Joe Whitehorn, American Historian
On the US defense of Baltimore
My background is military historian. I did a lot of work at the Pentagon, which fancied itself as the guiding brain of our forces. And ... there must have been a similar guiding brain in London, Whitehall, that had a vision and a plan for the deployment of all of the assets and resources of the Empire. We tend, in this area, the Chesapeake region, to be very myopic in that context. It's just the burning of Washington and the operations around Baltimore. And people here hardly ever hear what went along our mutual border.
I think most people - and this is a product of our high school and college textbooks - know a great deal more about the Chesapeake ... I daresay few even know things went on in Niagara. Hate to say that, just the way it is. So Baltimore is the defining thing. Of course, our national anthem came out of the defense of Baltimore. And so people are at least aware of that. And then the other is the Battle of New Orleans. And that in folk memory is a tremendous American victory. It's very interesting ... I look at papers from northern New York... people would have learned about the Battle of New Orleans before they learned of the Peace of Ghent. So in a simple farmer's viewpoint, we whipped them and they asked for peace. So it'll be the latter part that the average American is familiar with.
The man who should get the credit [for the defense of Baltimore] is General Samuel Smith. A remarkable person. He and his brother-in-law were very active in Baltimore commerce, so he had all sorts of tendrils in there. He was the perfect [man] who'd be looked to to defend the city. At the same time, he had a tremendous driving energy. (...)he had the energy to galvanize a disparate, rowdy city population and the area around it, to cajole a state that didn't like him or the people in that city to provide the resources, and he had the military vision to see how the city could and should be defended. So he used terrain... and it's interesting because a lot of it's water, of course. But he understood what the Royal Navy could and could not do in the vicinity of Baltimore, and then deployed his forces accordingly. Trained them magnificently.
I would say, particularly the Baltimore Militia, was as good as any regulars by 1814. If Baltimore had gone under, I think the Madison government could have collapsed, most likely would have been totally discredited. In other words, the worry about the Constitution would have seemed fulfilled: that a government cannot sustain a war. It in essence obviated the fiasco at Washington just a few weeks before.