Betsy’s Circle: The Man Who Saved Baltimore Twice

General Samuel Smith Rembrandt Peale
General Samuel Smith by Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The person in charge of the defense of Baltimore when the British attacked in 1814 was Samuel Smith, former revolutionary officer and current U.S. senator. He also happened to be Betsy Bonaparte’s uncle, as he was married to her mother’s older sister.

Samuel Smith was born in Pennsylvania, but his family moved to Baltimore when he was a boy, and he made Baltimore his home for the rest of his life. Like Betsy’s father, he made his money from shipping and trade. Smith served in the army during the Revolutionary War, advancing from captain to major to lieutenant colonel. He spent the winter at Valley Forge with George Washington, and he later took part in the Battles of Saratoga, which were the turning point of the war.

In his forties, Smith entered politics. He served in the House of Representatives from 1793 to 1803 and in the Senate from 1803 to 1815. His highest rank was president pro tempore of the Senate, making him third in line to the presidency.

During the War of 1812, a Baltimore officer named General William Winder had been in charge of the disastrous defense of Washington, D.C., which led to a rout of the American forces and the burning of the capital. When it came to defending their own city, Baltimoreans turned to 62-year-old Samuel Smith rather than the much-younger Winder. Smith organized the digging of fortifications to prevent a land approach and prepared to sink ships in the Patapsco River to prevent a water approach.

After the Battle of Baltimore was over, Smith returned to Congress, serving in both the Senate and the House for nearly two more decades. All together he spent 40 years in Congress.

In August 1835, Smith was once again called upon to save his city. Seventeen months earlier, the Bank of Maryland had failed, and the public had grown tired of waiting for the long-promised settlement. For several nights running, angry people gathered to attack the homes of bank directors. Samuel Smith, now eighty-three years old, organized a force of volunteers and managed to quiet the mob and convince them to disperse. The grateful city made Smith mayor, a position he held for three years. He died in 1839 at the age of 86.

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