, MSS 18974, Reel 5, Cont. 7-8, Library of Congress. Dated 1839; Secretary Theodore Bland to the Committee Aug. 25, 1814.