The Lost Peninsula Forts of the War of 1812

Four South Baltimore forts defended the city on that fateful day. Three have been all but forgotten.

The 1814 battle for Baltimore was recreated in 1828 by painter Alfred Jacob Miller, showing Fort McHenry (far left), soldiers near Fort Look-Out (foreground, lower left), Fort Babcock (right of center), and Fort Covington at the water’s edge (far right). Painting reprinted by permission of the Maryland Center for History and Culture.

[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in our August-September 2021 newspaper edition, published on August 6.]

Every September, Baltimore celebrates Defenders Day at Fort McHenry to mark the 1814 battle that saved the city from the British and gave us our National Anthem. Did you know that three other South Baltimore forts, all long gone, added their fire to the “perilous fight” on that historic night? And that one of them lives on today in the name given to the area where it once stood: Port Covington?

The three small forts – Look-Out, Babcock, and Covington – stood about a mile west of Fort McHenry with cannons pointing toward the Patapsco River to defend the southern approach to the city. All took part in the Ferry Branch defense during a midnight (Sept. 13-14) diversionary British barge assault intended to draw American forces from Hampstead Hill (Patterson Park) for a land attack that never materialized.

Within 25 years after the battle, these forts had vanished from the marshy landscape along the Patapsco and the slopes above. Aside from historical markers and cannons in Riverside Park indicating the site of Fort Look-Out, no evidence of these historic forts can be seen on the peninsula today.

At the outbreak of the war of 1812, Baltimore was the third largest city in the still young nation with a population of 50,000, including 10,000 free Blacks. The city had a wealthy merchant class, trading in agricultural products and tobacco. Her numerous shipyards enabled over a hundred licensed “privateers” to sail from Fell’s Point, devastating England’s trade and making Baltimore a target of the British navy.

War Comes to the Chesapeake

The United States declared war on England in June 1812 in part to preserve its neutrality and maritime laws during the European Napoleonic Wars. In March 1813, British warships blockaded the Chesapeake Bay and launched numerous coastal attacks.

On August 19, 1814, a British naval and military expeditionary forces of 4,500 men entered the Patuxent River at Benedict, Md. On August 24, the British defeated the American army at Bladensburg and marched on Washington where they burned several government buildings. They retraced their march and sailed for Tangier Island to prepare for an attack on Baltimore.

Satellite view of South Baltimore showing locations of the lost forts.

Fort McHenry, completed in 1805, guarded the entrance to the city’s harbor. In 1814 it was garrisoned by 1,000 federal, militia, and sailors with an armament of 60 cannons. Three other nearby shore defenses were constructed in 1813 with federal and local funds to defend the Ferry Branch and the western land approach to Baltimore.

From Fort Look-Out, which stood at the current site of the gazebo in Riverside Park, defenders could view Fort McHenry and the outer harbor with Forts Babcock and Covington below along the peninsula’s southern shoreline. Here, local militia kept a look-out for British warships. This 180 ft. diameter circular earthen redoubt, designed by Captain Samuel Babcock of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, contained seven 18-pounder cannons, a powder magazine, and an exterior 8-foot ditch. It was commanded by Lt. George Budd, U.S. Navy, a celebrated Maryland officer from Harford County.

Fort Babcock, also designed by Babcock, was an earthen half-elliptical shore battery with six cannons. Sailing Master John Adams Webster commanded 75 sailors of the U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla here.

Fort Covington, located west of Babcock along the shoreline, was an impressive V-shaped brick wall fortification holding a powder magazine and barracks. It was named for Brig. General Leonard Covington, a Marylander killed at the Battle of Chrysler’s Farm, Upper Canada, in November 1813. The 10-foot-high wall mounted a semi-circular gun platform for 10 cannons. The fort and its 80 sailors were commanded by Lt. Henry S. Newcomb, U.S. Navy.

The American defenders blocked the water route into the Fell’s Point harbor by deliberately sinking several merchant vessels in the channel just east of Fort McHenry. A popular rumor has it that ships were also sunk in the Ferry Branch, but there is no historical evidence of this.

The Battle for Baltimore Begins

The British fleet began bombarding Fort McHenry in the early morning of September 13. Newcomb’s official account of the diversionary naval assault on the Ferry Branch batteries that followed sums up the attack:

At 10 p.m. “enemy’s barges all in motion, weather thick and hazy with frequent showers of rain … we commenced firing … they soon left their station.”

“At 2 o’clock this morning the enemy’s small craft came abreast Fort Covington, when we commenced firing & was followed by the Six Gun Battery [and Fort Lookout]. They soon left their station. They sent 12’s, 18’s & 24’s [cannon shot] into the fort & even to the new works [Fort Look-out] on the top of the hill … The shells & rockets, tho they went over us, did no injury.”

The British naval assault was repulsed by the peninsula defenders, bringing an end to the battle in the early hours of September 14 before “the dawn’s early light.”  Five months later, the War of 1812 came to a close with America victorious.

The Fate of the Forts

In 1853 when Colonel Robert E. Lee, U. S. Corps of Engineers, surveyed Fort Look-Out (then known as Battery Square), he found it in ruins. In 1873, Baltimore’s Park Commission purchased the site and renamed it Riverside Park. Now called Leone-Riverside Park in honor of City Councilman Dominic Leone, Jr., it features six War of 1812-era cannons on the original site of Fort Look-Out.

A 1914 monument to Fort Babcock, complete with a War-of-1812-era cannon, is in search of a new home after being removed from a site near the original location of the fort, which was close to the present-day intersection of Key Highway and I-95. Photo courtesy Lou Giles, the Society of the War of 1812 in Maryland.

The site of Fort Babcock lies beneath Interstate 95 about 100 feet west of Key Highway. In 1914 the National Star-Spangled Banner Centennial Commission erected a memorial to Fort Babcock in front of the nearby Gould Street Power Plant. The large granite stone with commemorative bronze plaque and 6-pounder field cannon (likely a veteran of the 1814 Baltimore battle) was removed in 2019 in advance of the demolition of the power plant in early 2021.

Fort Covington had been abandoned by 1823 and was removed in 1837. No memorial or historic marker was ever erected. A more permanent tribute, however, came in 1904, according to the Baltimore Sun. The Western Maryland Railroad Company, which had just purchased a stretch of the South Baltimore shoreline for a new shipping terminal, christened the area Port Covington in honor of the long-lost fort. The site of the fort lies near the Sagamore Spirit distillery, 301 E. Cromwell St.

The Fort Babcock memorial is now in the hands of the Society of the War of 1812 in Maryland, which is restoring the cannon. While a new home for the memorial has not been secured, the Society is in discussions with the company currently redeveloping Port Covington, says society vice president Lou Giles.

According to Weller Development spokesman John Maroon: “As the development of Port Covington continues to move forward, we are examining how best to commemorate the rich history of the area. Fort Covington and Fort Babcock certainly played integral roles in the War of 1812.  While plans on how best to celebrate the area’s history are still being considered, we are very excited by the possibilities.” − Scott S. Sheads

Locust Point resident Scott Sheads is a former National Park Service historian at Fort McHenry National Monument. He served as a consultant for the Smithsonian’s preservation of the original Star-Spangled Banner. His most recent book is The Chesapeake Campaigns, 1813-1815: Middle Ground of the War of 1812 (Osprey, London, 2014).

* * *

The Alfred Jacob Miller painting of the 1814 battle is featured in an exhibition at the Maryland Center for History and Culture, 610 Park Ave. “The Unfinished Revolution” explores the connections between the American Revolution and the War of 1812, telling the story of America’s rise as a free and independent nation.

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