Two hundred years ago, Baltimore and Fell's Point were at the center of a conflict that greatly influenced our identity as Americans.
This article focuses primarily on the influence Fell's Point shipbuilding had on American life from the founding of the United States in 1776 to the Battle of Baltimore which took place September 12 through 14, 1814.
During the War of 1812, battles were waged on Maryland soil. The nation’s capitol was briefly occupied by British forces, but combined military and civilian efforts halted their progress here on Baltimore’s doorstep. The outcome of the battle of Baltimore was a turning point in American history long overlooked in history classes. The two major areas involved in that battle lie within a mile on either side of where you now stand. Fort McHenry withstood a bombardment of 25 hours, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write The Star Spangled Banner. To the East, Hampstead Hill (Patterson Park), was heavily defended against the British land forces which never advanced up the hill, but withdrew when the bombardment of the fort failed. The destruction of Fell's Point was a major objective of the British attack.
Fell's Point had been instrumental in supplying fast sailing vessels and daring men who defied the power of Great Britain and helped our young nation win economic freedom. The Defense of Baltimore and Francis Scott Key’s words inspired a new patriotic cohesion in the United States. After the Treaty of Ghent was ratified, ending the war, American Political partisanship abated for a time known as the “Era of Good Feelings”.
In young America, there were two major enterprises that attracted wealthy investors. They either went into plantation farming or became merchants. Many merchants in Maryland sent cargos of tobacco or wheat overseas. In Baltimore, the wheat was ground into flour before shipping. It is more compact in that form and more can be transported by a single vessel! A number of prominent families in Baltimore gained their wealth from flour. Vessels for this international trade were built right here on Thames street and along all the waterfronts of Fell’s Point. With fine schooners at their command, Fell’s Point merchants transported flour to Europe in exchange for valuable cargos of manufactured goods, and to the West Indies in the Caribbean for molasses, sugar and slaves. The 1808 U.S. ban on slave trading stopped the legal importation of slaves, but the practice continued as an illegal activity aided by fast vessels.
Between 1730 and 18-- the number of shipyards in Fell’s Point gradually rose to 24. Each yard boasted vessels with high degrees of craftsmanship. The shipyards brought expansion to Fell’s Point making it a major employment center for blacksmiths, ropemakers, riggers, sailmakers, and hundreds of workers. Fell’s Point shipwrights specialized in a rather new form of vessels called schooners. Over time, the Chesapeake boat builders, especially in Fell’s Point, gradually modified the hull shape to allow smoother passage through the water. Schooner rigged vessels built in Fell’s Point were very fast compared to the usual cargo ships of the 1700’s.
Issues leading to war included the British government arming Native Americans to impede United States expansion, restrictions on American shipping, and impressment (forced recruitment) of U.S. citizens into the Royal Navy. The most publicized incident of this type occurred June 22, 1807. The British warship LEOPARD attacked and boarded the American frigate CHESAPEAKE to search for British deserters, and calls for war ensued. President Thomas Jefferson initially turned to diplomacy and economic pressure in the form of the ill-fated Embargo Act of 1807. Diplomatic discussions went on for years without any sign of resolution.
A group of congressmen who became known as the “War Hawks” lobbied strongly for war and President James Madison signed the declaration of war with Great Britain on June 19th 1812. At that time, the United States Navy had fewer than twenty vessels ready for service. Congress authorized the use of Letters of Marque to fill the need. By posting a bond of $10,000, owners of merchant vessels could obtain a commission allowing them to arm and supply their vessels for the purpose of confiscating any British property upon the high seas. As a result, over a hundred vessels were so armed by private citizens. 58 of those vessels came from Fell’s Point shipyards. Shipwright Thomas Kemp, of Fell’s Point built three of the most successful privateer vessels; ROSSIE, COMET and CHASSEUR.
The vessels were referred to as privateers. Other vessels in possession of commissions ran the British blockade with cargo and were called letter of marque traders.
The most remarkable exploits of a privateer captain were those of Captain Thomas Boyle whose adopted home was Fell’s Point. Boyle commanded the schooner COMET. (See the model of the COMET on display.) Boyle also sailed the privateer vessel CHASSEUR to the coast of Britain and imposed a blockade of the English coast. CHASSEUR, with Boyle commanding captured or sank a total of 17 British vessels causing an uproar and great consternation amongst the English merchants. Boyle continually evaded capture and returned to Baltimore to a hero’s welcome.
Much confusion surrounds the use of these terms. The vessels that first made Fell’s Point famous were called schooners. Sometimes they are called topsail schooners or Baltimore schooners. There are some variations but most had two masts and large fore and aft sails. The model of the COMET on display is perhaps the most typical form of the schooner and you will see many other examples in the exhibit. Later, in the 1840’s and 1850’s another type of trading vessel was developed using the advanced hull shape of the Chesapeake schooners. They were very large square rigged cargo ships referred to as clippers and they set astonishing sailing records in the passage to China. The MARY WHITRIDGE, and SEAMAN’S BRIDE pictured in our exhibit are both excellent examples of clipper ships.