On Thursday, June 18,1812 President James Madison signed a Declaration of War against Great Britain. Many residents in Maryland, especially those in Baltimore--the largest city in the state and 3rd in the country as well as one of the nation’s leading ports--welcomed the news. Trade in the port of Baltimore had been greatly curtailed since the trade embargos with Great Britain and France enacted by Presidents Jefferson and Madison. During the rest of 1812 and into 1813, trade boomed in Baltimore. This was helped by the growing list of private ships went out to seize British merchant ships. They would confiscate the cargo and return to port to auction off whatever had been seized, keeping the profits. These privateers had an easy time of it until March of 1813. It was at this time that a fleet of British warships commanded by Rear Admiral George Cockburn sailed into the Chesapeake Bay.
After blockading the USS Constellation in Norfolk Virginia, Cockburn’s fleet headed north into Maryland.
Capturing Baltimore privateers coming down the bay, Admiral Cockburn also proceeded to attack small towns along the Maryland’s eastern shore. The towns of Georgetown and Havre de Grace were attacked and burned. St. Michaels was attacked twice but managed to keep the British from entering the town. In April, Cockburn sailed up the Patapsco within sight of Fort McHenry.
Throughout the summer, the British forces raided farms for livestock and crops. The British paid for what they took--in British Pounds or a promissory note. If a firearm was found a house, all outbuildings were burned. The reason was that all white males between 18 and 45 were required by law to be enrolled in the state militia.
Except for a break in the winter of 1813-14, these raids continued non-stop with no force in the region able to challenge the British. In the spring of 1814, the Chesapeake Flotilla, a force of about 20 boats, 45-70 feet long, attacked some ships of the British fleet off the mouth of the Patuxent River in southern Maryland. After a promising beginning, the Flotilla was chased into the Patuxent and blockaded in St. Leonard’s Creek. The Flotilla managed to breakout after two weeks but could only go up the shallow headwaters of the Patuxent River. British troops landed at the town of Benedict on the Patuxent River on August 19 and 20 to begin their advance to Washington, DC.
On August 24, they roundly defeated American forces at the Battle of Bladensburg, clearing the way for an assault on Washington that evening. The British marched down Maryland Avenue through the heart of the city to burn the Capitol building, and then headed down Pennsylvania Avenue to burn the White House.
By mid-September, the British fleet had advanced to the Patapsco River where about 4,500 British troops landed at North Point and began an 11-mile march to Baltimore. As the land troops made their way toward the city, British warships moved up the Patapsco River toward Fort McHenry and the other defenses around the entrance to Baltimore Harbor.