In 1814, following the burning of Washington, a British force commanded by Admiral Robert Ross landed north of Baltimore 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", the national anthem of the United States.
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-1800s, Marylanders would informally picnic on the battlefield grounds, but later celebrations involved the entire city of Baltimore, with parades and speeches. The largest celebration was held on the hundred year anniversary in 1914, which included fireworks reenacting of the shelling of Fort McHenry.
During the 19th century the commemoration of Defenders Day was marked by a rally and speeches at Baltimore’s "Battle Monument" and a march by the local militia units to the battlefield at North Point and then to what is now Patterson Park, where the final redoubts were that stopped the British advance on the city.
The commemoration of Defenders Day was divided between the two sites; one focusing on the battle at North Point and the other on The "Star Spangled Banner" and the bombardment of Ft McHenry.
The North Point celebrations focused on local parochial politics and the sacrifices of the "Old Defenders" as they alone stood against the British invader after the federal government had failed and Washington was burned and the Ft. McHenry celebrations focused on the image of the federal fortifications providing the bastion that saved the nation.
The monuments at North Point are currently forgotten and in disrepair and Ft McHenry is a National Shrine.
The move away from North Point to Ft McHenry was suggested by the "Old Defenders" themselves when they met at Govans for their annual dinner to celebrate the Defenders Day, during the Civil War as a path to heal the wounds of the Civil War since troops from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia had rallied to Baltimore and Ft McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore.
The "Old Defenders" were the surviving veterans of the battle at North Point. The commemorations of Defenders Day, while the "Old Defender's" survived, revolved around these veterans, many of whom had become civic leaders in Baltimore after the War of 1812.
Prior to the Civil War the Defenders Day speeches held the Battle of Baltimore to be the most noble battle since it was entirely defensive and was fought by the citizens themselves. Monuments, plays and ballads to the "Boy Martyrs, Wells and McCommas" were typical of this period and the numerous statues remain throughout the "Monument city".
The celebration of Defenders Day at Ft McHenry began after the last of the "Old Defenders" had passed away and was linked to a move by Baltimore city to aquire Ft McHenry as a city park.
The dedication of the statue at Ft McHenry "Orpheus of the awkward foot" sealed the dominion of Ft McHenry over Defenders Day and after the completion of the Orpheus statue at Ft McHenry the commemoration of the battle moved away from Baltimore’s "Battle Monument" and the North Point battlefield to Ft McHenry. The story was no more how Baltimore defeated the British, it had become the story of the writing of the "Star Spangled Banner" and the statue of Orpheus was in honor of the victory of the anthem.
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 gaining popularity of reenactors, who brought new life to celebrations at Fort McHenry.
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