History amid hubbub

September 03, 2000|By Raymond Daniel Burke

LABOR DAY is a portal through which we all obligingly pass into a changed world.

Our pace must quicken, lest we be trampled by the haste of those around us. Mornings will become a blur of frenetic lunch-packing and mad dashes for school buses. With all commuters back from vacation, the JFX backup will begin somewhere in New Jersey, with a grand finale provided courtesy of the Charles Street bridge construction project. Once leisurely evenings will now be consumed with a marathon of meetings, sports, musical and artistic efforts, and homework projects.

September, of course, provides some arresting images of change as well. Summer haze and humidity lift like a veil and the resulting clarity is as if we have all had corrective eye surgery. Days shorten and mornings and nights offer an invigorating cool.

But beyond the change of pace and season, this region should also remember that it has a September past marked by bravery, devotion to duty and spilling of blood that played a leading role in our nation's history and the people we have become.

In September 1814, the 2-year-old war with England was going disastrously. The British had just burned our nation's capital and turned their attention to delivering a decisive blow with the conquest of Baltimore.

On the morning of Sept. 12, British forces landed at North Point, between the Patapsco and Back rivers, and from there marched on the city. The clashes that followed that afternoon resulted in more than 500 American and British killed or wounded, including the death of the British commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, and stalled the British advance for the night.

The next day, the British resumed their march, with the Americans withdrawing to a defensive line at Hampstead Hill, now Patterson Park.

Simultaneously that morning, British ships began what would be a 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry, which was all that stood between them and the Inner Harbor where, in conjunction with their ground assault, they could shell the city into submission.

Astonishingly, by dawn on Sept. 14, the fort and its defiantly huge flag had survived the onslaught and steadfastly refused to surrender, as was so movingly captured in Francis Scott Key's poem, and the defensive line had held at Hampstead Hill. Unable to crack Baltimore's resolve, the British withdrew. A peace treaty soon followed, and the young American republic was preserved.

Nearly exactly 48 years later, on Sept. 6, 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia began crossing the Potomac River into Maryland. Having recently secured a stunning victory in the second battle of Bull Run near Manassas, the Confederates were intent on taking the war into the North.

They soon arrived in Frederick where, failing to receive notable support for the Southern cause, Gen. Robert E. Lee developed a plan in which he would divide his army with the eventual goal of moving on the important railroad lines at Harrisburg. Lee left Frederick on Sept. 10, but his orders had fallen into Union hands, and Gen. George McClellan led the Army of the Potomac into Frederick on Sept. 12.

With McClellan moving westward from Frederick, Lee's divided army was in a perilous position, and he quickly moved to block the Union advance through the three main gaps in the South Mountain range between Frederick and Washington counties.

On Sept. 14, Union and Confederate soldiers engaged in ferocious battles at these passes, and nearly 5,000 Americans were killed or wounded that day.

Three days later, the great armies met between the town of Sharpsburg and Antietam Creek. The result was the bloodiest day in American history, with nearly 23,000 soldiers killed or wounded. Lee slipped back into Virginia, and McClellan chose not to pursue the Confederates.

But the invasion of the North had been repelled, and this was victory enough to provide Abraham Lincoln with the context to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which imbued the Northern cause with a special moral rectitude that propelled it to the victory that saved the union and ended slavery in our country.

All of these long ago September events had enormous impact on our history and are rudiments in the building blocks of the nation we are today.

In the course of adjusting to this year's departure from the routine of summer, we would do well to lend some time to acknowledging what once occurred here. The past reaches out and touches us all because we are its progeny. And that is especially true of the men and women who gave so much of themselves in the lengthening shadows of September.

Raymond Daniel Burke is a partner with the Baltimore law firm of Freishtat & Sandler.

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