A look at the commanders who clashed at the Battle of North Point
Wednesday, 03 September 2014 13:56

Famed portraitist Rembrandt Peale’s 1816 depiction of Maryland Militia Brig. Gen. John Stricker, who commanded U.S. forces at the Battle of North Point.
Maryland Historical Society

  by Blaine Taylor

    British Maj. Gen. Robert Ross had just been killed in a brief, but important, firefight with Maryland Militia troops, leaving open the command of his crack four-regiment force at the very doorstep of a pitched battle with the enemy up ahead.
    Of the accession of Col. Arthur Brooke (1772-1843) to the command, historians have always quoted the rather offhand comment of British Lt. Robert Gleig in his postwar memoirs:
    “By the fall of our gallant leader, the command now devolved upon Col. Brooke of the 44th Regiment, an officer of decided personal courage, but, perhaps, better calculated to lead a battalion than to guide an army.
   “Being informed of his unexpected and undesired elevation, he came to the front, and under him we continued to move on: sorrowful, indeed, but not dejected.”
    The new commanding officer himself mused thus in his diary about the prospect of attacking all the assembled ground forces at Baltimore in September 1814:
    “If I took the place, I should have been the greatest man in England. If I lost, my military character was gone forever ....”
   Brooke had now to fight his first battle with an independent command that was used to the late Gen. Ross’ leadership, and with no less a personage than the celebrated Royal Navy Adm. Sir George Cockburn looking over his shoulder and breathing down his neck as he did so. Indeed, the fiery salt had been the driving force behind the entire Maryland campaign thus far, not the slain general.
    The question immediately arises: why didn’t Cockburn himself take command of what was, after all, a joint navy-army force?
   The answer was both simple and frustrating to the man who’d helped burn Washington and would live to escort Napoleon Bonaparte into exile on St. Helena the next year: the sailor’s authority, by British custom, was only upon the water, and ended at the water’s edge, where the soldier’s rule began.
   It was, thus, Col. Brooke’s battle to win or lose. That he was, indeed, able to keep the irascible Cockburn in check (a feat not managed by the living Ross for two months), prevail at the Battle of North Point, march on Baltimore, and then withstand the admiral’s ire there to make a tough decision that was crucial to the outcome of the entire Baltimore campaign, is a credit to his own character.
   But who was this still largely unknown British commander who was about to fight at least one pitched battle — and maybe two? Strangely, past historians have paid but scant attention to him.
   Born, like Ross, a Methodist in Ireland, Arthur Brooke entered the British army as an ensign at age 16 in the 44th Regiment in 1793 at the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, and stayed for 22 years, until peace was finally concluded in 1815.
   Thus, by the time of the Battle of North Point, Col. Brooke was thoroughly familiar with every facet of his regiment, but he had no idea whatsoever how his superior would’ve proceeded had he lived.
    Promoted to lieutenant in 1793, Brooke served with Lord Moira’s division in Flanders over the next two years, when he was promoted to captain.                                                             
   Attached to Sir Ralph Abernathy’s army in the reduction of the West Indies through 1798, Brooke served through Abernathy’s campaign in Egypt in 1801, then purchased the rank of major, as was the custom in the British Army at that time. The following year, in 1804, he purchased his lieutenant colonelcy as well, and commanded the 44th in garrison at Malta until 1812.
   The next year, Brooke was promoted to full colonel, attached to Lord William Bentinck’s expedition to the east coast of Spain. Taking command of the brigade to which he was assigned as the senior colonel, Brooke had notable success at the Battle of Ordal against French Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet.
   After the defeat of Napoleon in the spring of 1814, Brooke was one of a trio of colonels ordered to march their regiments across southern France to Bordeaux to embark  for America. Ironically, there were two colonels named Brooke at the Battle of Bladensburg: Col. Arthur Brooke commanded the 44th Regiment, while his brother Francis commanded the 4th Regiment, and both again were at North Point.
    Brooke had first to hold his command together psychologically after the shock of Gen. Ross’s sudden death, get a grasp on an army-sized command for the first time, and go into a major battle with an unknown force — all at once.           
    All things considered, he did rather well. He also later survived the far bloodier Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Seven years after his return home to England,  Brooke was nominated Governor of Yarmouth in 1822, having been promoted to major general three years earlier.
   Never again on active duty, Brooke was named colonel of the 86th Regiment in 1831, a Knight of the Bath by the King two years afterward, and promoted yet again to the rank of lieutenant general in 1837.
    Sir Arthur Brooke died at age 71 on July 26, 1843 at his home.
   This, then, was the man about to face the Americans at the imminent Battle of North Point, although his enemy did not know that, as by and large they still thought that they were fighting Gen. Ross himself.
    But who was the new commander he was about to encounter on the “other side of the hill” in Wellington’s famous phrase?
    That man was none other than the founder of today’s Maryland National Guard, Brig. Gen. John Stricker (1758-1825). According to Baltimore Sun writer William Stump in 1951 — this author’s very first magazine editor 22 years later:
    “If any soldier ever served Maryland well, that soldier was Gen. John Stricker…[He] organized the Maryland Militia, which makes him the father of the Maryland National Guard.
    “In 1794, when the Whiskey Rebellion broke out in Pennsylvania, that militia — a brigade, which called itself the Independent Company — was ordered to Pittsburgh by President George Washington. Stricker was then a colonel. As the years went on, Stricker built and trained his militia, and by 1812 — when America declared war on England — he was a general ....
   “Two years later, the British invaded Maryland, and marched on Baltimore. Under the orders of Gen. Samuel Smith, Stricker’s brigade — 3,185 men strong —went out to meet them ....
   “After the battle — which he directed with a great deal of coolness and confidence — a grateful Baltimore elected Stricker a [Maryland] state Senator, an office which he declined. Later still, he declined reappointment as General of the Militia ....
   As this writer noted in his own forthcoming book, “Gen. Stricker, commander of the 3rd Maryland Brigade at the Battle of North Point on Sept. 12, 1814, and again before Hamsptead Hill in Baltimore during Sept. 13-14th, was painted by noted artist Rembrandt Peale in the series of four Defenders’ Portraits in 1816, with the original [seen in this article] hanging today at the Maryland Historical Society in downtown Baltimore.
    “Gen. Stricker was descended from Swiss ancestors, and was the son of Col. George Stricker of the Colonial Guards. He was born at Frederick, Md., on Feb. 15, 1758, during the French and Indian War.”
       Continued Stump in 1951, “He took up arms at the age of 18, when his father — a battle-wise old soldier — organized a company of volunteers to fight against the British” in the American Revolution.
   “The young man soon got his chance to fight, when he joined Col. William Smallwood’s regiment of the famous Maryland Line [Regiment], and took part in the  bloody Battle of Long Island. After that, he won a commission [as an officer], and fought at Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, and at Monmouth.
   “Once, he was captured and released; later, he campaigned against the Indians. When the war ended, he was a captain, and ... a married man. Toward the close of the war — while in Philadelphia — he married a daughter of Gunning Bradford, a prominent citizen. Another daughter married Commodore Joshua Barney, the naval hero [and also of Dundalk] —and in 1783, the two men brought their wives to Baltimore and went into business together.
   As the current writer noted in my 1990 pamphlet Battle of North Point 1814, “In the Revolution, he commanded the famed Smallwood Company, in which ‘Scarcely one of its members escaped death or a wound,’ it is reported .... He also accompanied Gen. Sullivan on his expedition against the Indians. He was sent from New Jersey with the Hessians under his charge, captured at Trenton, to Frederick.
    “He was present at the execution of Maj. John Andre within a few paces of the gallows.’ The latter was a British spy working in concert with the American traitor Gen. Benedict Arnold to betray West Point to the British.”
   During the Whiskey Rebellion, “A considerable force was derived from Baltimore, and Gen. Stricker accompanied Gen. Samuel Smith as second-in-command .... Gen. Stricker, 66, died on June 23, 1825, and is buried in the Westminster Graveyard in Baltimore.”

 

• Former Dundalkian Blaine Taylor is the author of 11 books on the World War II era, as well as a forthcoming illustrated book on the War of 1812, to be published in the U.K. and distributed worldwide in 2014 in conjunction with the current bicentennial. He is a member of the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society.