Defenders Day

Defenders Day
Observed by Maryland
Type Local, Historical
Significance Anniversary of the successful defense of the city of Baltimore from an invading British force during the War of 1812.
Date September 12
Next time September 12, 2017 (2017-09-12)
Frequency annual

Defenders Day is a legal holiday in the U.S. state of Maryland[1] It commemorates the successful defense of the city of Baltimore on September 12, 1814 from an invading British force during the War of 1812, an event which would lead to the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the national anthem of the United States.


In 1814, following the burning of Washington, a British force commanded by Major General Robert Ross landed near present-day Fort Howard, Maryland and began an advance on the city. He was met almost immediately by a detachment from the Baltimore garrison led by American General John Stricker, commencing the Battle of North Point. The resulting halt of the larger British force allowed Baltimore to organize its defenses against a later attempted naval invasion. It was during this conflict, the Battle of Baltimore, that Fort McHenry was shelled by the British but refused to surrender, and an inspired Maryland lawyer named Francis Scott Key composed the words to what would later become "The Star-Spangled Banner", eventually proclaimed the national anthem of the United States.


Early years

Commemorations of the day of the victory, centering on Stricker's stand east of the city, began in the years shortly after the War. During the mid-19th century, Marylanders would informally picnic on the battlefield grounds, but later celebrations involved the entire city of Baltimore, with parades and speeches.

Initially, the commemoration of Defenders Day was divided between the two sites; one focusing on the Battle of North Point and the other on The "Star Spangled Banner" and the bombardment of Fort McHenry. The development of the holiday followed the evolution of the militia. The first phase was the transition from the involuntary militia system that existed prior to the War of 1812 to the Voluntary militia system that emerged during the war. The second phase was the development of the Voluntary Militia into the local parochial political-militia-business alliance that peaked with dominance of the Know Nothing (American Party) politics prior to the Civil War. The third was the transition from parochial patriotism to national patriotism during the Civil War. Finally in the fourth phase the local militia disappeared and the local parochial patriotic traditions were largely forgotten or replaced with new national patriotic ideas and traditions.

The cannons of Ft. McHenry guarding Baltimore harbor

In the first phase the local militia viewed the national government as allies. During the second the parochial political-militia-business alliance viewed the national government with increasing hostility, as expressed by the Maryland State Anthem "Maryland, My Maryland". During the second phase, the myth and lore of Defender's Day were used to support parochial Nativism (politics). In the third phase the parochial nationalism and nativism of the pre-Civil War militia disappeared since those groups had moved to Virginia to join the Confederate Army. In the fourth phase, nativism returned with the Confederate veterans and after a struggle between the militias, formed from the Union veterans and their rival militias formed from Confederate veterans, the post Civil War militias were replaced by the creation of the National Guard. The replacement of the state militias by the National Guard also produced a replacement of the politics and cultural traditions that supported the militias. Hence, the commemoration of the Battle of North Point declined in favor of the celebration of the Star Spangled Banner.

The North Point celebrations focused on local parochial politics. These celebrations centered on the "Old Defenders" (the veterans of the Battle of North Point). The celebrations emphasized how the "Defenders" had stood against the British invader after the federal government had failed and Washington was burned. The Fort McHenry celebrations focused on the image of the federal fortifications providing the bastion that saved the nation.

While the "Old Defenders" survived, the commemorations of Defenders Day revolved around them. Following the War of 1812, many of the "Old Defenders" had become civic leaders in Baltimore. The traditional program while the "Old Defenders" survived was for a "Defenders' Day" programs that started with a rally and speeches at Baltimore’s Battle Monument. Following the speeches, the militia units would march from the "Battle Monument" to the battlefield at North Point. At North Point the militia units would have a sham battle. Following the sham battle the militia units would march to the former Loudenschlager's Hill (now Hampstead Hill, in what is now Patterson Park in the Highlandtown-Canton communities of East Baltimore). Hampstead Hill was the location of the final redoubts that stopped the British advance on the city. The march and the sham battle were intended to replicate the events of the Battle of North Point and the troop movements to and from there. One of the unfortunate results of this schedule for the commemoration of "Defenders' Day" was that more militia died from heat stroke, from the march to and from the battlefield, and the occasional musket ball fired during the sham battle at the battlefield, than died during the actual battle. the commemoration in 1822 proved to be exceptionally lethal. An unusually hot September and dress parade uniforms produced a significant loss due to heat stroke, resulting in a one-year break in the program.[2]

The occasional musket ball fired during the sham battle produced additional fatalities. In the years following one notable fatality a new tradition appeared in Baltimore's newspapers that lasted until the Civil War; just prior to "Defenders' Day" perennial advertisements would appear in the Baltimore newspapers stating: “now available - blank ammunition.”.[3]

Prior to the Civil War, the "Defenders' Day" speeches held that the Battle of Baltimore to be the most noble battle in U.S. military history. The Battle of Baltimore was entirely defensive and was fought by the citizens themselves. Notable examples are the speeches given by One of the "Old Defender's" Nathaniel Williams on September 12, 1857.[4] A monument, a play, and ballads to the two soldiers credited with killing Major General Robert Ross, Pvts. Daniel Wells, such as “The Boy Martyrs of Sept. 12, 1814: A Local Historical Drama”,[5] were typical of this period. Today, numerous monuments to the War of 1812 remain throughout "The Monumental City" (the designation of Baltimore as the "Monument City" was made by President John Quincy Adams in 1827).

In 1854, a committee gathered with the notion of erecting a monument to Wells and McComas. On September 10, 1858, after securing and investing the funds for the project, the bodies of the teen militiamen were exhumed and placed in the old Maryland Institute (then located above Centre Market - or "Marsh Market" on East Baltimore Street at the Jones Falls). Thousands of people visited the coffins during the three days leading up to September 12, the anniversary of the Battle of North Point, when the official cornerstone for the memorial was laid. On that day, the bodies of Wells and McComas were paraded to Ashland Square, (near the intersection of North Gay, Monument, and Aisquith Streets in East Baltimore), the site of interment, and placed below the obelisk’s foundation in ceremonial fashion.

The Wells and McComas Monument is currently used as the emblem for the Baltimore County Sheriff's Office (Maryland)

The Secession Crisis

As documented in the Baltimore Sun, in articles written in September 1860, the Secession Crisis prior to the 1860 election caused a change in the Defenders Day program. The federal troops that were stationed at Fort McHenry were deployed to the Mexican border leaving Fort McHenry empty, except for an old sergeant serving as a custodian. Seeing the opportunity one of the Baltimore city secessionist militia units, the 5th Maryland, planned to seize the fort on Defenders Day 1860. The plot was discovered, an anti-secessionist militia unit (elements of the 53rd Maryland) rowed in the darkness from Fells Point to the fort the night before Defenders Day. The 5th Maryland departed from the grounds of the Excelsior baseball club near Bolton Hill, but instead of turning to march to the Battle Monument, turned to march on the fort. When the 5th reached the fort they found it already occupied by the 53rd. Thereby the secessionist militia from one part of the city lost the race to the fort to a pro-Union militia unit from another part of the city.[6] The result was a non-violent standoff that was resolved when the secessionist militia marched back to its neighborhood and the conflict was over, to be repeated in the later Secession Crisis that followed the presidential election of 1860, the crisis reached its highest point after the 6th Massachusetts was attacked by a mob in 1861. The same units that attempted to prevent the movement of Federal troops through Baltimore were involved in the earlier demonstration at Ft. McHenry. The secessionist unit that featured most prominently on both occasions were the Baltimore Law Greys of the 5th Maryland.[6][7] The Law Greys as part of Baltimore's First Light Division, Maryland Volunteers were disbanded in Baltimore and reformed in Virginia as the 1st Maryland Infantry, CSA.

The move away from the Battle of North Point to Fort McHenry was suggested by the "Old Defenders" themselves when they met at Govanstown, Maryland (currently known as Mid-Govans, Baltimore) for their annual dinner to celebrate the Defenders Day during the Civil War. The choice of the "Old Defenders" to do this was made as an open appeal to heal the wounds of the Civil War. The "Old Defenders" noted that troops from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia had rallied to Baltimore and Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore.[8]

Nativism returned with the Confederate veterans after the Civil War. After the Civil War the militia in Baltimore was divided between Union veterans and initially illegal militias of Confederate veterans. Prior to the 1877 riots the Confederate militia was legalized as the 5th Maryland. Baltimore's militia on the eve of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was composed of the 4th, 5th and 6th Maryland militia regiments. The former Confederate 5th Maryland being drawn from veterans of the 1st Maryland CSA, the 6th Maryland being composed of Union veterans and the 4th Maryland of indeterminate origins. Each militia unit had its armory close to one of the large railroad stations. The 5th at Mount Royal Station, the 6th across the street from Phoenix Shot Tower, near the President Street Station and the 4th at Camden Station. During the riot the 6th was attacked by a mob, the 6th broke and was chased by the mob through the streets of Baltimore, and the 6th's armory was attacked and the militia driven from their armory. The 6th Maryland was then disbanded and the unit blamed for all police and militia violence against the rioters. Governor Carroll then declared that the designation of "6th Maryland" would be forever stricken from the Maryland militia rolls. This left the formerly Confederate 5th Maryland as the dominant militia in Baltimore, thereby shaping how Defender's Day would be commemorated until the outbreak of World War I.

The post-Civil War nativism peaked just after the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and then slowly faded with the growing popularity of the National Anthem. The demise of the 6th Maryland and the ascendency of the 5th Maryland can be viewed as part of the national political changes ending the Reconstruction Era of the United States and the Compromise of 1877.

Nativism was dealt a decisive blow with the establishment of the National Guard of the United States since the creation of the National Guard effectively removed the militia as an active muscular component of local politics.

A famous photograph from the early 1880s, shows the last of "The Old Defenders" as a group of a half-dozen old be-whiskered gentlemen, garbed in black cut-away coats, cravat ties and top hats with gold-knobbed canes sitting on chairs in front of the steps of old "Druid Mansion", the headquarters of Druid Hill Park.

20th century and the present

Reenactors at Ft. McHenry

After the Spanish–American War, the expansion of Baltimore's harbor defenses included building Fort Howard on North Point and moving the garrison from Fort McHenry to Fort Howard. The City of Baltimore began a campaign that would lead to Ft. Mc Henry being acquired by the city as a park. Before the transition of Fort McHenry to the City of Baltimore, the last of the "Old Defenders" died and the task of maintaining the traditions of Defender's Day passed to the Society of the Sons of the War of 1812. This also coincided with the creation of the National Guard and the dissolution of the old militia units.

The largest celebration was held on the hundred year anniversary in 1914, which included fireworks reenacting of the shelling of Fort McHenry.[9] The National Star-Spangled Banner Centennial was however overshadowed by the outbreak of World War I in Europe.

The dedication of the statue at Fort McHenry of "Orpheus with the Awkward Foot"[10] sealed the prominence of Fort McHenry in Defenders Day observances. The completion of the Orpheus statue at Fort McHenry further emphasized the story of the writing of the "Star Spangled Banner" following the bombardment of the fort by British naval forces, instead of the commemoration of Battle of North Point and Baltimore's Battle Monument.

The Great Depression of the 1930s curtailed the celebrations somewhat, and they continued to wane in popularity through World War II and the 1960s, when dissatisfaction with martial matters caused by the unpopular Vietnam War were noted. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that Defenders Day began to be widely celebrated in Maryland once again, mostly through the increasing popularity of the Fort McHenry Guard, volunteers for the National Park Service, who brought new life to celebrations at Fort McHenry. Even Baltimore's then-mayor, Martin O'Malley, donned a War of 1812 uniform as a colonel of the Fort McHenry Guard to participate in Defenders Day reenactments in 2003.[11]


  1. "Maryland at a Glance: Holidays". State of Maryland. Retrieved 2010-03-03.
  2. Baltimore News American. September 12, 1823. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  3. Baltimore News American. September 11, 1820. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. Baltimore News American. September 13, 1857. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  5. "The Boy Martyrs of Sept. 12, 1814: A Local Historical Drama.". The Baltimore Sun. September 11, 1858.
  6. 1 2 Baltimore Sun. September 13, 1860. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. The Richmond Daily Dispatch. April 22, 1861. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  8. Baltimore Sun. September 13, 1865. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  9. O'Connell, Frank Albert and Coyle, William F. National star-spangled banner centennial, Baltimore, Maryland, September 6 to 13, 1914. Munder-Thomsen. Retrieved 2010-03-03.
  10. National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior, Orpheus (PDF), retrieved 2010-03-09
  11. Donovan, Doug (Jan 2, 2004). "From behind lens, he captures mayor; Photographer: Jay L. Baker turns Baltimore's boss' actions into images". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 2010-03-03.

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