Baltimore is bustling with preparations for a massive bicentennial salute to the 1814 British assault that birthed the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
One celebrity guest is a marble lady who arrived at the Maryland Historical Society and Museum in October. She’s 8 feet tall, nearly 200 years old and weighs 2,750 pounds.
The statue, known as Lady Baltimore, has stood on top of the Battle Monument since 1822 and been on the city seal since 1827. That means she appears throughout the city on government buildings, flags, vehicles, signs and police badges.
“She’s the face of Baltimore,” said Katie Caljean, director of public programs for the Maryland Historical Society.
Yet her origins are as vague to most people as the war she was made to commemorate.
Lady Baltimore was raised to her historic perch to honor the people who died defending the city from the British in September 1814 during the War of 1812.
It was a monument-worthy event for the city, the Chesapeake Bay and the nation.
The United States was at war with Britain again, barely 30 years after the end of the Revolution. There was still some question as to whether this newly formed nation would last and how it would stand up against a continuing British presence in North America. The countries clashed over maritime rights and westward expansion.
By 1813, the British Navy occupied the Chesapeake Bay, strangling trade and raiding waterfront towns, wharfs and plantations. The British saw Baltimore as a feisty city — a “den of pirates,” to be exact — with shipyards at Fells Point whose fast, sleek vessels were causing problems for the British.
In August 1814, the British marched on Washington, DC, and burned its public buildings, including the White House. But the United States capital was so young and relatively unorganized that the attack on DC was mostly a symbolic move. The real prize was Baltimore.
As the British sailed up the Bay, Baltimore prepared for attack. Volunteers swarmed to the city. On Sept. 12, approximately 4,500 British troops landed at North Point and clashed with U.S. forces. The next day, the British fleet bombarded Fort McHenry, which guarded the harbor.
The British expected the fort to fall quickly, but it didn’t. The British were turned back at North Point, too. After 25 hours, the British withdrew. The commander of Fort McHenry raised an enormous American flag over the fort.
Francis Scott Key watched the bombardment from a ship in the harbor and wrote a poem, which became known as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” to describe his experience. It later became the national anthem.
“This was a major global force, and these rough-and-tumble port dwellers were able to mobilize against it,” Caljean said.
Baltimore celebrated its victory and especially the role of its citizen defenders. Defenders Day became a city holiday that is still observed. Its bicentennial in September 2014 promises to be an especially big occasion.
The Battle Monument, topped with the statue of Lady Baltimore, was completed and placed on North Calvert Street 11 years after the battle. Centuries later, Lady Baltimore’s surface has suffered from weather and pollution. Over the years, both arms were replaced because of storm damage.
The statue was permanently moved to the Maryland Historical Society, also in Baltimore, to protect her for future generations.
The city hired The George Young Company, which specializes in moving large items, to lower Lady Baltimore from the monument in a protective cage. “They’ve moved lighthouses,” Caljean said, “so to them, this was small.”
A replica has been placed on the monument.
Now Lady Baltimore stands in a bright foyer, welcoming visitors to an exhibit on the War of 1812.
Inside are local treasures from the bombardment of Fort McHenry and the Battle of North Point.
Among the military artifacts are swords and canteens carried during the battle, and a unique tin mug once owned by Samuel Ettings, who fought at North Point. The signatures of several battle commanders are etched into its black surface.
“It’s so personal. Someone even etched a little sword in there by his name,” Caljean said.
There’s also an unexploded “bomb,” resembling a cannonball, which landed in Fort McHenry at the feet of an exceptionally lucky soldier named George Baxley.
“Remember how Francis Scott Key described ‘bombs bursting in air’?” Caljean asked. “Well, they didn’t all burst.”
Exhibits portray early Baltimore as a thriving port town, where taverns were hubs for gathering news.
Among the city’s residents was Irish immigrant Thomas Ruckle, a housepainter who was also a skilled, self-taught artist. Ruckle fought at North Point and painted scenes of the battle shortly after it was fought. His works, The Battle of North Point and The Defense of Baltimore, are on display.
If you visit, don’t miss the original copy of Frances
Scott Key’s poem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A replica, under glass, is always visible. But pay close attention to its case. Once an hour, the top of the case slides back to reveal the original hand-written words.
“Notice how the first stanza is all in the form of questions,” Caljean said. “Can you imagine him watching the bombardment? He really didn’t know how it would turn out.”
Start warming up now for summer’s main event
Duck indoors on a winter afternoon and learn about the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake before bicentennial events take you outdoors in 2014! To get started, check out these locations:
- Maryland Historical Society & Museum, Baltimore: View its exhibit, “In Full Glory Reflected: Maryland during the War of 1812.” www.mdhs.org, 410-685-3750
- Flag House & Star-Spangled Museum, Baltimore: This is the home of Mary Pickersgill, maker of the famous flag. www.flaghouse.org, 410-837-1793
- Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, St. Michaels, MD: View its exhibit, Navigating Freedom: The War of 1812 on the Chesapeake. www.cbmm.org, 410-745-2916
- National Museum of American History, Washington, DC: See the original “Star-Spangled Banner.” 202-633-1000, http://americanhistory.si.edu/
- Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum, St. Leonard, MD: Check out its exhibit, “Farmers, Patriots & Traitors: Southern Maryland & the War of 1812.” www.jefpat.org, 410-586-8501
- Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, VA: Visit the exhibit, “The Enemy’s in Sight: Clash of the Navies in the War of 1812.” www.marinersmuseum.org, 757-596-2222
- James Madison’s Montpelier, Orange, VA: Check out the exhibit, “A Young Nation Stands: James Madison and the War of 1812.” www.montpelier.org, 540.672.2728
For a good read — or gift — try “In Full Glory Reflected: Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake” by Ralph Eshelman and Burt Kummerow (2012). It offers an illustrated, reader-friendly account of the war’s great moments and colorful characters, along with a detailed travel guide for the region.