A forgotten hero of Schaeferesque stature

May 01, 2011

The news of the often-tearful reception given Mayor William Donald Schaefer's last motorcade put me in mind of a similar procession in 1839. President Van Buren and his cabinet led the procession, right behind the hearse. Ships in the harbor lowered their flags. As the hearse passed, adults and children were seen crying in the street; many joined the procession. It was the biggest funeral in Baltimore up to then.

Samuel Smith, the man they were honoring, had served 40 years in the U.S. Congress after two terms in the Maryland House of Delegates. Before that, he served with distinction in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. At the time of his death, Smith was best remembered as commander of the defense of Baltimore in the War of 1812.

Prior to the British invasion, Smith, a leading merchant and major general of the Maryland militia, had been directed by the governor to improve the defenses of Baltimore harbor. Smith completed the construction of Ft. McHenry, and when federal funds ran out he solicited funds from the citizens of Baltimore to finish the job. He also built four other harbor fortifications, along with field fortifications on North Point and Hampstead Hill. When the invaders arrived, they were baffled at every turn.

Smith retired from Congress in 1833, at the age of 83. In 1835 citizens of Baltimore again needed the old general to save their city. A major bank had failed and the mayor, unable to control the resulting riot, had resigned. Smith organized citizen patrols and restored order. As the obvious candidate, he was elected mayor and provided three years of peace and constructive administration. He died three years later and was laid to rest in Westminster after an elaborate farewell.

It's hard to find Smith's name on anything in Baltimore. Yet we need to preserve and celebrate his memory for the same reasons we do so with our memories of Justice Marshall, Mayor Schaefer and other distinguished public servants: so that future leaders will never forget the standards we expect to them to meet.

Thomas E. Coates, Nottingham

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