(This article originally appeared in the June-July 2022 print edition of the South Baltimore Peninsula Post.)
In the aftermath of “the rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air” over Fort McHenry during the British naval bombardment in September 1814, it must certainly have been a relief to the soldiers at the Fort that Mrs. Schwartzauer’s tavern was still there, just a few yards away.
The tavern, built around 1798, at the same time as the Fort, was on the northern boundary of the military reservation, which in the early 1800s was much closer to the Fort than it is today. The two-story tavern stood next to the lone sentry post at the Fort’s outer gate alongside the road that led back to Baltimore, some two miles away. At the time of the 1814 battle, the South Baltimore peninsula was sparsely populated, with very few buildings of any kind between the Fort and the current Federal Hill area.
The owner of the tavern during that fateful September was a 44-year-old widow, Eva Maria Schwartzauer (c. 1770-1842), an immigrant from Holland. Upon the death of her husband Philip in 1810, she became sole owner-proprietor of the tavern and the nearby boarding house for travelers.
The brick tavern measured 50 feet by 150 feet. It contained a kitchen, a hall, parlor, bed chambers, and a servants’ room. The dining room serving Chesapeake cuisine with produce from a large market garden and livestock kept on the property.
Judging by accounts of the day, the Schwartzauer tavern must have been an enjoyable place to visit. On one wintry day in 1806, an English traveler visiting America recorded in his diary: “I went to the fort, where there is a good tavern; it is a resort on Sundays for purposes of pleasure.”
The tavern survived the 1814 British bombardment, but just barely, according to the memoir of a soldier at the Fort during the bombardment:
“A [200-pound bomb] shell struck the roof of the Tavern … went through the house into the cellar without doing much damage … [others] fell outside … and made a hole big enough to bury a horse in.”
If, however, the battle had turned out differently and the British had landed at the Fort, the tavern and nearby houses would “instantly be blown up” to deny cover to the enemy, according to an order issued earlier in the conflict.
After the battle, the tavern circulated single-sheet broadsides with a new song entitled “Defence of Fort McHenry,” which would eventually be better known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The tavern must surely have provided a welcomed respite from war for travelers and perhaps a soldier or two from over the walls at night.
In the years following the war, several civilian celebrations took place at the tavern. In May 1816, representatives of the City of Baltimore came to the tavern to present a 16-inch silver punchbowl to Lt. Colonel George Armistead in the shape of a British bombshell, complete with cups. And in September 1836, the former defenders of Baltimore met there to organize a military society that would later become known as the “Old Defenders of Baltimore of 1814,” recognized today as the Society of the War of 1812 in Maryland.
But the close proximity of the Fort and the alcohol-serving tavern just outside its gates inevitably created tensions. In the late 1820s, a temperance movement took hold across the young country. In November 1829, the Reverend Nathaniel A. Hewit, a national orator of the American Temperance Society, was invited to give a temperance lecture to the garrison at Fort McHenry on the “abstinence from ardent spirits.” The entire company (with the exception of three old soldiers) voluntarily petitioned the captain “to commute their ration of whiskey for other articles.” It’s doubtful that the tavern played a part in this event, other than to serve as an all-too-close example of the evil to be resisted.
In April 1833, the Fort’s commander, Colonel John Baptiste de Barth Walbach, complained in a letter to the War Department: “to have such neighbors, (Grog Shops) in our vicinity … adjoining the wall of the Post, is a great nuisance, and as our present Soldiers are generally addicted to intemperance, it is impossible to prevent the introduction, or rather smuggling in of that infirmed bane for an Army.”
These tensions ceased in 1836, however, when life at the tavern came to an end. On September 12, the U.S. Government purchased the Schwartzauer property, which included the tavern, boarding house, and outbuildings for $12,000. They also purchased the adjacent land for $25,000, extending the boundary of the military complex westward to its current location and creating the 42-acre complex we know today as Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.
Eva Maria Schwartzauer died in 1846. She is buried in Western Cemetery on Edmondson Avenue in Baltimore.
In the early 1960s, decades after the National Park Service took over the Fort, archeologists exposed remnants of the tavern foundation along with construction, household, and kitchen debris. They also found a fragment of a 13-inch, 200-pound British mortar shell from “the perilous fight.”
On your next visit to the Fort, ask a park ranger to show you the tavern’s location just inside the picket fence, on the side of the Fort facing the visitors’ center. The tavern’s four corners are marked by bricks. – Scott S. Sheads, a former National Park Service historian at Fort McHenry, is author of The Chesapeake Campaigns, 1813-1815: Middle Ground of the War of 1812 (Osprey, London, 2014).