If the War of 1812 is the forgotten war, then the landing of the British near Dundalk is perhaps a battle few ever knew even happened.
But to thousands of visitors to Fort Howard this weekend, the Battle of North Point was vivid — they felt the echoes of gunfire in their chests as they watched reenactments of a confrontation between British forces and Baltimore militia. The Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society holds the event annually, though it grew this year in commemoration of the battle's bicentennial — just days before this week's Star-Spangled Spectacular. Events are planned around the city to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the end of the two-year battle, which prompted the writing of the national anthem.
While most link Baltimore's role in the war to the failed British bombardment of Fort McHenry, the residents of what was then the nation's third-largest city began their defense a day earlier on the Patapsco Neck peninsula, what is Edgemere today. Though the militiamen ended the confrontation in retreat, they considered it a moral victory in part for the death of British Major Gen. Robert Ross.
"The day belongs to Britain, but it came with a tremendous cost," a public address announcer told the crowds Sunday, before the 15-star, 15-stripe American flag of the era was lowered in place of the Union Jack.
The event has been held for the better part of 40 years, said Harry Young, an 85-year-old volunteer with the historical society who had organized it for the past decade. Along with four reenactments held Saturday and Sunday, the event included performances of an original play about the battle, walking tours of Fort Howard and military drills, musical performances and tours of soldiers' campgrounds.
Until two years ago, the event was held over Labor Day weekend, typically in a single day, but as interest grew and other events sprouted with the coming bicentennial, it was moved and expanded. This year's edition stretched to three days, concluding tonight at 7 at Sparrows Point High School. The climactic celebration is to include a concert by the Chorus of the Chesapeake, a Dundalk-based barbershop-style group, and a fireworks show.
Young said the past two years of education and celebration of the War of 1812 bicentennial raised awareness in the community about the battles of North Point and Baltimore. A local elementary school teacher told him her students know how many casualties Baltimore militiamen suffered at North Point, though they likely don't know the first thing about World War II, he joked.
"I want to teach the kids what was on their backyard before their house was built," Young said. "They're down here wanting to know, 'When's the battle going to start?'"
For many attendees, the event was a kick-off for a week of commemorations and celebrations.
Stephen Stec lives with his family outside of Budapest, Hungary, but when the Catonsville native heard about the Star-Spangled Spectacular events and others around his hometown, he planned a 10-day trip that started off with the Defenders Day commemorations at Fort Howard.
"I don't think I've ever been on North Point," said Stec, who added that he's a bit of a history buff. "It's the 200th anniversary, so you have to."
He and his wife, Izabella Barati-Stec, planned to take their two children to events around the Inner Harbor and Fort McHenry on Saturday, and in Patterson Park on Sunday.
Lutherville residents Julie and Chuck Zink didn't have to travel as far, but were just as eager to take in all of the festivities in their backyard — and to learn more about the battles inspiring them.
"We don't know much about it," Julie Zink said, after peppering Canadian war reenactor Mike McAndrews, clad in a red, woolly British forces uniform, with questions. "We're here to learn."
Indeed, few understand the nuances and the significance of not just the Battle of North Point but of the larger British invasion of the mid-Atlantic, which included burning Washington, D.C., McAndrews said.
"We consider kind of that we won it," McAndrews said of the Battle of North Point. He came along with other members of a group representing the 2nd Lincoln Regiment, a unit of British forces that fought in the Canadian theater of the War of 1812.
Forty-six British soldiers died and 300 were wounded — about half of the casualties suffered by the Maryland militia — in the battle, on Sept. 12, 1814. But the British forces were not stopped, and planned to continue their land attack after the expected victory of the British Royal Navy at Fort McHenry, which they began bombarding the next day. The victory never came, though, and the British retreated.
That event, of course, gained fame for inspiring Washington lawyer Francis Scott Key to write what became "The Star-Spangled Banner." And it will be the focus of events starting Wednesday, expected to draw more than a million visitors over the next week, with visits from tall ships, Blue Angels flyovers, a nationally televised concert and massive fireworks show scheduled for the weekend.
But on Sunday, the focus was on North Point.
"A lot of people forget the land battle because it didn't have a fort or an anthem," said Gerry Chriest of Dundalk, a member of the 1st Baltimore Sharp Shooters, a reenactment group portraying the East Baltimore battalion that was known as Aisquith's Sharp Shooters. "I'm glad for any publicity of the War of 1812 for this area. It would be a shame if it was forgotten."