Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Samuel Smith (1752-1839)
MSA SC 3520-2827


As the eldest son of one of Baltimore's most prominent merchants, Samuel Smith was raised to follow in his father's footsteps as the heir to a leading commercial firm. While he eventually took the reins of the family business, Smith also rose to much greater heights. Smith became one of Baltimore's--and Maryland's--political leaders, and served in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate for forty years. He was celebrated for his military service in two wars, and was the principle architect of Baltimore's defenses that withstood British attack in 1814. At his death in 1839, he was remembered as "a man of whom Baltimore was justly proud. A brave soldier, a sound statesman, and an honorable high-minded patriot; he ever obeyed the call of his county, and in two wars fought her battles, and in peace aided her in the legislative councils." [1]

Smith's parents, John Smith (1722-1794) and Mary Buchanan (1729-1782), were both from well-off Irish families that immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1720s. Mary was born a few years after her parents came to America, while John had arrived in Lancaster in 1729, when he was about seven years old. John and Mary were married in 1750, while they were living in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. They had eleven children who survived to adulthood, beginning with Samuel, who was born on July 27, 1752. He was followed by John (1754-1805); Mary (1755-1804); Robert (1757-1842); Elizabeth (b. 1759); James (1759-1780); William (1760-died young); Sidney (1761-1778); Jane (or Janet) (1763-1832); Margaret (1765-1849); and Esther (b. 1767). Five other children died young, and their names are not known. [2]

John Smith was a successful trader and store-keeper in Carlisle. He moved his family to Baltimore in 1759 or 1760 in search of even greater opportunities, taking his wife and six children. Mary had recently given birth to their daughter Elizabeth in February 1759, and may have been pregnant again already, as she would have another child in April 1760, her son James. John Smith opened a merchant firm with his brother-in-law William Buchanan, and they quickly established themselves in the growing city. [3]

Young Samuel was brought into the business as a teenager, after completing his formal education. When he was nineteen, Smith's father decided it was time he learned how to work as a merchant in his own right and to get some experience abroad. Accordingly, Smith, along with two slaves, was sent to Europe in 1771 to act as an agent of Smith & Buchanan, and oversee the sale of a cargo of exports. Once at sea, Smith expanded his mission into a three-year tour of Europe, building a network of contacts for the firm, and learning the family trade. It was a remarkable of display of leadership, of the sort which Smith applied many times later in his life. In 1774, he returned to America, landing in Philadelphia that fall, just as the first Continental Congress was coming into session. Smith's work developing new trading partners in England would not, it seemed likely, to be useful for some time. [4]

The America to which Smith returned was a very different place than he had left. Although there had been discontent about British rule at the outset of Smith's voyage, by the fall of 1774 the colonies were sliding toward open revolution. His father was now a member of Baltimore's Committee of Correspondence, the city's revolutionary leadership group, and was beginning to import weapons for the state's Council of Safety. For his part, Samuel Smith and his younger brother John both joined a pro-Independence militia formed in December 1774, led by fiery Revolutionary leader merchant Mordecai Gist, called the Baltimore Independent Cadets. The members of the Cadets vowed to arm and train themselves, and "be ready to march to the assistance of our Sister Colonies." Smith was a sergeant and the adjutant for the unit, which regularly drilled and paraded in the city. [5]

In early 1776, Maryland began to raise troops to join the Continental Army, and while the Baltimore Independent Cadets were disbanded, many of the members became officers in the new regiments being created. Smith was among them, receiving a commission as a captain, commanding the Eighth Company in the First Maryland Regiment. Five other former Cadets were also made officers in the regiment, including Bryan Philpot, the ensign in Smith's company, and Mordecai Gist, who was one of the majors. Smith and his men were posted in Baltimore for the first part of the year, training and guarding the city. [6]

Later that summer, the First Maryland Regiment was ordered to march north, to defend New York from attack by the British. That attack came on August 27, 1776, when the Americans faced the British Army at the Battle of Brooklyn (sometimes called the Battle of Long Island), the first major engagement of the war. The battle was a rout: the British were able to sneak around the American lines, and the outflanked Americans fled in disarray. During the retreat, the Maryland troops fought their way towards the American fortifications, but were blocked by the swampy Gowanus Creek. While half the regiment crossed the creek, the rest were unable to do so before they were attacked by the British. Facing down a much larger, better-trained force, the Marylanders mounted a series of daring charges. These men, now known as the "Maryland 400," held the British at bay long enough for the rest of the Continental Army to escape, at the cost of many lives. In all, 256 Marylanders were killed or captured by the British; some companies lost as much as 80 percent of their men. [7]

Because the Eighth Company was able to escape the battle early, it lost only about six men. But as Smith later described, the retreat was not easy. While withdrawing, "the Regiment mounted a hill, [and] a British officer appeared…and waved his hat, and it was supposed that he meant to surrender. He clapped his hands three times, on which signal his company rose and gave a heavy [fire]." As the company neared the safety of the American lines, it encountered the Gowanus, as well as a nearby mill pond. As Smith described, he "took his company through a marsh, until they were stopped by the dam of a…mill…that was too deep for the men to ford. He and a Sergeant swam over and got two slabs [of wood] into the water, on the ends of which they ferried over all who could not swim." [8]

In the weeks after the Battle of Brooklyn, the Americans were gradually pushed out of New York by the British. On October 28, the Americans marched out of Manhattan to White Plains, to take on a force of several thousand British soldiers. During the battle, the Marylanders fought well, but were eventually overcome when the British counterattacked and overran them. Smith wrote that during the battle, "in the act of firing [his gun] Captain Smith's left arm was struck by a spent [musket] ball. He thought it was broken, but soon found that it was not, and he continued at his post." [9]

Although the Battle of White Plains showed the potential of the American army, it was still a defeat, and over the next months the American were put on the run through New York and into New Jersey. Smith and his company, "worn down by fatigue," were part of this retreat, though few men were left in the regiment by then. In December 1776, Smith was called back to Maryland, where he was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the newly-created Fourth Maryland Regiment. He spent the end of 1776 and beginning of 1777 in Maryland recruiting soldiers for his new unit. [10]

The Marylanders saw a significant amount of combat in the summer and fall of 1777, beginning with their disastrous raid on Staten Island in August. Smith rightly judged that the attack "was badly executed," something he told John Sullivan, the general who lead the Americans, "in the strongest terms, but in polite language, [and] gave a full view of the errors which...had been committed." It was a remarkable speech, as Sullivan was a well-regarded general, and Smith was a twenty-five year old officer with barely eighteen months of military experience. Sullivan evidently received the critique "magnanimously." Perhaps he recognized Smith's military abilities--abilities which would soon be seen by the whole army. [11]

As 1777 progressed, the war's focus shifted from New York, now safely in British hands, to Philadelphia, the American capital. The Americans were routed at the Battle of Brandywine in September, leaving Philadelphia open for British occupation. In an effort to maintain some strategic control over the area, the Americans moved to occupy Fort Mifflin, which guarded the Delaware River, potentially keeping the British from traveling to Philadelphia by ship. Needing an officer to command a garrison at the fort, George Washington picked Smith, telling him that "The keeping of the fort is of very great importance, and I rely strongly on your prudence, spirit and bravery for a vigorous & persevering defense." [12]

Though he was technically outranked by another officer, the incompetent Baron D'Arendt, Smith assumed control of the fort, eventually assembling a garrison of a few hundred men, drawn from a dozen different regiments. Smith and his men tirelessly worked to improve the fort's defenses. Within a few weeks after arriving at Fort Mifflin, the British built a gun emplacement nearby and began to bombard the Americans. The attack lasted, off and on, for months. Nevertheless, Smith's force continued to hold out, beating back attempts to capture the fort. Smith estimated that 400 or 500 men would be necessary "to garrison this place properly," but never had more than half that number, and those men who were there suffered from poor supplies, insufficient clothing, and harsh weather. Smith himself was wounded during a British artillery barrage in early November. Still, the Americans held Fort Mifflin until November 16, when the British assembled a force too large to resist. [13]

Smith was honored for his leadership in holding the fort, receiving a ceremonial sword from Congress. John Adams declared that "Lt. Coll. Smith in the Garrison of Fort Mifflin [has] behaved in a manner the most gallant and glorious. [He has] defended the River, and the Fort with Firmness and Perseverance, which does Honour to human Nature" Washington offered Smith the position as his aide-de-camp, which Smith declined, preferring to remain with "his Regiment, where there was a better chance for service, in which honor might be gained." Instead, Smith returned to Baltimore, to recuperate, and raise more troops. [14]

Smith spent the next year and a half in the army. In December 1778, he married Margaret Spear, to whom he had been engaged for two years. She was the daughter of William Spear, a prominent Baltimore merchant. He stayed with the army for a short time after the marriage, but resigned in May 1779. To George Washington, Smith explained that "when I first entered its service I thought my fortune sufficient to support me; I was mistaken. I have now scarce one half remaining & that so depreciated it would not support [my expenses for] one Campaign." As Smith later elaborated in his autobiography (written in the third person),

His pecuniary situation was embarrassing. When he entered in the service he was worth nine thousand pounds of his own; and his father was the richest merchant in Baltimore. Their property was [now] almost exclusively in debts due to them...paid in Continental money, which had become worthless...[Smith] found himself, therefore, entirely destitute. [15]

Smith was surely far from "destitute," and was hardly the only one whose financial situation had suffered during the war, since most of his men had barely been paid during their enlistment. Nevertheless, the fortunes of his family's merchant firm were uncertain, and Smith was determined to repair the business. Washington wrote that "the proofs you have heretofore given, of your abilities as a good and brave officer, I am happy in acknowledging," but wished that Smith would have had "the opportunity of closing the war with your military companions." [16]

Another factor in Smith's decision to leave was his failure to receive a promotion to colonel during the winter of 1778-1779. The senior leadership of the Maryland Line was shaken up by promotions and resignations, which left an opportunity for Smith to take command of a regiment, something he expressed a desire for. By April 1779, however, it appeared unlikely to happen, and Smith began to debate whether or not to stay in the army. A month later, his mind was made up, and he tendered his resignation. [17]

Almost immediately afterward, Smith showed that he was still eager to contribute to the war effort, he had the stature and ability to do so. In the spring of 1779, though he lacked any formal military position, Smith helped to recruit and mobilize troops for the defense of Baltimore. In the fall of 1780, he was appointed the commander of the city's militia forces. He also was a member of the Whig Club, a secretive group of militant pro-Independence activists in Baltimore who were dedicated to rooting out “artful villains” and “Tories.” Smith was a key member of the group, able to bring together different factions into a single coalition, and he played a prominent role in one of the city's uglier mob actions during the Revolution, as they targeted prominent Loyalist and newspaper publisher William Goddard. Mostly, however, Smith devoted his time to the family merchant firm, investing in ships and selling supplies to the army, from which he reaped large profits. By the war's end, Smith's fortunes were no longer in doubt. [18]

In the 1790s, Smith began a political career that would continue for some forty years. He started with two terms in the Maryland House of Delegates from Baltimore in 1790 and 1791. In 1792, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a member of the Federalist Party, although contemporaries noted that Smith's real allegiance lay with merchants and trade rather than any political party. By the end of the decade, Smith had left the Federalists and shifted his loyalties to the Republican Party, partially in response to the Federalists' trade polities and partially in response to the passage of the Alien and Sedition acts. Despite that, he retained broad support in Baltimore among a variety of constituencies, just as he had during the Revolution. [19]

Smith remained a dominant political figure in Baltimore, and the rest of the state, for decades to come. In 1794, he was appointed brigadier general of the Third Brigade of Maryland Militia, and elevated to major general the next year. In 1802, he was elected the U.S. Senate, where he served until 1815. He was influential in national politics as well, growing close politically with President Thomas Jefferson. In the Senate, Smith advocated for trade policies that would benefit Baltimore's merchants, as well as a strong military, which could help protect the country's trading interests. While Jefferson's embargo of foreign trade was detrimental to Baltimore economic position, Smith nevertheless supported it, as an alternative to war with Britain. [20]

For all of Smith's political accomplishments, and his Revolutionary War exploits, nothing compares to his role in saving Baltimore from the British during the War of 1812. The United States had declared war on Britain with few plans for how to defend the country, and essentially left the matter to the states. Maryland was in a particularly dangerous position. It had a long, difficult to defend coastline, and both Baltimore and Washington, DC were potential targets for British attacks. Smith believed that the war would benefit the country, and that it would be primarily be a naval conflict. He was wrong, and the state suffered a series of raid and attacks for two years along the Chesapeake Bay. [21]

If Smith misjudged British war strategy, he perfectly anticipated what was needed to defend Baltimore, and he was perfectly situated to implement a plan. As a major general in the state militia, Smith had authority over all troops in the entire Baltimore area, and his political position in the city gave him the ability to exercise it effectively. While most of the state's Federalist officials were largely ignored by the federal government, Smith, as a Republican leader, was able to funnel resources to Baltimore. Beginning in early 1813, when the British first began to threaten the region, Smith oversaw several steps that would, the next year, enable to city to withstand the British attack, including revitalizing and training the militia troops under his command, and building substantial defenses in the city and its harbor. [22]

As a result, the city was ready when the British, having just burned Washington, DC, headed north to Baltimore. On September 12, the British landed at North Point, exactly where Smith had predicted they would a year before, and were met by militia forces who sought to delay, not halt, the British progress. When the invaders finally made their way to Baltimore, they were stopped at Hampstead Hill, which had been fortified so heavily they abandoned their attempt to capture the city by land. The next day, the British began to bombard the city, but the defenses in the harbor prevented the Royal Navy from getting close enough to defeat Fort McHenry, which guarded the entrance to the city. As historian Frank Cassell has said, "Smith's subordinates fought hard and well, but he was the chief architect of victory, the man whose energy, stature, and personal prestige made Baltimore capable of resisting the British. From first to last, it was his triumph." If Smith's efforts at Fort Mifflin ultimately had no effect on the course of the war, his defense of Baltimore saved the city and, to a large extent, destroyed the British appetite to continue the war. [23]

The autumn of 1814 was Smith's greatest moment of triumph. At the same time, on a personal level he suffered a string a defeats. Political rivals pushed him out of the Senate, and after he was passed over for a promotion in the army, he resigned his commission. However, Smith was out of Congress for less than a year, however, winning election to the House of Representatives to fill a vacancy. During Smith's second stint in the House, thirteen years after his first, he gradually worked himself back into favor, supporting supported internal improvements, and a strong military. He was able to secure a new seat in the Senate in 1822, where he remained until he retired from Congress in 1833. [24]

He was eighty years old, and had been in Congress, with only a short absence, for forty years. Over the years, Smith had built a substantial fortune. He and his wife Margaret had twelve children, although six of them died in childhood. They included: Louis, St. John, Elizabeth, John Spear, Mary, Sidney, Margaret, Laura, and Anne. The family lived prosperously. In 1813, about the height of their wealth, Smith and his wife owned about a dozen lots in Baltimore, including a large, fashionable house in town and a country estate called "Montebello," as well as eight slaves. A few years later, in early 1819, Smith's merchant firm, Smith & Buchanan went bankrupt because of the mismanagement of Smith's partner, James A. Buchanan. The business collapse was spectacular and public, and most of the loss was eventually borne by Smith himself. While the family was forced to sell many of their assets, and the episode took a toll on Smith personally, they eventually weathered the storm. [25]

Even after he left Congress, Smith remained a fixture of public life in Baltimore. He continued to be involved in Democratic Party politics. More than that, however, Smith still had an unequaled stature in the city. When the Bank of the United States failed in 1835, and Baltimore descended into mob violence, eighty-three-year-old Samuel Smith was the person who directed militia patrols and urged calm, bringing the rioting to an end. A month later, he was rewarded by being elected mayor of Baltimore. He greeted his new role with enthusiasms and energy, working to improve the city and its harbor. [26]

Smith was mayor of Baltimore until he stepped down in November 1838. He died on April 22, 1839, at age eighty-six. His funeral was a magnificent event, with a procession which lasted hours, and included President Martin Van Buren and dozens of other officials. Smith left most of his possessions to his wife, but to his son John Spear, he left his personal papers and war memorabilia. Margaret Smith died a few years later, on December 22, 1843. [27]

At his death, the Baltimore Sun wrote that "the life of General Samuel Smith has been one of a true republican hero. He was one of the gallant spirits who won for the republic its freedom and its existence, and he shrunk not from the task of navigating the ship of state through the storms that threaten its estruction...he closed his long life of usefulness amid the veneration of his fellow citizens, and the admiration of the nation." [28]

Owen Lourie, 2019


1. "Death of General Smith," The Sun (Baltimore), 23 April 1839.

2. Edward C. Papenfuse, et al., eds, A Biographical Dictionary of the Maryland Legislature, 1635-1789. Vol II. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 745-746; Pension of Samuel Smith, National Archives and Records Administration, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, NARA M804, W 9303, from

3. Papenfuse, et al., 745-746; Smith pension; Frank A. Cassell, Merchant Congressman in the Young Republic: Samuel Smith of Maryland 1752-1839 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1971), 4-6; Autobiography of Samuel Smith, unpublished mss, Smith Papers, Library of Congress. Published as “The Papers of General Samuel Smith. The General’s Autobiography. From the Original Manuscripts,” The Historical Magazine, 2nd ser., vol. 8, no. 2 (1870): 81. Page number refer to the published version.

4. Cassell, 6-11.

5. Papenfuse, et al., 746; Cassell, 13; "The Baltimore Independent Cadets," Maryland Historical Magazine 4:4 (Dec. 1909), 372-374; Smith autobiography, 82.

6. "The Baltimore Independent Cadets," 372-374; Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 17.

7. Return of the Maryland troops, 13 September 1776, Revolutionary War Rolls, NARA M246, folder 35, p. 85, from; Mark Andrew Tacyn, "'To the End:' The First Maryland Regiment and the American Revolution" (PhD diss., University of Maryland College Park, 1999), 48-73; Reiman Steuart, The Maryland Line (The Society of the Cincinnati, 1971), 154-155. For more on the experience of the Marylanders at the Battle of Brooklyn, see "In Their Own Words," on the Maryland State Archives research blog, Finding the Maryland 400.

8. Smith autobiography, 82-83. Smith wrote his autobiography in the third person.

9. Smith autobiography, 85.

10. Steuart, 133-134; Smith autobiography, 84-85; Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, NARA M881, from; Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 165.

11. Smith autobiography, 85.

12. Cassell, 24-25; George Washington to Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Smith, 23 September 1777, Founders Online, National Archives.

13. Cassell, 26-31; "Defense of Fort Mifflin," Maryland Historical Magazine 5:3 (Sep. 1910), 223.

14. Smith autobiography, 90-91; John Adams to Abigail Adams, 25 October 1777, Founders Online, National Archives.

15. Smith autobiography, 90-91.

16. Smith pension; Smith autobiography, 92; Cassell, 21-22, 34-35; George Washington to Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Smith, 29 May 1779, Founders Online, National Archives.

17. Samuel Smith to Otho Holland Williams, 16 February 1779, Williams Papers, Maryland Historical Society, MS 908; Samuel Smith to Otho Holland Williams, 16 March 1779, Williams Papers; Samuel Smith to Otho Holland Williams, 15 April 1779, Williams Papers.

18. Samuel Smith to Gov. Thomas Johnson, 15 May 1779, Maryland State Papers, Brown Books 5: 132, MdHR 4613-67 [MSA S991-6, 1/6/5/7]; Journal and Correspondence of the State Council, 1779-1780, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 43, p. 303; S. Eugene Clements and F. Edward Wright, The Maryland Militia in the Revolutionary War (Silver Spring, MD: Family Line Publications, 1987), 123; Charles G. Steffen, The Mechanics of Baltimore: Working and Politics in the Age of Revolution, 1763-1812 (Chicago: University of Illinois, 1984), 64, 73-75. For more about the Whig Club's activities and connections to the First Maryland Regiment, see "The Whig Club: Judge and Jury in Baltimore," on the Maryland State Archives research blog, Finding the Maryland 400; Cassell, 39-40.

19. James McHenry to Alexander Hamilton, 16 August 1792, Founders Online, National Archives; Steffen, 155-156; Whitman H. Ridgway, Community Leadership in Maryland, 1790-1840: A Comparative Analysis of Power in Society (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 77-79.

20. Adjutant General, Militia Appointments, Vol. 1, p. 3 [MSA S348-1, 2/8/3/13]; Adjutant General, Militia Appointments, Vol. 2, p. 90 [MSA S348-2, 2/6/5/10]; Cassell, 138-144.

21. Cassell, 179.

22. Cassell, 181-191.

23. Cassell, 199-200, 203-205, 208-209.

24. Cassell, 210-212, 218-222 .

25. Cassell, 43, 104, 222-226; Baltimore County Commissioners of the Tax, Assessment Record, 1813, Baltimore City, Ward 2, p. 192 [MSA C277-5, 2/59/11/30]; Baltimore County Commissioners of the Tax, Assessment Record, 1813, Baltimore City, Ward 4, p. 94 [MSA C277-6, 2/59/11/31]; Baltimore County Commissioners of the Tax, Assessment Record, 1813, Baltimore City, Ward 6, p. 142 [MSA C277-7, 2/59/11/32].

26. Cassell, 258-260.

27. Cassell, 262-263; Will of Samuel Smith, 1839, Baltimore County Register of Wills, Wills, Vol. 17, p. 286 [MSA C435-20, 2/28/12/17]; Will of Margaret Smith, 1843, Baltimore County Register of Wills, Wills, Vol. 19, p. 202 [MSA C435-22, 2/28/12/19]; Smith pension.

28. "The Late General Samuel Smith," The Sun (Baltimore), 25 April 1839.

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