A scarce and visually striking political cartoon by William Charles satirizing the failed British attack on Baltimore in September 1814.
Though the British had declared a blockade of the mid-Atlantic coast early in the War of 1812, most of the first two years’ fighting took place along the American-Canadian border. In mid-1814 however, the British shifted offensive operations southward and sent an expeditionary force under General Ross and Admiral Cochrane into Chesapeake Bay. In August they captured and burnt Washington, DC, allegedly in retaliation for the American sacking of York (Toronto), Ontario. A few days later Alexandria, Virginia—at the time a major port—surrendered almost without a fight. These two defeats marked one of the low points in American military history.
The British forces left Washington a smoking ruin and sailed up the Chesapeake toward Baltimore. On September 12 they attempted a combined assault, landing troops at North Point and sending a large naval force up the Patapsco River. This time the Americans were far better led: the British met heavy, well-organized resistance and strong fortifications, General Ross was killed early on by a sniper, and the bombardment of Fort McHenry in the Harbor was a failure. The British retreated, and the victory was a powerful boost to American morale after the humiliation at Washington.
This entertaining print by William Charles shows the British fleeing before the defenders of Baltimore. In the background General Ross is felled by the sniper (“De[v]il tak[e] that Republican rascal… for he’s blown my brains out”), while in the foreground the main body retreats. At the right a mounted Admiral Cochrane exhorts his troops to resume the attack, but a Highlander responds “In gude troth Admiral I think ye are as mad as our government. Dinna ye ken the Generals kilt_ye must only attack sic places as Hampton_Haver de Grace or Alexandria.” At the rear is John Bull himself, an American bayonet prodding his buttocks, exclaiming “mercy on me_What fellows those Baltimoreans are_After the example of the Alexandrians I thought I had nothing to do but enter the Town and carry off the Booty_And here is nothing but Defeat and Disgrace!”
Charles produced this print as a companion to Johnny Bull and the Alexandrians, which lampooned the pathetic “defense” of Alexandria. Both were submitted for copyright on October 21, 1814, along with John Bull Making a New Batch of Ships to Send to the Lakes.
William Charles (1776-1820)
Charles was an illustrator, engraver and publisher active in New York and Philadelphia in the first two decades of the 19th century. Born in Scotland, trained in England, and active early in his career in both Edinburgh and London, he probably arrived in New York in or after 1806. John Bull and the Baltimoreans features the boldly-etched lines and strongly-modeled figures characteristic of his work.
Charles published adult fiction and children’s books, some including his own engravings, but he is best known for caricatures, many lampooning events of the War of 1812. Stauffer lists over 15 such images, a few such as Johnny Bull and the Alexandrians and The Hartford Convention lampooning American military incompetence or sectional differences, but most tweaking Great Britain for its various defeats at American hands. According to Murell, Charles and a business partner at one time planned to issue these monthly in sets of four, but abandoned the project due to lack of subscribers. For all that, Murell asserts that Charles’ political cartoons “arouse[d] more public interest than any produced in America before.”
Murrell, American Graphic Humor, #88. Reilly, American Political Prints, 1776-1876, #1814-4. Stauffer, American Engravers, #317 (mis-titled John Bull at Baltimore). As of February 2017 OCLC locates examples at the American Antiquarian Society, Clements Library, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Library of Congress, and University of Virginia. Biographical information taken primarily from Murell, American Graphic Humor, vol. 1 pp. 79-95.