On September 6, 1814 Captain Samuel Babcock, U.S. Corps of Engineers reported on the state of fortifications at Baltimore to Major General Samuel Smith. Babcock had been ordered to Baltimore by the secretary of war “to direct the works of defense.” Among the various defensive sites Babcock pointed out were Hampstead Hill, Federal Hill and Camp Lookout all near the inner harbor. One of particular interest was the Roman Catholic Cathedral, the first such in the United States built between 1806-1821.
Archbishop John Carroll laid the cornerstone on July 7, 1806 and the church was consecrated on May 31, 1821. Today, it is known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, considered one of the most beautiful neoclassical architectural structures in America, designed by America’s first architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820). Latrobe also designed the U.S. Capitol,still under construction – that now laid in a fiery ruin when the British captured Washington on August 24. During its construction a number of financial setbacks and the war interrupted the fifteen year building.
“…The new Cathedral from its commanding situation and the materials of which it is composed would I think be a valuable place to occupy; in a short time, it could be rendered susceptible of a good defense. At each end of the City, materials should be collected proper to barricade the avenues at a short notice…”
Capt. Samuel Babcock to Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith, Sept. 6, 1814. Samuel Smith Papers, MSS 18794, Reel 4, Cont. 5-6, Library of Congress.
Cathedral Hill is located nearly two miles west of Hampstead Hill (Patterson Park), the main defenses of Baltimore itself and the second rise of ground above the Jones Falls. Here among the building stones a last stand could reasonably have been made. During the war various militia companies gathered and encamped on what was then known as Cathedral Hill, its eminence gave a panoramic view of Baltimore and the harbor.