book four in the FREE MEN AND DREAMERS series
Thursday, August 25, 1814, 11:00 pm
One day after the Burning of Washington
Dear God, please, don’t let it be true. It was the silent prayer of Judge Joseph Hopper Nicholson as he hurried home to Baltimore, the smoke growing thicker with each passing mile. His horse was restless over the scent, straining at the bit and wanting to turn off the road. As debilitated as he felt, Hopper feared to give the animal his head and allow him to lead as he normally would.
Several times, Nicholson nearly slipped from his mount. Fatigue and the heat only added to his previous distress, brought on by a feverish malady during his stay in New York, when the fearsome news arrived of the British landing near Washington. Concerns for his wife and family, and for his volunteer artillerists, the Baltimore Fencibles—who would surely have rushed to the defense of Fort McHenry—drew the forty-four-year-old militia commander from his sickbed to begin an anxious return home to Baltimore.
As he headed south, increasingly grim details of the invasion assaulted him at each stop along the way—the American army had fled at Bladensburg, the president and his cabinet had been evacuated, and the city of Washington had been captured and set ablaze. Baltimore was eerily quiet when Nicholson entered. Slowing his horse to a trot, he followed Belle Air Avenue southwest, gazing down the side streets to assess the city’s mood. A smoky haze hung in the air as he urged his mount up onto Hampstead Hill, the highest rise near the city. A cry caught in the back of Nicholson’s throat as he gasped at the scene. Far off to the southwest, in the direction of Washington, seethed the source of the smoldering air.
“It’s true . . .” he groaned as he absorbed the cruel reality of it all.
He had been warned. As much as he had tried to discount the wild tales, how could he have doubted their general veracity after so many similar reports? A few facts had differed—British troop figures, how quickly they defeated the Americans at Bladensburg, the number and names of the magnificent Washington buildings torched, the amount of time required to mindlessly destroy a republic’s capital. In the deepest corner of Nicholson’s heart, he had hoped it had been a grotesque exaggeration. But it wasn’t. Glowing surreally, like a distant campfire emitting a forty-mile-long trail of soot and ash, the capital city still burned.
He leaned forward on his horse and scanned the harbor area to be sure Baltimore was still sovereign and safe, but it too was eerily illuminated, and his stomach tightened. He studied the light until he could identify the reason for the unnerving glow—dozens of small campfires. But whose? Peering more intently, Nicholson studied the star-shaped Fort McHenry, scanning the outline for the flag pole and then . . .
A loud release of breath escaped him as he saw the defiant outline of the American flag, fluttering boldly above the fort. He eyed it thankfully for several long seconds. Never before had he become emotional at seeing the red, white, and blue banner that designated American territory, but today his gratitude was full. His head instinctively turned toward the Pickersgill home, number 60 Albemarle Street, on the corner of East Pratt. He wondered if the widowed Mrs. Pickersgill and the other women of the family, whose hands had created the glorious ensign, had determined to remain in the city at such a perilous time as this.
Despite the presence of the American flag, Nicholson couldn’t shake his worry over the state of Baltimore. Delaying the arrival to his home, he set off straight to Fort McHenry. Innumerable militia soldiers were bivouacked around the fort’s five-sided perimeter. A private saluted him at the sally port as he hurried through, past his own quarters in the junior officers’ barracks to the dimly lit barracks where Major Armistead and his family lived.
He rapped on the door and the major answered quickly. “You look dreadful, Joseph.”
“A touch of the grip, but you look none better, Major. I hurried home as soon as I heard.”
The grim-faced officer opened the door wide, encouraging Judge Nicholson to enter. “Washington is a devastating loss. We’re bracing for the worst here, but we’ve made our preparations. Still, I’ve moved Louisa to Gettysburg to keep her and the baby out of harm’s way. Did I tell you I dreamed the child she carries is a son? I pray I get to meet him.”
“Of course you will, George. What is the mood in the city? All seems calm.”
“Panic, initially, particularly as news of Alexandria’s plan to capitulate reached here. Some of the citizens are fleeing, and some are calling for us to surrender as well. I’d like to shoot such cowards, but sadly, they still retain the privilege to exercise their freedom to speak, even if it is in a manner that would deprive them of that very right!”
“Not a single sentry met me on my ride in, as if there has been a deliberate plan to surrender Baltimore without a struggle.”
Armistead sighed in exasperation. “It did appear that way a few days ago, but things are improving somewhat. We’ve over a thousand militia camped around our perimeter, and Major General Smith is amassing new volunteers every day to defend the city against an attack by land. He strengthened the militia and Fort McHenry prior to my arrival, and he continues to work for the defense of this city. We owe him such gratitude for all this! There are also citizens’ groups springing up amongst those determined to remain and defend Baltimore.”
“What do your instincts tell you, Major? Do you think those volunteers will hold their lines, or will this be a repeat of Bladensburg and Washington?”
The major’s hand reached up and pressed against his tense mouth. Tiny shakes of his head gave the reply he dared not utter. Then he looked Nicholson in the eye. “I don’t know, Joseph. Only time will tell. Only time will tell.”