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Md. history's uphill battle

The Baltimore Sun

In the front yard of a small white house in eastern Baltimore County, a monument stands to a young man who gave his life defending the country. It is a few hundred yards from a show bar called Dreamers where a neon sign in the window proclaims "girls girls girls."

Not far away, across the street from a garden shop, bushes choked with poison ivy obscure a stone that marks where wounded Americans and their enemies were treated side by side during the battle, which occurred during the War of 1812. Close by, on the edge of a factory parking lot, a plaque commemorates the spot where a cocky British general died - hours after declaring, "I will dine in Baltimore tonight, or I will dine in Hell."

While Fort McHenry, scene of a nearly simultaneous naval bombardment, has been carefully preserved, decades of development and neglect have hidden most of the battle sites in North Point.

A bill that President Bush recently signed into law to create a $2 million War of 1812 tourism trail omits North Point from a preliminary plan because the sites are hard to reach and poorly preserved.

To supporters, this was another in a long series of slights. If steps are not taken to preserve the sites, they fear that this history will vanish - even as the war's bicentennial approaches.

"Each one of these sites along this battle route are places where battles were fought to preserve Baltimore and to preserve the United States," says Buzz Chriest, a retired engineer who is fighting to restore the monuments to prominence. "It's a question of respect for our war heroes. It's a question of patriotism."

Long before the strip malls and tidy brick homes, North Point was the scene of a battle during one of the few land invasions in American history. Flush with an easy victory in Washington, British soldiers arrived here in September 1814, planning to take Hampstead Hill in what is now Patterson Park in the city.

But they weren't prepared for the plucky Baltimoreans, who shot the British general, booby-trapped Philadelphia Road and so thoroughly demoralized the invaders that they fled without taking the hill. Meanwhile, American forces at Fort McHenry withstood a 25-hour bombardment, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"These men made the ultimate sacrifice," says Chriest, referring to the 27 Americans who died at North Point. "Are you going to forget them because it's inconvenient?"

The War of 1812 is an often-overlooked and rather bizarre chapter in the nation's history. American forces - including Gen. Nathan Towson of Towson Town - tried to invade Canada; the British burned Washington and the presidential mansion while first lady Dolley Madison fled with the Declaration of Independence; and British forces attacked New Orleans two weeks after a peace treaty had been signed.

In this area, British soldiers destroyed small towns on the Eastern Shore, burned scores of homes in Havre de Grace and sailed up the Patapsco, Patuxent and Potomac rivers. Although they easily took Washington, the British were defeated by a hastily organized force here, the town they had derided as "a nest of pirates."

"This was one of the most heroic moments in our history," says Don Shomette, a historian who has written several books about the War of 1812. "At the battle of North Point, the country was defended by an enormous amount of citizen-soldiers. This is a great piece of urban pride if there ever was any."

The Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail will create a network of tourism sites in Maryland, Washington and Virginia that will be supervised by the National Park Service. The sites are designated in a 162-page feasibility study. North Point boosters hold out hope of getting their sites included in the final plan.

The creation of the trail will be formally announced June 9 at an event at Fort McHenry, an attraction that has a budget of more than $2 million and draws more than 600,000 visitors a year, according to recent figures.

"I would be the first to acknowledge that [the War of 1812] hasn't gotten the attention it deserves," says Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who sponsored the Senate bill to create the trail and who had previously sponsored similar bills in the House.

"It's a very important part of our heritage and the role that Marylanders played in saving our country, and this designation will allow us to make it much more understandable and explorable."

He pledged to find a way to preserve the Baltimore County sites as well. "North Point to me is important. One way or another, we will make sure that North Point is protected and those sites are protected," he said.

The war is often glossed over in history courses, and many residents know little of the important events that unfolded in familiar places.

"I think there are a lot of sites that the average person in Maryland has very little awareness of," said Nelson M. Bolton, president of the Society of the War of 1812 in the State of Maryland. "All parts of Maryland were impacted by this war."

Although they might not realize it, most city residents see a symbol of the war each day. The city's seal is an image of the Battle Monument on Calvert Street.

The story of the war is full of many unexpected twists. Congress, sharply divided over tensions with Britain regarding trade restrictions and the forced conscription of American sailors into the British navy, only agreed to wage war on Britain by a narrow margin.

The war was extremely controversial, especially in Baltimore, where angry groups on both sides of the debate stormed through the city all summer. Outsiders were so alarmed by the violent attacks - in one, a man was killed when a crowd beat, tarred and feathered the staff of an anti-war paper - that they dubbed the city "Mob town."

The war did not begin in earnest until two years later, when the British defeated Napoleon's forces and turned their attention to this country. In late August 1814, British forces trounced the Americans at Bladensburg (the inexperienced militiamen ran "like sheep chased by dogs," according to one report) and stormed into Washington while President James Madison and his wife fled separately in a panic.

After burning government buildings, the British entered the President's House (the term "White House" was not yet used), feasted on meat and wine that had been set out for the Madisons, helped themselves to some souvenirs and set the building on fire.

So when British ships were spotted off North Point on Sept. 11, residents were understandably concerned. Riders hastened to warn forces in Baltimore, where church bells alerted citizens of the invasion. Troops led by Gen. Sam Smith had built earthworks in the eastern part of the city, and Gen. John Stricker led forces - many of whom had very little military experience - to North Point.

Early the next morning, the British troops disembarked and marched down North Point Road, then called Long Log Lane. They demanded breakfast at the Gorsuch farmhouse and, upon leaving, Gen. Robert Ross uttered his famous remark about eating dinner in Baltimore or in Hell.

Soon after, the British encountered a militia in a wooded area near the present intersection of Old Battle Grove and North Point Roads. A sharpshooter - believed to be a teenage private, either Henry G. McComas or Daniel Wells - brashly shot Ross.

The place where he was struck is marked by a monument to a fallen American soldier named Aquila Randall.

The monument now stands near a shallow creek in the front yard of home. A collie sleepily watched from behind a chain-link fence as Chriest visited the monument on a recent morning.

Chriest, who is a member of the board of directors of the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society and a war re-enactor, says that the monument used to stand up the street by Dreamers.

Many of the North Point monuments were erected during an elaborate weeklong celebration of the battle's centennial in 1914. For many years, they were the scenes of annual commemorations.

But, after "The Star-Spangled Banner" was designated the national anthem in 1931, interest in the North Point sites waned.

Decades of industrial and residential growth have created some unlikely neighbors.

The spot where the general died, under a poplar tree across from the farmhouse where he had eaten breakfast, is near a parking lot for Clark Steel Framing Systems.

A granite monument marking the site of a Methodist meeting house where both American and British soldiers were treated sits behind bushes near the Galilee Baptist Church.

A preserved section of field known as Battle Acre sits next to a strip mall where the businesses include The Hair Connection, Cigarette Depot and No Limit Bail Bonds.

"You ain't in Gettysburg, Dorothy," Chriest says with a laugh.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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