Marylanders connect to ancestors who lived through Battle of Baltimore

Heroic deeds in 1814 live on through descendants

September 06, 2014|Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

One reads it in a diary entry. Another hears it in a song. Yet another feels it in an aging mansion.

The War of 1812 is often referred to as a forgotten war. Yet for the descendants of those who witnessed the Battle of Baltimore, the conflict remains vivid.

It was two centuries ago this week that British ships descended on Baltimore to deliver a death blow to the young United States. They had seized and burned Washington, and they thought they would score an easy victory here.

But then the unexpected happened.

Hours after a cocky British general declared, "I will dine in Baltimore tonight — or in Hell," he was shot dead in North Point. The British marched through East Baltimore but turned back when they were surprised by the organization of troops at Hampstead Hill, in what is now Patterson Park. And after a 25-hour bombardment, the American flag still waved high over Fort McHenry.

The Americans — against all odds — had won.

The sight of the flag moved Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key to write. His poem, which became the song known as "The Star-Spangled Banner" and was later adopted as the national anthem, also marks its 200th anniversary on Sept. 14.

Some descendants of the witnesses to battle stay mindful of that history. They study historical records and handwritten diary entries to glean insight into their ancestors. In the process, they unearth new information about the town that stood up to the British.

"There are parts of the history that are just coming to light now at the 200th anniversary," said Nelson Mott Bolton, past president of the Society of the War of 1812 in Maryland.

As Baltimore prepares for a celebration of the battle's bicentennial — to be marked this week with concerts and fireworks, a Blue Angels show and a gathering of tall ships — those descendants reflected on how they connect today to the Marylanders who withstood the battle 200 years ago.

Henry Lightner

When Bernardine McCulloh Madden was growing up — some 80 years ago — she would creep up to the attic to look at the drum that their great-grandfather carried during the Battle of Baltimore.

At 16, Henry Lightner was too young to fight, but he served as a drummer at both North Point and Fort McHenry, tapping out messages from officers to troops, according to Baltimore Sun articles from the late 1800s.

His many descendants, including Madden and her eldest daughter, Pam Russell, feel a personal connection to the Battle of Baltimore.

"When I hear 'The 'Star-Spangled Banner,' I think, 'That's my song,' " said Russell, tearing up. "It's so personal to me."

After the war, Lightner went to work as a tinsmith. He settled in East Baltimore, married and had 13 children. Along with the other "Old Defenders," Lightner paraded from City Hall to Druid Hill Park for annual remembrances of the battle. Lightner would supply the rhythm to the traditional song "The Girl I Left Behind" as they marched.

He joined his last parade in 1882, one of a group of eight "old men [who] wore cockades on their high silk hats," The Sun reported. The group marched in silence because Lightner, then 84, did not play his drum. Four months later, he died.

Lightner's stories remained with the grandson with whom he shared a bedroom in his final years, Henry Lightner McCulloh.

"Almost every night before we went to sleep, he would tell me a story of one of his experiences in the war," McCulloh recalled in an essay published in the Sun Magazine in 1959. Once, McCulloh wrote, Lightner tried to catch a cannonball that was hurtling toward him, but it knocked him down and tore the skin of his drum.

The drum had been played by another ancestor in the Revolutionary War, according to family tradition. McCulloh kept it and another smaller drum his grandfather used in parades, in his attic.

Madden later moved the drums to her attic, where they tantalized her four daughters.

"We used to sneak up and play them," said Russell, 62, a Loch Raven resident "Then I'd hear, 'Pammy, get down here.' "

McCulloh donated the drums to the Flag House in 1959. He died three years later.

The family continued to pass on the story of Lightner. Russell's interest deepened when her son, Scott, did an elementary school project on his ancestor. Scott Russell, now 27, is a drummer himself — for a punk band.

Russell and her relatives discovered a few years ago that Lightner's grave at the Baltimore Cemetery had never been marked. Russell and a distant cousin, Elaine Sauer, requested a gravestone from the Department of Veterans Affairs. They also commissioned a grass marker that reads "The drummer boy of Fort McHenry." About 100 attended an unveiling ceremony in 2012.

A fife player trilled "The Girl I Left Behind."

Amelia Grason Pinkney

Richard Grason had heard talk of the diary for decades.

Amelia Grason Pinkney, the sister of his great-great-great-grandfather, had detailed more than a half-century of her life in antebellum Annapolis in a diary.

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