A forgotten hero's path of glory


October 06, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Crossing Webster Street in South Baltimore the other day on a warm autumn afternoon brought to mind the name of John Adams Webster.

The origins of Webster Street have been all but obscured by the passage of time and it's quite likely that most Baltimoreans have never even heard of John Adams Webster, a little-known hero of the War of 1812 for whom the street is named.

However, had it not been for the prompt and swift action of Webster and his artillerymen, the British invasion of Baltimore in 1814 might have had a different outcome.

Webster, who had been born in Harford County in and was related to President John Adams through his mother, ran away to sea when he was 14.

With the outbreak of the War of 1812, Webster earned a lieutenant's commission and volunteered to serve with Commodore Joshua Barney in a privateer and later in vessels of the Chesapeake flotilla which attacked British frigates.

No match for the heavily armed enemy vessels, Barney set his boats afire off Pig Point in the Patuxent River, as the British landed and marched on Washington. With their vessels now gone, Webster and his men marched to Bladensburg, where they served as artillerymen during the battle Aug. 24, 1814.

"The engagement was a farce in which Barney's men were among the few who behaved like soldiers. In the panic which followed, Webster distinguished himself" by saving several cannons, said a 1964 Sunday Sun Magazine article.

Webster hastily marched to Baltimore with his men, and reported to Gen. Sam Smith, who commanded the city's defenses. Smith placed Webster in command of 52 former flotillamen and a six-gun battery christened Fort Babcock, on the ferry, west of Fort McHenry on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, near the site of today's CSX's Riverside shops.

A second battery, Fort Covington, manned by a company of Sea Fencibles, offered additional support should the British decide to move through the area.

Sept. 13, 1814

It was raining at midnight on Sept. 13, 1814, when Webster settled in for a brief nap. It wasn't long before he was suddenly awakened by the sound of enemy barges plowing upriver. He woke his men, who immediately began firing 18-pound cannonballs in the direction of the slowly moving barges.

"Finding that he [Webster] was short of men at the height of the engagement and fearing that the enemy would succeed in landing some soldiers, he sent a midshipman named Andrews to a nearby battery to fetch some men that he had loaned the day before. The midshipman ran all the way to town, telling everyone that Webster had run from the battery, letting the British land," said the Sunday Sun Magazine article.

In his own account, Webster wrote, "I had my right shoulder broken by a handspike, and subsequently broken again, which rendered me a complete invalid. During the fight, one of my seaman, an obstinate Englishman, attempted to lay a trail of powder to the magazine; without thought, I laid him out for dead with a handspike.

"He, however, came to and crawled off before the fight ended, and he and Andrews were ever among the missing," he wrote.

The resulting cannonade lasted an hour and shook houses four miles away.

"Webster acted with cool deliberation. Successively he mounted each of his six guns and, shielding their vents from the rain with his body, examined their primings. Carefully, he aimed each gun himself. Then, `Fire!' he commanded," said the magazine article.

Still suffering from his injured shoulder, Webster was finally relieved of duty after coming down with a fever but not before he had significantly contributed to stopping the advance on Baltimore by British forces.

Webster received a pension of $20 a month for his injuries.

`Gallant conduct'

In 1816, a committee of notable Marylanders that included John Eager Howard, William Lorman, Thomas Tennant, Robert Gilmore Jr. Isaac McKim and Fielding Lucas Jr., presented him with a sword bearing the inscription: "In common with our fellow citizens we have sincere remembrance of your gallant conduct and hope it will have a happy influence on others similarly situated to follow so excellent an example."

In 1817, Webster was commissioned a captain in the Revenue Service, and during the Mexican War, commanded an eight-cutter flotilla. He retired in 1865 to Mount Adams, his home near Bel Air.

"Capt. Webster, who was eminently a devoted patriot, expressed the hope that he would not die before the 4th of July," reported The Sun in his obituary.

Webster, 91, died at Mount Adams on July 4, 1877.

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