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'The Hour of Peril ... is not yet past': Fall 1814 Baltimore Defense Plans
Vincent Vaise

On September 14, 1814, following the Battle of Baltimore, Americans breathed a heavy sigh of relief as the British Royal Navy retired down the Patapsco River. In theaters and taverns, people sang a new song commemorating the victory--"The Defense of Fort McHenry," later renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner." For Baltimore’s high command, however, the weeks following the battle were filled with anticipation of a renewed attack. Maintaining and improving the defenses in the face of lack of supplies, pressures from the federal government, departure of the militia, and the oncoming fall weather proved difficult. A study of how the city tried to meet these challenges sheds light on problems inherent in the American militia system of the early 19th century and also illustrates the difficulties of defending an area as large as the Chesapeake Bay when opposed by a formidable if not superior enemy.

Initial efforts centered on strengthening existing defensive positions and repairing battle damage. Prior to the battle, hulks were sunk in the main channel leading to the harbor, between Fort McHenry and Lazaretto Point. A British probe by barges under Capt. Charles Napier, R.N., into the Ferry Branch west of Fort McHenry on the night of September 13-14 had exposed the vulnerability of the defenses south and west of the fort. To prevent a second such enemy barge assault, hulks were sunk on September 19 in the Ferry Branch under the guidance of Com. John Rodgers.2 Baltimore commander-in-chief Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith further proposed a log and chain boom to cover this channel.3

Defensive works on the Ferry Branch constructed of earthen walls bolstered with pine palisades had provided support for Fort McHenry during the battle but needed improvement. Fort Covington, for example, was heavily damaged when, in the heat of the engagement, all seven 18-pound cannons in the battery were discharged simultaneously with the result that the severe recoil shattered the gun platform.4 Construction continued on Fort Wood (also known as Fort Lookout), a circular battery located on a higher elevation behind Fort Covington. Ground was broken on September 2 and only partly completed by the time of the battle.5 Work frequently stalled due to lack of carts and shortage of labor.6 The desire to complete the job as fast as possible is evidenced by an appeal to slaveowners by the Committee of Vigilance and Safety to "hire us your black Carpenters to work at the Fort at Camp-Look-Out, in laying floors &c ... The white Carpenters are all now on duty."7 Free blacks were also invited to participate and were promised fifty cents per day plus military rations.8 Ultimately, Fort Lookout boasted twenty cannons, ranging from 18- to 24-pounders.9 The fort was still being readied as late as October 17, with plans underway to test fire the guns to measure the recoil. Additional eyebolts and tackles were ordered presumably to guard against a repeat of the incident at Fort Covington.10

Of all the harbor defenses, none was more important than Fort McHenry. Fifty-six French naval guns (twenty-eight 36-pounders and twenty-eight 18-pounders loaned to the fort by the French consul) had successfully kept the British ships at bay for twenty-five hours and rendered a naval assault impractical. In spite of this, the battle almost went the way of the British when an enemy bomb hit the fort's powder magazine but failed to explode. Rendering the magazine bombproof became a top priority. Brig. Gen. William H. Winder estimated that it would take 192,000 bricks, 24,000 cubic square feet of timber, forty bricklayers, and fifty carpenters to do the job.11 Contractors were chosen by the local Committee of Vigilance and Safety with funding guaranteed by the federal government.12 Work began in earnest under the direction of Capt. Samuel Babcock of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The bombproofing of the magazine was completed in only ten days.13 Underground bunkers were also added to protect the soldiers from mortar fire.14
Baltimore's defense planners also recognized the need to upgrade their armament. With a two-mile range, British bomb ships were able to fire at Fort McHenry with impunity.
Following the battle, Lt. Col. George Armistead, commander of the fort, recommended 10- and 13-inch mortars to be mounted at the fort.15 A colorful sidelight to this need for greater firepower came from a Major De Fauvel, a self-proclaimed French army officer. In a proposal to the Committee of Vigilance and Safety, he boasted that he could invent a mortar which would fire three bombs simultaneously and hurl them three miles.16 The committee members were no doubt sceptical of the capabilities of this unknown officer. They chose instead to rely on the proven abilities of Captain Babcock.17
Another weapon employed by the British was the Congreve rocket. In addition to the intimidating "red glare" made famous in the national anthem, the weapon featured an exploding warhead. Following the battle, parties recovered unexploded rockets from North Point and Fort McHenry. After copying the design, prototypes were developed and tested in Baltimore. Recognizing their value (more for psychological intimidation than for as a strategic asset), General Smith pressured the Secretary of War to fund their production.18

The most substantial entrenchments were located on a hill east of the city known alternately as Hampstead Hill, Loudenslager’s Hill, or Chinquapin Hill.19 Although incomplete at the time of the battle, these works proved the main deterrent to the 5,000- man British invasion force. This two and a half-mile long line of entrenchments stretched from just west of Harris Creek on the eastern branch of the Patapsco River in toward the Belair Road in the north. General Smith urged work to resume on the entrenchments only three days after the battle.

The incessant rain showers that continued throughout September slowed new construction and caved in many of the mud walls. In a letter of September 18, Brig. Gen. Thomas Marsh Forman, commander of the First Brigade, Maryland Militia, wrote of "a most tremendous Northwester which is punishing our poor soldiers, most of whom are in very thin clothing."20 Many militiamen were sent home to get adequate clothing. Some militia companies were reluctant to work in the waterlogged entrenchments. One engineer remarked: "Water being found in the Ditches when they were gone three feet, the volunteers abandon the works—thus nothing is completed."21

“One of the most sickly situations on the Patapsco”

The inclement weather no doubt caused some of the soldiers to become sick, although it is difficult to accurately assess how many men were ill. Muster rolls from the time, particularly those for the militia, were often incomplete or not filled out at all. One general even stated that he was unable to complete his returns because his desk and paper had not arrived. The harbor forts reported particularly high numbers of men who were ill, perhaps due to the soldiers being quartered in barracks and the proximity to a marsh. In a letter of September 25, General Smith stated that "three-fourths" of the garrison of Fort McHenry were ill.22 Simmones Bunbury, captain of a company of United States Sea Fencibles (a federal volunteer unit made up largely of mariners), described the area as: "One of the most sickly situations on the Patapsco."23 Prior to the battle, the entire 93-man contingent of Sea Fencibles fell ill and were replaced by the U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla.24 Officers fell ill as well, including Colonel Armistead – Commodore Rodgers took temporary command on September 15, because the fort commander was incapacitated after the battle. Capt. Robert Spence, U.S.N., reported that "there is scarcely a Navy Officer on this station who has not been confined to his bed."25

When Captain Babcock became sick, progress on the Hampstead Hill earthworks suffered a severe setback. On the very day Babcock was reported "too ill to attend to duty," companies started to volunteer their time to work on the entrenchments.26 The first unit to donate their time was the Baltimore Fencibles. This group of federal volunteers made up part of the garrison of Fort McHenry during the bombardment. Their commander, Capt. Joseph H. Nicholson (brother-in-law to Francis Scott Key) ordered his men to assemble "precisely at 6 o'clock... in working dress and furnished with a day's rations."27 Other units, mainly state militia companies, soon followed suit. Unfortunately, without an engineer's instruction, much of the effort was wasted. The works were described as "incomplete and incompetent." In the words of General Smith, "we undo one day what had been done a few days before."28 Eventually, a civilian engineer was found. Maximilian Godefroy (who would later design the Battle Monument in downtown Baltimore) began supervising construction in early October; however, with no staff, his powers were limited. In an exasperated tone, he wrote: "The companies who come to work not being the same every Day it would be right to have some overseers ....that the works may not be allways injured on the morn by the New Companies."29 Constant arrival and departure of military units proved the most daunting problem in maintaining Baltimore's defense.

A Shrinking Defense Force

A company of Pennsylvania troops were the first to leave, leaving the city on September 16.25 Many militia companies volunteered for fifteen to thirty days and their time was coming due. By September 19, 1,200 Pennsylvania troops and roughly 2,000 Maryland militia had vacated the city.30 Baltimore continued to lose defenders, and from peak strength of 15,588 on September 9, the number shrank to 7,851 on September 20.31

Although the British main fleet had withdrawn the southern Chesapeake Bay, and would soon quit the region for good, there existed real fear that the enemy would strike Philadelphia or Wilmington, Delaware. In response to this potential threat, the Pennsylvania militia established three camps, at the Brandywine River, Marcus Hook, and Elkton, Maryland.32 In order to bolster these defense forces, Secretary of the Navy William Jones ordered Commodore Rodgers and his 600-man force of crack naval gunners and U.S. Marines north.33 They reached New Castle on September 22 "very much fagged."34 Their departure left many of the harbor forts and sections of the trench at Hampstead Hill abandoned. The move also hurt morale among the defenders remaining and the command structure—General Smith complained that "this order deprives me of my right arm."35

Acting Secretary of War James Monroe worried about another British attack on Washington, D.C. Determined that the nation’s capital not be left open to attack as it had been, scandalously so under his predecessor John Armstong, Monroe ordered the mobilization of troops of the 36th and 38th U.S. Infantry (about 700 men), and the U.S. Light Dragoons under Lt. Col. Jacint Lavall, along with 1,300 Virginia and 1,500 Pennsylvania militia to come to the defense of Washington.36 The troops would encamp near Snowden's midway between Washington and Baltimore, in the vicinity of present-day Laurel.37 Nearly all of these forces had departed by September 23, except for around 300 Pennsylvania militiamen who did not have tents or sufficient accoutrements.38

Procuring rations for the departing forces and the few troops that remained proved challenging. November being the month when local farmers drove their hogs into town, contractors were reaching the end of their stores. Fifteen hundred barrels of salt pork that belonged to the Navy could only be sold to local contractors with the permission of Secretary of the Navy Jones. Evidently the men marched without this "naval fare" because on October 2, General Smith was still requesting it from the Secretary of War.39 Soldiers—especially the militia units, often made their sentiments felt regarding poor rations. Lt. Jacob Crumbacker, who served in Capt. Nicolas Turbett's 16th Regiment, Maryland Volunteer Infantry, from Frederick, Maryland, wrote years later of a mock funeral service that was held for spoiled rations: "Two men went and dug a hole and four of them put straw bands round their hats as pall bearers and took the meet on two poles while the company marched after the drum beating a ‘Dead March’ before and after they buried the meet they gave three cheers and Returned to their quarters."40 Many soldiers simply fasted instead of eating unhealthy rations.

Food was not the only item in short supply. Cartridge boxes, tents, canteens and camp equipment were hard to come by. Discharged units had a tendency to keep many of the items issued. Although repeated orders stated that brigade commanders were to insure that discharged companies returned issued equipment to the Commissary General of Purchases, this procedure was not always followed. The federal government indirectly contributed to Baltimore's supply difficulties by ordering various units to Snowden's. Troops that departed the confines of the city needed many of the items on the march. An exasperated General Smith summed this up most succinctly when he wrote to Monroe on September 26: "It is vain to organize, equip & discipline militia if they are to be withdrawn to other points & take their arms & Equipments with them."41

Hundreds of reinforcements came to Baltimore while other troops were being ordered elsewhere or discharged. Most of the replacements came from Pennsylvania but they arrived in a haphazard manner. Some companies were fully equipped but many were not. Pennsylvania militia commander Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Watson noted: "All the 3,300 men under my command have good muskets— We have but 800 cartridge boxes— The men generally have Knapsacks & about 1,500 canteens......and not one cent of money in the hands of our Quarter Master."42

Ammunition was the scarcest commodity

Of all the military materiele that the troops needed, ammunition was the scarcest commodity in Baltimore. Prior to the battle, the garrison of Fort McHenry was charged with making 320,000 musket cartridges.43 Although this number was never achieved, the men did make well over 100,000 rounds, which proved invaluable to the city's defense. Following the engagement, the illnesses suffered by Colonel Armistead and most of his command prevented any further efforts to make ammunition.44 With the commissary office in Philadelphia being depleted, and Washington unable to help, Baltimore had to fend for itself. A new cartridge-making factory was built at McElderry's wharf, and one hundred men were detailed to the facility to make ammunition.45 General Smith stated to the Secretary Monroe that the laboratory was in full operation by late September.

While September wore on, troops began to press for payment. Many had hoped to use their pay to purchase items needed in the field. Some offered to accept a fresh pair of shoes in lieu of money.46 Because the militia were federalized prior to the battle, funds were expected to come from the central government. Neither materiel nor payment were forthcoming and not surprisingly, many militiamen deserted. With cold, damp fall weather on the way, some troops were allowed to go home to get warmer clothing. General Forman wrote rather complacently to his wife: "A great many of my Brigade have deserted, a great many are furloughed and nearly all are extremely anxious to return home."47 Evidently Forman's "Brigade" had been losing men for some time for, in a letter to Secretary Monroe of October 5, General Smith stated that the brigade only numbered 23 men, and that thirty to forty men deserted each night.48 Soldiers in the ranks drew up anonymous letters of protest and forwarded them to the high command.

Acts of minor insubordination were tolerated to a degree in the militia, however, the regular army was, on average, more strict. One extreme example can be found in the detachment of U.S. Light Dragoons stationed on Chinquapin Hill after the battle. Although the U.S. Army outlawed flogging in 1808, a letter of protest signed by sixteen members of the unit attests to an officer taking men into his tent for repeated beatings. They claim to have witnessed men: "receive 25, 30 or 50 lashes! The blood streaming to the ground! And this day—your petitioners have been cursed with the sight of a dragoon receiving 71!! Lashes with a cowhide!"49 The author of this petition was later arrested and charged with inciting a mutiny. While the regular army constituted a more professional force and suffered fewer desertions, nearly all had departed the Baltimore area by late September. By October, the only regulars remaining were sixty men of the U.S. Corps of Artillery at Fort McHenry.

Fears of a second British attack persisted as late as mid October. One militia officer noted that: "News arrived from our Commissioners at Ghent stating no prospect of a peace with England."50 Even the Nile's Weekly Register remarked how the British were preparing for a new attack on the city.51 Many believed that the British had left the Chesapeake only to pick up reinforcements elsewhere. By early November, however, tensions began to relax. The onset of winter and little sign of enemy activity further calmed fears. When General Winfield Scott, Commander of the 10th Military District, discharged the militia of his command on November 28, the hour of peril was truly past.52

The purpose of this article was to assess Baltimore's ability to sustain an adequate defense after the British attack. Insofar as the city had the ability to control its own affairs, it was largely successful. Repairs of battle damage were made, improvements were completed, and shortcomings in armament were addressed. When Winfield Scott took over on October 19, the city was well protected with fortifications. In maintaining an adequate number of troops for defense, the city leaders had considerably less success, due mainly to problems inherent in the militia system and War Department.

Monroe's decision to send the 36th and 38th Regiments of Infantry and Lavall's Dragoons to the encampment at Snowden's, deprived the city of practically all its professional soldiers. The location of Snowden's was a poor one. The British had the advantage of naval superiority and could concentrate forces near the city long before the regulars could arrive. The departure of Commodore Rodgers' command not only left the harbor forts abandoned, but hurt the morale of the troops left behind. Their position near Elkton, Maryland also put them at a distance too great to respond should the British launch a rapid strike against Baltimore. The old problem of trying to guard too much territory with too few men remained.

The federal government also failed to provide adequate funds for the purchase of rations and supplies. Troops deserted not from a lack of patriotism, but simply for want of adequate food and clothing. The earlier emergency in Washington and the rapid mobilization of Philadelphia emptied the commissary stores in those respective cities. Faced with deficiencies in arms and ammunition, one can only speculate as to the effectiveness of the units remaining. In addition to supply, one must also consider training. This was not the fault of the government, but rather an endemic problem with the militia system. While the units organized in the city remained on hand, the troops mustered from surrounding counties and states stayed for only a short duration—generally less than a month. The constant cycle of arrivals and departures precluded any serious training and disrupted the command structure. New arrivals were unfamiliar with the terrain—further compromising their effectiveness.

The Battle of Baltimore gave the country a morale boost and ultimately, a national anthem. Unfortunately, problems relating to supply and command became more manifest following the battle as the city struggled to maintain its defenses. After burning Washington, the British delayed for almost two weeks before sailing to Baltimore—giving the defenders time to concentrate. They were also intimidated by seeing what they believed to be strong entrenchments outside the city. Had the British reappeared after the bulk of the defenders had dispersed and attacked more vigorously, it would have been a truly perilous fight.


1.  (Quote from title). Capt. Robert Spence to Secretary of the Navy William Jones, September 19, 1814, Library of Congress (hereafter LC), Microfilm no. 147.

2.  Com. John Rodgers to Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith, September 19, 1814, Samuel Smith Papers, LC.

3.  Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to Col. James Monroe, September 19, 1814, Records of the War Department, Office of the Secretary of War, Selected Letters Received 1814-1817, National Archives (hereafter NA).

4.  Minute Book of the Committee of Vigilance and Safety, Ms 1846, Maryland Historical Society (hereafter MHS), September 29, 1814. . The wood was probably Eastern white pine, very common and indigenous to the Mid-Atlantic Region.

5.  Capt. Samuel Babcock to Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith, September 3, 1814, Baltimore City Archives (hereafter BCA) Item 479.

6.  Minute Book of the Committee of Vigilance and Safety, Ms. 1846, MHS, October 4, 1814.

7.  Ibid., September 15, 1814.

8.  Ibid., October 3, 1814.

9.  Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to Committee of Vigilance and Safety, October 14, 1814, BCA, Box 23, Item 533.

10.  Capt. Philips to Mayor Edward Johnson, October 17, 1814, BCA, Box 24, Item 536.

11.  Brig. Gen. William Winder to Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith, September 18, 1814, BCA, Box 23, Item 496.

12.  Minute Book of the Committee of Vigilance and Safety, Ms. 1846, MHS, September 18 and 20, 1814.

13.  Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to Col. James Monroe, September 29,1814. Samuel Smith Papers, Columbia University.

14.  Ibid.,

15.  Joseph H. Nicholson to Committee of Vigilance and Safety, September 17, 1814 (written on behalf of Lt. Col. George Armistead, who was ill), BCA, Box 23, Item 493. At the time of the battle, Armistead was a major but he was breveted a lieutenant colonel by President Madison as of September 12, 1814 before the bombardment. See Scott Sumpter Sheads, Guardian of the Star-Spangled Banner: Lt. Colonel George Armistead and the Fort McHenry Flag (Baltimore: Toomey Press, 1999).

16.  Federal Gazette and Baltimore Daily Advertiser, September 20, 1814.

17.  Minute Book of the Committee of Vigilance and Safety, Ms. 1846, MHS, September 17 1814.

18.  Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to James Monroe, September 28, 1814, Samuel Smith Papers, Columbia University

19.  The name "Chinquapin Hill" is used in lieu of "Hampstead Hill" in the correspondence of Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith. The common Chinquapin (Castanea pumila) is known as the dwarf chestnut. Once common in the Southeast United States, they have been all but wiped out by the Chestnut blight of 1904. Note: In Colonel Brooke's dispatch describing the face-off opposite the American defensive positions on September 13-14, the American entrenchments are also described as being on "Chinquapin Hill": "Chinkapin hill [sic], which lay in front of our position, completely commands the town; this was the strongest part of the line. . . ." The description makes it clear that Brooke meant Rodgers Bastion aka Hampstead Hill -- present day Patterson Park. Col. Arthur Brooke to Lord Bathurst, September 17, 1814. Gentleman’s Magazine, December 1814.

20.  Thomas Forman to Martha Brown Forman, September 18, 1814, Ms. 1846, MHS.

21.  Maximilian Godefroy to Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott, October 26, 1814, BCA, Box 24, Items 541 & 543.

22.  Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to James Monroe, September 25, 1814, NA, RG 107, Office of the Secretary of War, Selected Letters Received, 1814-1817.

23.  Simmones Bunbury to Adjutant General, War Department, October 23, 1814, National Archives, Microfilm no. 566, Roll 35.

24.  Com. John Rodgers to Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith, September 10, 1814, John Rodgers Papers, Manuscript #147, LC.

25.  Capt. Robert T. Spence to Com. John Rodgers, September 29, 1814, MHS.

26.  For Smith's report regarding Babcock's illness, see Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to Col. James Monroe, September 29, 1814, Samuel Smith Papers, Columbia University. For militia companies donating their time, see Minute Book of the Committee of Vigilance and Safety, September 29, 1814, Ms. 1846, MHS.

27.  The American, September 30, 1814.

28.  Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to James Monroe, September 29, 1814, Samuel Smith Papers, Columbia University.

29.  Maximilian Godefroy to Gen. Winfield Scott, October 26, 1814, BCA, Box 24, Item 241.

30.  Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to Col. James Monroe, September 16, 1814, Samuel Smith Papers, Columbia University.

31.  For statistics regarding troop strengths prior to the battle, see Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to Col. James Monroe, September 9, 1814, Samuel Smith Papers, Columbia University. For troop strengths following the battle see Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to Col. James Monroe, September 20, 1814, Records of the War Department, RG 107, Office of the Secretary of War, Selected Letters Received 1814-1817, NA.

32.  Col. Lane to Brig. Gen. William Winder, September 17, 1814, William Winder Papers, Microfilm No. 16, MHS.

33.  William Jones to Com. John Rodgers, September 19, 1814. Volume 8, Second Series Com. John Rodgers Papers, LC.

34.  Com. John Rodgers to William Jones, September 22, 1814, Volume 8, Second Series, Com. John. Rodgers Papers, LC.

35.  Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to Col. James Monroe, September 20, 1814, Records of the War Department, Record Group 107, Office of the Secretary of War, Library of Congress

36.  Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to James Monroe, September 22, 1814. Samuel Smith Papers, Columbia University

37.  The "Snowdens" referred to by Smith and Monroe is probably the adjoining estates of Snow Hill and Montpelier, both of which were owned by members of the Snowden family. The properties are located off Route 295 in Laurel, MD—see Prince George's County Map, published by Maryland Tourism Cooperative.

38.  Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to Col. James Monroe, September 23, 1814, Records of the War Department, RG 107, Office of the Secretary of War, Selected Records Received 1814-1817, NA.

39.  Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to Col. James Monroe, October 2, 1814, Records of the War Department, RG 107 Selected Records Received 1814-1817, NA.

40.  Jacob Crumbacker to brother Solomon Crumbacker, October 19, 1835, Vertical File, Fort McHenry National Monument, National Park Service.

41.  Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to Col. James Monroe, September 26, 1814, Samuel Smith Papers, Columbia University.

42.  Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Watson to Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith, September 20, 1814, Records of the War Department, Office of the Secretary of War, Selected Records Received 1814-1817, NA.

43.  Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to Maj. George Armistead, July 11, 1814, Box 6, Reel 34, Samuel Smith Papers, LC.

44.  Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to Col. James Monroe, September 20, 1814, Records of the War Department, RG 107, Office of the Secretary of War, Selected Letters Received 1814-1817, NA.

45.  3rd Division O.B. Reel 76, Group 14, War of 1812 Collection, MHS.

46.  Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith to Col. James Monroe, October 5, 1814, Records of the War Department, RG 107,
Office of the Secretary of War, Selected Letters Received 1814-1817, NA.

47.  Brig. Gen. Thomas Foreman to Martha Brown Foreman, September 20, 1814, War of 1812 Collection, Ms. 1846, MHS.

48.  Maj. Gen. Sam Smith to Col. James Monroe, October 5, 1814, Records of the War Department, RG 107 Office of the Secretary of War, Selected Records Received 1814-1817, National Archives

49.  Petition to Brig. Gen. William H. Winder, September 17, 1814, Winder Papers, War of 1812 Collection, MHS.

50.  Thomson Diary, October 11, 1814, Reel 77, Group 2, MHS.

51.  Niles’ Weekly Register, October 6, 1814.

52.  Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott to Col. James Monroe, November 28, 1814, Records of the War Department, RG 107 Office of the Secretary of War, Selected Letters Received 1814-1817, National Archives

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