Md. history's uphill battle

North Point, pivotal in War of 1812, is left off historic trail

June 01, 2008|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

In the front yard of a small white house in eastern Baltimore County, a monument stands to a young man who gave his life defending the country. It is a few hundred yards from a show bar called Dreamers where a neon sign in the window proclaims "girls girls girls."

Not far away, across the street from a garden shop, bushes choked with poison ivy obscure a stone that marks where wounded Americans and their enemies were treated side by side during the battle, which occurred during the War of 1812. Close by, on the edge of a factory parking lot, a plaque commemorates the spot where a cocky British general died - hours after declaring, "I will dine in Baltimore tonight, or I will dine in Hell."

While Fort McHenry, scene of a nearly simultaneous naval bombardment, has been carefully preserved, decades of development and neglect have hidden most of the battle sites in North Point.

FOR THE RECORD - A caption on Page 1A in some of Sunday's editions gave an incorrect year for the erection of a monument to the Battle of North Point. It was erected in 1817.
An article on Sunday's front page incorrectly reported that the Battle of North Point was omitted from plans for a War of 1812 historical trail. Although a law signed by President Bush this spring doesn't specify the exact sites to be covered, a park service feasibility study found that the North Point locations met the criteria for the Star-Spangled Banner National Historical Trail. The superintendent of the Fort McHenry National Monument, Gay Vietzke, said this week that North Point will be included in the trail and that park service officials will soon begin a process to develop the trail and identify "individual places that the public can go."
The Sun regrets the errors.

A bill that President Bush recently signed into law to create a $2 million War of 1812 tourism trail omits North Point from a preliminary plan because the sites are hard to reach and poorly preserved.

To supporters, this was another in a long series of slights. If steps are not taken to preserve the sites, they fear that this history will vanish - even as the war's bicentennial approaches.

"Each one of these sites along this battle route are places where battles were fought to preserve Baltimore and to preserve the United States," says Buzz Chriest, a retired engineer who is fighting to restore the monuments to prominence. "It's a question of respect for our war heroes. It's a question of patriotism."

Long before the strip malls and tidy brick homes, North Point was the scene of a battle during one of the few land invasions in American history. Flush with an easy victory in Washington, British soldiers arrived here in September 1814, planning to take Hampstead Hill in what is now Patterson Park in the city.

But they weren't prepared for the plucky Baltimoreans, who shot the British general, booby-trapped Philadelphia Road and so thoroughly demoralized the invaders that they fled without taking the hill. Meanwhile, American forces at Fort McHenry withstood a 25-hour bombardment, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"These men made the ultimate sacrifice," says Chriest, referring to the 27 Americans who died at North Point. "Are you going to forget them because it's inconvenient?"

The War of 1812 is an often-overlooked and rather bizarre chapter in the nation's history. American forces - including Gen. Nathan Towson of Towson Town - tried to invade Canada; the British burned Washington and the presidential mansion while first lady Dolley Madison fled with the Declaration of Independence; and British forces attacked New Orleans two weeks after a peace treaty had been signed.

In this area, British soldiers destroyed small towns on the Eastern Shore, burned scores of homes in Havre de Grace and sailed up the Patapsco, Patuxent and Potomac rivers. Although they easily took Washington, the British were defeated by a hastily organized force here, the town they had derided as "a nest of pirates."

"This was one of the most heroic moments in our history," says Don Shomette, a historian who has written several books about the War of 1812. "At the battle of North Point, the country was defended by an enormous amount of citizen-soldiers. This is a great piece of urban pride if there ever was any."

The Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail will create a network of tourism sites in Maryland, Washington and Virginia that will be supervised by the National Park Service. The sites are designated in a 162-page feasibility study. North Point boosters hold out hope of getting their sites included in the final plan.

The creation of the trail will be formally announced June 9 at an event at Fort McHenry, an attraction that has a budget of more than $2 million and draws more than 600,000 visitors a year, according to recent figures.

"I would be the first to acknowledge that [the War of 1812] hasn't gotten the attention it deserves," says Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who sponsored the Senate bill to create the trail and who had previously sponsored similar bills in the House.

"It's a very important part of our heritage and the role that Marylanders played in saving our country, and this designation will allow us to make it much more understandable and explorable."

He pledged to find a way to preserve the Baltimore County sites as well. "North Point to me is important. One way or another, we will make sure that North Point is protected and those sites are protected," he said.

The war is often glossed over in history courses, and many residents know little of the important events that unfolded in familiar places.

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