Defenders' Day is September 12.

By mid-1814, the infant United States had failed to achieve its principal goal for starting the War of 1812, the conquest of Canada from Great Britain. What's more, Napoleon Bonaparte had just been brought to heel and exiled to the island of Elba. The British Army had just been victorious in the Peninsular War and in The Netherlands and was now free to mop up the fleabite of a war being fought across the Atlantic.

On August 23, A troop of British soldiers and Canadian militia landed at Upper Marlboro, marched on Washington, brushed aside a small force led in the field by James Madison, and burned the city (the Capitol and White House, as there was little else but swamp).

The next British goal was the mob town where a newspaper editor opposing the war had been dragged out of his offices and beaten up, while his printing equipment was smashed and burned. The city which had sent so many privateers to harass British shipping, the British called it 'a nest of pirates' which had to be cleaned up. Baltimore.

Rather than march 40 miles cross-country from Washington, the soldiers marched back to Upper Marlboro and got back on their ships.

Thus it was on September 11 that British ships of the line were spotted sailing up Chesapeake Bay and into the Patapsco River. The batteries in Fort McHenry were organized, and the militia built defensive works around the city.

Early on September 12, 5,000 of Wellington's Invincibles led by Major General Robert Ross, fresh from kicking Napoleonic butt, landed at North Point and began marching towards the city. General Ross decided he had time to stop for breakfast at a nearby farm. Soon after starting up again, however, they encountered hostile fire from a band of about 250 militiamen sent by General John Stricker. Almost immediately, General Ross was struck, and he died while being carried back to the ship.

The skirmish continued for some time until Stricker ordered the detatchment to withdraw back towards the city. Left in charge, Colonel Brook and his men encamped for the night. Meanwhile, a Baltimore lawyer sailed his sloop over to HMS Surprise to obtain the release of a friend from Upper Marlboro who was in British custody.

As the morning of September 13 dawned, the ships in Baltimore Harbor began their famous bombardment of Fort McHenry, and Colonel Brook and his troops broke camp and marched west towards the city. Eventually they reached the foot of a hill that is now the western edge of Patterson Park. On the ridge where the pagoda stands, they encountered not the 600 or so ragtag defenders they expected, but 12,000 soliders and militia, and a line of cannons. Leaderless, outnumbered three to one by well-armed, entrenched troops on high ground, and with the naval bombardment going poorly, Colonel Brook turned his men around and marched them back towards North Point in the rain.

The episodes in Washington and Baltimore convinced both sides that the war was best left settled, and serious negotiaions began in Ghent for a peace treaty. However venal the motives for the War of 1812, the repulsion of the British from Baltimore ensured the survival of the infant United States, and made possible everything that happened after that.

The story is well-known but I bet you didn't know there was a holiday that commemorated it. On September 12, 1815, the cornerstone of Baltimore's Battle Monument was laid. In 1816, the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution calling for perpetual remembrance of the day. Every year since, there has been some Defenders' Day activity -- a parade by War of 1812 veterans, then their descendants, now reduced to flowers laid on the Battle Monument. Today, Defenders' Day is best-known as a holiday that Maryland State employees get when everyone else doesn't.

The Battle of North Point

The Society of the War of 1812 in the State of Maryland

On December 9, 1998, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the U.N. Convention on the Rights and Responsibilities of Individuals and Organizations, which gives protection to human rights workers. Many international human rights oranizations now call December 9 "Defenders' Day" (it is the day before International Human Rights Day). On December 9, 1999, the International League for Human Rights issued Defenders' Day Awards to seven individual human rights workers or human rights organizations:

  • Abiola Akiyode (Nigeria)
  • Annagi Gadzhiev (Azerbaijan)
  • Human Rights in China
  • Rosemary Nelson (Northern Ireland)
  • Oleg Volchek (Belarus)
  • Yuri Schmidt (Russia)
  • Yevgeny Zhovtis (Kazakstan)