The day Baltimore saved the republic

September 12, 2006|By Burton K. Kummerow

Among the many Baltimore treasures preserved at the Maryland Historical Society, visitors will find a painting and a piece of paper. The piece of paper, along with the star-spangled banner it celebrates, is an American icon. It bears the immortal words of a Georgetown lawyer bursting with patriotic pride.

The painting, Defense of Baltimore, Assembling of the Troops, gets much less attention. It is the work of an unschooled Irish immigrant, a Baltimore house painter. A large landscape, it has a hint of Grandma Moses, but its subject is dramatic, even sweeping.

Francis Scott Key and Thomas Ruckle were caught up in an unforgettable moment of American history, the Sept. 12, 1814, event now known in Maryland as Defenders Day. Mr. Key captured the stirring, poetic result of that moment, while Mr. Ruckle portrayed determined resistance during an authentic emergency.

The United States was just 38 years old, and the situation could not have been darker. In 1814, the country was struggling with a simmering war of its own creation. The War of 1812 was also called the Second American Revolution. It had the same long odds as the first. A young, ill-equipped republic was again taking on the best army and navy in the world. Having bottled up Napoleon in Europe, the British turned their attention to North America.

The results were catastrophic. Within a month of their landing in Southern Maryland, hard-bitten British veterans of the Napoleonic Wars were burning Washington. With the new Capitol and White House in flames, the United States government was suddenly exiled in Brookeville, Md. Baltimore knew its turn would come soon. It was a tough, brawling seaport, proud of its British nickname, "a nest of pirates." City privateers had captured more than 500 vessels during the war. If the redcoats fought their way into the Inner Harbor, Baltimore and its 45,000 citizens could expect no quarter.

Panic ensued as a large British fleet sailed for the Baltimore harbor. Strong hometown leaders including Sam Smith and John Eager Howard, both heroes of the American Revolution, took the reins. Soon, thousands of troops, old and young, regulars and militia, shopkeepers, laborers and gentlemen, gathered to block the invasion.

The two pressure points were Fort McHenry, guarding the harbor, and a tall hill east of town overlooking the rolling farmland stretching to Sparrows and North points. By Sept. 12, Hampstead and Loudenslager hills - now Patterson Park and Butchers Hill - anchored a formidable, mile-long breastwork that guarded the city.

After two anxious days of artillery fire, military forays and nasty firefights, the vaunted British invaders returned to their ships. It was Baltimore's finest hour. The "nest of pirates" had literally saved the young United States.

Tom Ruckle, the house and sign painter born in the same year as his adopted land, was shoveling dirt and toting a musket with the other Baltimore defenders. Mr. Ruckle could not let the moment pass without putting brush to canvas. His homegrown inspiration took shape as a gathering of American troops atop Loudenslager Hill on Sept. 12.

The thousands of citizen soldiers in the painting are an inspiring sight. Plumed generals with their staffs are galloping in the foreground. Nearby, fifes and drums are mustering the men. The colorful local militia units, Aaron Levering's white-belted Independent Blues and the Union Volunteers, among many others, are mixed with the blue-coated regulars. Clusters of artillery and cavalry prepare for the expected collision with the redcoats.

Beyond is the countryside, the landscape before the sprawl of Highlandtown, Dundalk, Edgemere and the Sparrows Point steel mills. Fort McHenry is under siege. Dark, foreboding clouds hang over the distant Chesapeake Bay.

Mr. Ruckle's painting epitomizes the unique call to duty of Maryland's sons and daughters throughout the nation's history. Every generation has had its own challenges. Many have been called to hardship and death in distant lands and unknown places. Throughout a litany of wars, battles and campaigns, the military record of the Old Line State has been proud and distinguished. That record continues today.

Americans are asked every May and November to honor the veterans of the nation's many wars. Maryland has its very own memorial day. It begins with memories of the frightened but determined citizen soldiers who stood toe to toe with British regulars in 1814. It should go on to gratitude for the tens of thousands of Maryland veterans who have put their lives on the line over the centuries. Finally, it might include dreams of a day when the best and bravest young Marylanders will not have to put themselves in harm's way, protecting all the rest of us.

Burton K. Kummerow is president of Historyworks Inc. in Lutherville. His e-mail is historyworks@comcast.net.

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