Baltimore History, War of 1812

The Battle of Baltimore: An Eyewitness Account by Joseph Townsend (1756-1841)

What follows is my attempt to provide a faithful transcription of the four loose front-and-back diary pages, written by Joseph Townsend, describing the Battle of Baltimore in September of 1814. Townsend’s account is not aided by page numbers, so the order of the loose pages is somewhat difficult to discern. This difficulty is further compounded by the fact that some of the pages are missing pieces, along with the words, of course, that go on those pieces! Despite these hazards that have been thrown in my way, I’ve decided to trudge onward, with my transcription hat planted firmly and snugly on my head. Much to my surprise, I found that this account seems to mirror, at least somewhat, the structure of Townsend’s much more famous eyewitness account: that of the Battle of Brandywine, which he witnessed as a 21-year-old in September of 1777—an account which was published five years after his death, by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in 1846. Below is my transcription of Townsend’s recollection of Baltimore in 1814, complete with original spellings (and some minor corrections):

In the year 1814 [title from page five]
When information was received that the Troops / had left the City of Washington & got on board the Fleet / near the mouth of the Potowmac—various were / rumors the conjectures & Ideas entertained respecting their de- / stiny & further depredations, but the general / opinion was, that an attempt to capture Bal- / timore would take place—It therefore became / the duty of the Military department to be / prepared to meet the expected attack— / The Militia belonging to the City who / had marched for the defence of Washington & / had taken an active part in the engagement / at Bladensburg had returned & were kept / in readineſs for the defence of their own / City—& numerous Companies of Militia / from different parts were daily coming / in not only from the State of Maryland but / from the western part of Pennsylvania— / the rumour was generally spread [along the?] whole [begin page two] on the line of Encampment next to Town to / keeping up the fires that were in blast for Cooking / during the past day—that it might not appear / that they were on the Retreat—When the / morning arrived, the ground on which they / had encamped was cleared, & not a person / belonging to their Army to be discovered— // It appeared that there was an understanding / between the Generals on land & the Command- / ers on board the Fleet that if they effected a / landing above the Fort McHenry a sign / was to be given by their firing a rockett tow- / ards or over the City in order to notify the Ge- / nerals on land to rush into it with all their / forces to meet with those that might land from / on board the Veſsels—but if otherwise the Rock- / ett was to be thrown down the River, which / being done the whole Army was in motion / on the water, & progreſsing down to the Fleet at / [?] —being disgraced in the Attempt [begin page three] [The] country appeared to be aroused, & disposed to aſ- / sist in the defence of their Commercial Ci- / ty—Great unanimity was evident on this / interesting occasion— // The British Fleet after receiving the Troops was discovered to be / [in] the bay & appeared to be bound up, which / confirmed the opinion sustained respecting / their object—Fortifications & Batteries Co- / nsidered neceſsary were hastily prepared & Canon mounted / Whereon—a considerable number of Veſsels / were sunk acroſs the channel of the river near / Fort McHenry—& Tar barrels were placed / along the public road to be set on fire in / case of their attempting to march into the / City in the course of the night— // As is customary on such occasions of alarm / the Citizens had generally removed their families to the / Country to be out of the way of danger, which / [was] now to be dreaded, & the military had / surrounded them most of whom were encamped [begin page four] round the Eastern section of the City, but / Intercourse which was kept up with them, / in other respects, it appeared that the place was alive with the bustle & stir that neceſsa- / rily took place— // My family had retired to the Country near [?] on / after the scene of the wounded men [?] the afternoon of the memorable 12th after various ac- / counts had come in that the march of the Brits / was hastening toward the City—a number of / the wounded men had come in, & that the probability / was that the whole of the British Army would / have poſseſsion of the City before the next morn- / ing—I believed it right to remain at home & to / subject to what might occur—the night passed on / without anything extraordinary taking place— // There was considerable stir amongst the Milita- / ry the numbers collected from different parts / were very considerable & were encamped inside / the breast work, that had been hastily thrown up by the [men?] / [along?] the Eastern part of the City—being at a [g-] / [eneral?] view of their Enemy, who were encamped / [indecipherable, bottom of page mutilated] [begin page five] After the destruction at Washington city / the British Troops—they returned & embarked / on board the Fleet which lay in the Chesa- / peak bay & in some of the Rivers emptying / into it, & when collected they proceeded up / the bay to North Point at which place where they / effected their landing, having in view the ob- / struction of Baltimore as their next object in the next place / at this place their force was estimated at / about 6000 regular Troops and a company of blacks—exclusive of those who / manned the Bound Veſsels & Barges—these / Veſsels were sent up the Patapsco River to / attack the Fort McHenry, & the Troops w[ch?] / were landed at North Point were conduct under ed up Patapsco neck by the command of their Generals Roſs / Cockburn & Brooke— until whose object / was to conduct them up Patapsco neck / the east part of the city to be in readineſs to enter part of it as soon [begin page six] [as] a Bomb Veſsel had conquered the Fort / as they marched up on the morning after they had effected Men landing, they were / met with by the American Militia under / the command of Generals Stricker, Stans- / bury &c—who had marched down the / preceding afternoon & were in readineſs / to check their March of the British as they / progreſsed up—the Engagement commenced about noon & a brisk fire was kept up / between them for some, in which General / Roſs received his death wound—as they were / conducting him back to the Fleet on a Litter / they made a halt under the large Poplar tree / opposite to the entrance of Gorsuch’s lane, where / he died—After he fell the British Troops / were conducted by the surviving Generals & the / engagement being over, & night drawing on, they [begin page seven] encamped on the battle ground a little south / of the Methodist meeting house—they next / morning after their wounded soldiers were / sent in barges to the Fleet they marched up / in sight of Town & encamped on / orange f[ields?] & fields adjoining—at this place they remained / during the remainder of the day waiting for / succeſs of the Bomb Veſsels &c to silence Fort / McHenry, having commenced their opera- / tions for that purpose about 8 O Clock in the / morning—they continued kept up a continual fire / & Bombardment during the day without suc- / ceeding & did not decline their exertions / when night came on—about one or two O / Clock in some of their Veſsels & barges paſsed / the Fort in a secret manner & entered the / River with a view to effect a landing on the Peninsula between Boat & the basin—but / [in] this they were [most] grievously disobedient [?] [begin page eight] as their not knowing they had not knowledge of Fort Coventry [Covington] & a six / Gun Battery being prepared to receive them / & which was opened upon them unexpectedly / with a most tremendous fire—the British find- / ing themselves likely to be shattered to pieces & their Veſsels / sinking they there was a most terrifying uproar / amongst them & they hurried out of the River & / paſsed the Fort in greater haste than they did / when she went up—This circumstance with / some others in which they had been engaged through / the course of the day, proving unsucceſsful put / a final end to the expedition & daring attempt / notwithstanding they kept up the appearance of / the engagement until near 8 O Clock the next / morning, which proved to be for the expreſs purpose / of affording time for the land forces to retreat / on board the Veſsels laying at North Point—as they / had commenced their march for the purpose / about [9?] O Clock in the morning, leaving t[hen.] [?]

This is an amazing insight into the defense of the City of Baltimore—penned by one of its most respected residents. Joseph Townsend moved to Baltimore during the fall of 1783, after having spent a year teaching in a school along the Gunpowder. Once a resident of Baltimore Town, in 1784, Townsend founded the school now known as the Friends School of Baltimore. Ten years later, in 1794, he founded Baltimore Equitable Insurance. Friends School and Equitable still exist, and both institutions are thriving. This account just adds another chapter to an already robust historical legacy. What a wonderful gift you’ve given us, Mr. Townsend!

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