Home of the brave War: This weekend's Defender's Day reenactment is personal history for the first Baltimore family to face the British.


September 12, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

A fiery sun drops behind the stacks of Sparrows Point, and in the silence of the oncoming night across the old farm called Todds Inheritance, a mist rises in drifting patches like wandering ghosts of the soldiers of the War of 1812.

Crack British troops marched past the Todd farm in the pre-dawn hours on Sept. 12, 1814, on their way to the Battle of North Point and Hampstead Heights on the edge of Patterson Park, the last invasion of the United States by a foreign power. They marched north on Long Log Lane, which followed the same route as North Point Road today on the Patapsco Neck peninsula.

They marched back down the same road two days later, bruised, bloodied and dispirited, repulsed by the citizen-soldiers of Baltimore, their brilliant young commander killed by snipers.

And out of revenge or just plain pique, they burned the Todd farmhouse on their way back to the fleet that would take them to Jamaica. The story is that someone at the Todd farm sounded the alarm, as did Paul Revere in the Revolution.

"I would imagine they started the pony telegraph to tell people the British were coming," says A. Morris "Marty" Todd, whose ancestors cleared the land here in 1664. Marty, 74, and his brother Ben, 72, were the 13th and last generation of Todds to till the land on North Point Road.

The burning of Todd farm was perhaps the last hostile act on the East Coast before the end of the War of 1812.

The Battle of North Point, the death of the British forces' most able and experienced general, the forces arrayed before them at Patterson Park and the failure of the bombardment of Fort McHenry apparently convinced the British that an assault on Baltimore would cost more than it was worth. The greatest army in the world retired with the body of its Maj. Gen. Robert Ross pickled in 129 gallons of first-class Jamaican rum.

The people of Baltimore made sure the British troops were on their ships, then began celebrating. A Georgetown lawyer named Francis Scott Key published his song about the battle of Fort McHenry on Sept. 16. Baltimoreans picked it up immediately and sang it in all the taverns. "The Star-Spangled Banner" soon became popular up and down the East Coast.

Baltimoreans believed -- with considerable cause -- that they had saved not only their city but the nation. They've been celebrating Defenders' Day ever since on Sept. 12. It's been an official state holiday since 1851.

Reliving the battle

They still talk about the battle with great pride on the North Point peninsula.

On Saturday, the annual Defenders' Day celebration will be held at Fort Howard Park with a re-enactment of the Battle of North Point and daylong Living History demonstrations of early 19th-century crafts, customs, games, toys, arts and entertainment, not to mention period foods, from beaten biscuits to birch beer.

Visitors can tour encampments of both British and American outfits engaged in the battle. First-person interpreters will tell the story of Mr. and Mrs. Francis Scott Key; General John Stricker, the American commander at North Point; Dolley Madison, the president's wife, credited with saving Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington when the British burned the White House; and the Rev. Joshua Thomas, "the parson of the islands" who predicted that the British would not win when the invasion fleet embarked from their Tangier Island base.

The citizens of Baltimore Town and their neighbors could well take pride in their repulse of the British. Stricker pretty much commanded a people's army.

"The people who lived in the area took up their guns, and they were the militia," says Pearl Gintling, a community activist steeped in the local history. "They were the farmers of the area. That was the army they had, really."

Daniel Wells and Harry McComas, the sharpshooters popularly credited with shooting Ross, were teen-age saddle-making apprentices who enlisted in Capt. Edward Aisquith's Rifles. They, too, were killed in the early contact at Godley Woods.

Tour of area

Gintling, Marty Todd and his wife, Elizabeth, who says she answers much more easily to "Babe," lead a tour of the landmarks of the Battle of North Point.

Todds Inheritance opens like a plantation of green from the industrial-commercial-residential melange of today's North Point Boulevard.

The gabled farmhouse was rebuilt by 1816 on the foundations of the homestead the British burned, some of which may date to the 16OOs. It was an ideal lookout point: To the southeast, you could look down Shallow Creek and see the British fleet come up Chesapeake Bay. On the other side, you can see to Old Road Bay, where the British troops landed on a hard, sandy beach that now belongs to Fort Howard Veterans Administration Hospital.

"This is supposed to be one of the 10 oldest continually farmed pieces of land in the country," Marty Todd says.

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