On the evening of August 24, 1814, residents of Baltimore noticed an unusual glow in the sky to the south. Historian Neil H. Swanson captured the scene in The Perilous Fight, an exceptional account of the Battle of Baltimore:
“The first stain of fire crept up into the sky along toward half past nine. It was no brighter, then, than an afterglow of the hot summer sunset. There were arguments about it. Nine and a half o’clock was late for afterglow, but what else could it be? There’s nothing over there put the Patapsco River; you can’t burn river. All it means that tomorrow will be another scorcher.
The glare increased. The arguments died down. By half past eleven there was no doubt left. A wave of fire more furious than those before it surged into the sky. It beat against the piled-up storm clouds the clouds right as if the wind was in them. From the Bal’more rooftops or even from John Eager Howard’s hilltop beyond the north end of town, a man couldn’t tell for certain which part was smoking which was thunderheads.”
Letters from Bladensburg had started to arrive in the afternoon. Riders from Captain Henry Thompson’s First Baltimore Horse Artillery operated a horse-telegraph line along the Washington and Baltimore turnpike, with relay riders racing letters north to General John Stricker in Baltimore. James Carroll, Jr., a member of the Maryland militia, and resident of Mt. Clare in today’s Carroll Park arrived at McCoy’s tavern just after midnight with a confirmation of the terrible news:
Aug. 25th. 1814
McCoys Tavern ½ after 12 o’Clock
I left Vanhorns about 8 o’clock when on the Road to McCoys Tavern an hour after I heard two or three heavy Explosions, it was considered by the Company with me as a Renewal of the Engagement but in a little Time a Light appeared in the Horizon in the Direction of the City of Washington which encreased until the Smoke and Flame were distinctly seen this Light continues to encrease to the present Hour & I have no doubt but that the British are burning the public Buildings at Washington.
From the report of several Horseman come in during the night who left our party after the defeat at Bladensburg, it seems they fled mostly on the Montgomery road some stragglers of our army are progressing this way.
12 ½ o’Clock
Brig. Gen. Stricker, Baltimore