He served city on war and political fronts


July 27, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

If you're out walking on Federal Hill today, stop by Gen. Samuel Smith's statue overlooking the Inner Harbor and wish him a happy 250th birthday.

Smith, who has been described as "the greatest Baltimorean of all time," had a varied career as a military leader, politician and merchant, was born today in Carlisle, Pa., in 1752. In 1760, he moved with his family to Baltimore.

He was even sometimes called "the George Washington of Maryland."

"He was a general, a businesslike character, a charismatic leader, and decisively on hand at almost every crucial turning of the historic screws" for most of his adult life, observed The Sun.

Born into a well-to-do family, he went to work at the age of 15 in his father's counting house. In 1772, he traveled abroad and lived for a number of years in La Havre, France.

Returning home on the eve of the Revolutionary War, he organized a company of volunteers that served in Colonel Smallwood's regiment.

As a Continental Army general, he fought in some of the war's most brutal battles, including the engagements at Brandywine, Monmouth and White Plains. He wintered with George Washington's troops at Valley Forge, and fought in the last stand of the Maryland Line on Long Island.

As commander of Fort Mifflin on the Delaware River, Smith was able to frustrate for 40 days the passing of British Gen. William Howe's fleet. This contributed to Gen. John Burgoyne's surrender and marked a major turn during the revolution.

At the conclusion of the war, he returned home to Baltimore and was commissioned a brigadier general of the state militia.

Walter Lord, author of The Dawn's Early Light, wrote, "For the defense of Fort Mifflin, he got a sword and a vote of thanks from the Congress. Yet even in those dark days he still had a streak of personal ambition that set him aside from the rest of that band of heroes."

In the post-Revolutionary War years, Smith prospered, and his business interests included iron, shipping and banking. He also grew wealthier because of the Baltimore real estate boom of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

"In 1814, the general carved a permanent niche in U.S. history as the organizer of the defense of Baltimore against the pyromaniac British, who burned the White House and U.S. Capitol, then lurched in and around Baltimore, only to fade away at the first sign of resistance by 17,000 citizen soldiers," said The Sun.

Smith pledged his fortune to the effort, helped with the preparation of the city's defenses and put everyone, young or old, to work.

Between 1793 and 1835, he served terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and finally as mayor of Baltimore.

However, in nothing less than an exemplary life, there was darkness and human struggle.

During the Panic of 1819, his company, S. Smith & Buchanan, failed. With staggering losses of some $300,000, it was said that he "bordered on insanity and suicide."

"It is impossible for him to continue to feel as he does and live or retain his senses," his daughter-in-law wrote. "I never saw anyone so broken down in my life."

Smith stopped eating. He couldn't sleep, and he appeared irrational to visitors.

"The dread of disgrace, the stings of ingratitude, the loss of fortune, altogether is too much for his sensibility," explained his daughter-in-law.

After Smith's brother refused to help, old friends came to his aid. He recovered, lived frugally and was able to buy back Montebello, his home. He was even re-elected to Congress.

In 1835, as commander of the state militia, Smith was called upon to stop the riots that followed the collapse of the Bank of Maryland. In the wake of the scandal, Baltimore's mayor resigned and Smith, then 83, was sworn in as mayor.

He served until 1838, and died April 22, 1839.

"He was a man of whom Baltimore was justly proud," The Sun said in an editorial. "A brave soldier, a sound statesman, and an honorable high-minded patriot; he ever obeyed the call of his country, and in two wars fought her battles, and in peace aided her in the legislative councils.

"His long life has been well spent, and his name will be inscribed among the greatest of the American patriots - his memory revered, and his services remembered with gratitude."

With flags at half-staff, guns booming and bells tolling, Smith was conveyed through city streets in an elaborate procession to his tomb at the Westminster burial ground on Greene Street near Fayette Street.

"The city council, judges and members of the bar, the foreign consuls, the city guards, firemen and the citizens generally also joined in the procession to follow to the grave a man who had devoted his long life to his country's service," observed The Sun.

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