Fell’s Point today may seem a quaint and small old port town. But 200 years ago, it was one of colonial America’s biggest seaports, one that played a key role in thwarting the British during the War of 1812.
Many historians are convinced that without the war efforts of this early port, our national pastime might well be cricket, not baseball. And we’d open those games by singing “God Save the Queen” rather than “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Take a few moments to read why this historic harbor town didn’t allow anything that inconceivable to befall “the home of the brave”.
They were like nothing the world had ever seen.
Twin masts raked daringly back. Shallow in draft and impossibly crammed with sails. Their proper maritime name was “Chesapeake Pilot Bay Schooner”
In layman’s terms let’s just call them “seaborne hot rods”. The kind the British, for all the might of their vast navy, could not catch.
And they were invented right here. In the shipyards of Fell’s Point and others nearby in the Chesapeake. Created for shallow local waters and the bay’s fickle winds, these schooners proved to be providentially the right innovation at the perfect time.
Our tiny nation had found itself at war with the mightiest navy on the planet. In order to even have a hope against those long odds, America’s blockade runners and privateers would desperately need some kind of edge.
And Fell’s Point shipyards had created something so innovative it could just about outrun the wind. Not to mention the Brits.
A key part of Britain’s war strategy was to chop off America’s commerce with a naval blockade. They wanted to starve our economy into ruins.
Fell’s Point’s answer to that was swift blockade runners, also known as “flyers”.Of 175 issued letters of marque authorizations for Baltimore merchant ships, 114 were for traders instead of for privateer ships.
They managed to slip past the ever tightening British blockade in the fog, in storms, or in the dark of night.
Our patriotic flyers helped keep the US economy alive, taking to Europe both flour and tobacco from the Middle Atlantic states, cotton from the South and coffee and sugar from the West Indies. By mid-1814, the British blockade was so successful overall US merchant traffic dropped to 11% of pre-war levels.
Nonetheless, Fell’s Point “flyers” kept plying the stealthy trade they happily described as an excellent “instrument for hurting the British.”
One of our most devastating and effective weapons against England was our privateer fleet.
Lacking a sizeable navy or the funds to build one, President Madison created a second navy, a civilian one. Authorized with “letters of marque” and flying the Stars and Stripes, they preyed on England’s vital seaborne commerce. Many historians are convinced they were a key factor in keeping us free.
Fell’s Point ships and crews played a major role. This port sent out more privateers ships, 58, than any other port in America. And our ships inflicted near half the damage to British trade.
By 1814, US privateers were taking fifty British ships every month off the coasts of England. Our privateers endured ship-wrecks, bloody battles, even prison, and hundreds gave their lives or were wounded to ensure America’s final independence from Britain.
Today, both the US Navy Reserve, and the US Merchant Marine are proud to cite these intrepid 1812 privateers as their ancestors. Fell’s Pointers are hoping to soon erect a monument in their honor.
And you get to sing about living in “the land of the free”.
When England came knocking at Baltimore’s door, the residents of Fell’s Point sprung into action.
Throngs of our citizens joined the frenzied efforts to build up defensive ramparts up in what is now Patterson Park and elsewhere.
They were our seamen, ship-builders, merchants and other citizens vowing to deny entry to the hated British. They also included the many black residents of Fell’s Point, some slaves,others freemen from one of our nation’s first thriving communities of free blacks.
Local merchants sacrificed their own ships by offering them up to be sunk at the mouth of Baltimore Harbor, blocking entry to any British ships that might get past Fort McHenry.
To supply Fort McHenry and other parts of the city, local sailors, many of them one-time privateers, manned a barge bridge across the harbor itself.Filled with tar and other flammable materials, these barges were to be set on fire should the British get inside the harbor. The sailors would have rowed, scrambled or swum to safety.
Fell’s Point had to be Ground Zero in the British attack in 1814.
England’s ships needed to get past Fort McHenry. But that small fort was not their final objective. Their troops might have captured Baltimore City. But that was not everything England was after.
High up on Britain’s list, they wanted to put Fell’s Point to the torch. They vowed to set fire to this port that had so vexed them in this war, and burn it to the very cinders: wharves, homes, businesses, boats, shipyards, every last bit.
Fortunately, you can’t always get what you want. Not even mighty England. Today, as free Americans, we pledge allegiance, not to the crowned head of the British royal family, but to the glorious Stars and Stripes.
And Fell’s Point stands tall today to prove it.