The Defenders Day celebration at Fort Howard Park was an unqualified success, according to re-enactor Buzz Chreist of Aisquith’s Sharpshooters.
“The weather’s been great, and the crowd—especially the Sunday crowd—has been larger than I expected, frankly,” he said.
The celebration was, for the first time, held over two weekend days rather than just Saturday. Reenactments of the Battle of North Point—two on Saturday and one on Sunday—were the centerpieces of Defenders Day.
The Battle of North Point—Sept. 12, 1814—was a delaying action against the British troops that had landed and intended to take Baltimore.
The British commander, General Robert Ross, was killed just prior to the battle itself, in which the British took more casualties than they expected.
“The Battle of North Point was probably significant for what we didn’t give away,” said Harry Young, chairman of the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society’s Defenders Day Committee.
Though the British “won” the battle and marched on toward Baltimore under their new commander, Col. Arthur Brooke, their had suffered greatly.
Furthermore, the delay at North Point had worked as the Americans intended, and the defense line at Hampstead Hill was complete. Upon seeing that line, the British turned around and marched back to their ships, and Baltimore was saved.
Beyond the reenactments, families attending the Defenders Day event got to interface with a wide variety of characters, customs and slices of life from the War of 1812 era.
Dundalk’s own Aisquith’s Sharpshooters took part in the reenactment of the Battle of North Point, as they have done for decades. Amanda Nebel, who commanded the Sharpshooters on the field this year, explained that the Sharpshooters of the War of 1812 were similar to snipers of today. In fact, two teenage boys of Aisquith’s Sharpshooters—Wells and McComas—are credited with shooting the British General Robert Ross. Before Ross died, he made Col. Arthur Brooke commander of the British forces who would be hit hard at the Battle of North Point and retreat at Hampstead Hill.
Wells and McComas would also die that day, during the action of the battle itself.
Part of the Sharpshooters’ sniper-like role, Nebel said, came simply from the fact that they possessed much more accurate rifles when muskets were the norm.
“Our unit was city boys,” she said. “They weren’t necessarily hunters, but they had rifles and they were proficient with them.”
Aisquith’s Sharpshooters, Nebel explained, were skirmishers who went ahead of the main infantry, and, to some extent, started the shooting at Battle of North Point. They also had to act similarly to snipers, she added, because their rifles took so long to load—40 seconds versus 15 seconds for a musket.
Roger Roop took part in the reenactment as part of the 16th Regiment under Capt. George Washington McGee. Eight generations prior to Roop, his ancestor Jacob Roop served in the actual militia.
“He didn’t see any action,” Roop said, explaining that there was some confusion among the militia as to whether they were federalized and fighting for the country or simply serving their individual states.
Roop noted that his family came from what is now Frederick, which back then was “frontier and farmland.” The tough way of life produced tough men, and General Samuel Smith took notice of the “big, big guys,” from Frederick, Roop said. The general put them to work digging the entrenchments at Hampstead Hill.
Canadian re-enactors from the Niagara Falls area portrayed the British troops in the Battle of North Point.
“This is our first time down to this event and we’re pretty much putting it on our schedule for next year,” said Grant Jackson. “The people are great and the site is fantastic.”
Howard Shurgold extended his thanks to Harry Young.
“We were a last-minute fit-in,” Shurgold said. “He got us down here and really took care of us.”
Shurgold also offered some educational tidbits on 1812-era battle. The muzzle velocity of a musket ball, he noted, is about 900 feet per second, and the balls would typically penetrate 1 1/2 to 2 inches.
“Unfortunately, you die of bacterial infection 28 days after the battle,” Shurgold said.
Representatives from the Fire Museum of Maryland had an apparatus designed to squirt water and burning buildings, then called an “enjin,” on display.
The apparatus was built in 1806 and served the Annapolis area during the War of 1812.
Rather than using a hose, the manually-pumped device squirted water from nozzle up to the inferno. The height range was roughly the height of a church steeple, explained Rob Williams of the Fire Museum.
Hoses would come in 1807, when rivets were first used to assemble strips of leather together; previous attempts to fashion leather hoses with stitching had always resulted in burst hoses, Williams said.
Williams noted that volunteer fire departments were very attractive organizations to young men.
“They didn’t have sports, so this was the thing to join,” he said. “You drilled and showed off to the women.”
Williams also noted that the departments sometimes got a little bit too powerful, in that they could add a couple hundred voting and influential men to whatever district in which they operated.
“By 1859, they were fixing elections,” he said. “It was pretty corrupt—there were street gangs attached to them.”
While some fire companies remained well above-board, Baltimore’s volunteer departments were disbanded because “things got out of hand,” Williams said, and the municipal department that took their place quickly became one of the best in the country.
David Hildebrand, a world-recognized performer and scholar of early American music, dispelled a commonly-held misconception about our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The myth, Hildebrand said, is that the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” were originally written as a poem without music, and only later set to the tune of a British drinking song.
The lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Hildebrand said, were always meant to be sung to the drinking song and were never meant to stand alone as a poem, as Wikipedia and other sources assert.
“The Star Spangled Banner,” in fact, was the second song that Key set to the melody of that particular drinking song, Hildebrand said.
“It’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of,” he added. “People borrow and reuse melodies all the time.”
Hildebrand said that drinking was a serious, hierarchical pastime back then, and “The Star Spangled Banner” was set to one of the more high-class songs.
By contrast, “The Battle of Baltimore,” a song Hildebrand sings in almost all of his performances, is set to a low-class drinking tune: “Yankee Doodle.”
“Francis Scott Key would never have chosen ‘Yankee Doodle’ as his melody,” Hildebrand commented.
During his performance on Sunday afternoon, he quipped: “If you want to know the meaning of the word ‘doodle,’ ask me afterward, because I can’t say it in public.
Hildebrand is director of the Colonial Music Institute in Severna Park. For more information, see colonialmusic.org.
Young noted that this year’s Defenders Day celebration was in a sense a dry run for next year, the true Bicentennial of the Battle of North Point. The nine-day celebration will begin with a Defenders Day event at Fort Howard Park on one weekend and at Fort McHenry the next, with non-stop activities going on during the week between.
“We’re looking forward to being the lead-off of the Bicentennial next year,” Young said.
by Erik Zygmont