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Aquila Randall Obelisk

4000 North Point Road at Battle Grove Road
(S.E. of the Methodist Episcopal church and of Battle Acre)

Erected July, 1817. Sponsors were the deceased’s superiors of three years earlier, Maj. Richard K. Heath, commanding the 5th Infantry Regiment, Maryland Militia, and Capt. Benjamin C. Howard (son of the Revolutionary veteran), commanding Pvt. Randall’s own 1st Mechanical Volunteers Company, plus numerous enlisted veterans. (Baltimore, Md. ,Nile? Weekly Register, XII [Aug. 2, 18171, 367.)

I have always admired what struck me as an Augustan ring to that quotation carved on the highway side of the obelisk:

How beautiful is Death.
when earned by Virtue

I wondered who, in that assemblage of citizen soldiers, had had the taste to select those verses, but mostly I wondered where they came from? Only last spring, in riffling through some research notes on an entirely different subject, did I abruptly find the lines staring up at me. They are from Joseph Addison’s Cato: A Tragedy (1713), a drama popular among the literati during the Colonial period. We now see that this popularity extended much further, and I can also assure you there is good reason to believe that Capt. Nathan Hale had the same verses in mind when he made his ringing pronouncement from the gallows at the British artillery park on Manhattan Island in 1776.

Aquila Randall’s given name is from the Latin and means “eagle.” The only other historic American figure I know of to bear it was the Philadelphia typographer Aquila Rose (c. 1695-1723), whose manuscript poetry was collected and published by Benjamin Franklin. Our Aquila, only twenty-four years old at the time of his death, would be totally unknown to history were it not for this simple shaft. He was just a Private. Twenty-one other Privates fell dead at North Point. Hence there must have been something special about him. I have often conjectured what it was?

The military background to this tiny episode goes as follows...

About 3 A.M., September 12. (Monday), 1814, the British ships in the Patapsco River effected a landing to the south of us at an inlet on the northwest side of the Point called Old Road Bay. (See James E. Hancock, Eve. Sun., January 5, 1929, he now entering upon his first and lengthy tenure as president of the 1812 Society.) The landings were completed about 6 A.M. In all, some four thousand seven hundred invaders clumped ashore. Of this total about fifteen hundred were sailors and marines under command of Rear Admr. Sir George Cockburn. About three thousand were soldiers, many of them in units recently released from European duty against Napoleon I and calling themselves the Duke of “Wellington’s Invincible.” These ground forces were commanded by Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, a professional soldier of Irish birth and a bemedalled veteran of the Napoleonic wars across half of Europe. (London, Dictionary of National Biography, XVII, 274-77.)

The opposing Maryland troops — augmented by units from Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Virginia — were the Third Militia Division, under Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith. This Division was comprised of four brigades:

Second; Ninthfrom rural counties inland and virtually worthless, since they lacked weapons, training, and leadership
Eleventhfrom Baltimore county, under Brig. Gen. Tobias Stansbury — better, but far from combat ready
ThirdBaltimore city’s own, the State’s ablest militiamen, commanded by Brig. Gen. John Snicker

It was elements of General Snicker’s troops that were ordered forward to reconnoiter the British, specifically, men of the 5th Regiment under Major Heath, including Captain Howard’s company of Mechanical Volunteers. Here, about seven miles from the landing area and some seven and a half miles from Baltimore, third largest city in the land, this young “eagle” was among the first to fall.

Over the decades this locally hallowed spot has had its share of visitors. One who tarried in the spring of 1833 was a Lieutenant Coke, on leave from the 45th Regiment, British Army. Coke perused that Addisonian quotation with a cold eye. He assumed that it was indubitably Private Randall who had done in General Ross at or near this place. He took it for granted that the youth was firing from cover and that the British commander was in the open. What the Private accomplished, therefore, was not only no feat deserving a monument but “a deed which was but a shade better than cold-blooded assassination.” In the Lieutenant’s opinion that entire second verse from Cato ought to have been deleted!

The reason our visiting Englishman made the assumption he did may have stemmed from his reading an account of the episode in the History of the Late War (1816), by the Pittsburgh-born Maryland lawyer and legislator Henry M. Brackenridge. If so, then Lieutenant Coke pole-vaulted to conclusions. True, the American historian had written that General Ross’ demise was attributed to “one of the company of Captain Howard, * * * an apprentice boy armed with a rifle, and who fired from behind a tuft of bushes, and forfeited his life for his temerity.” But the historian was careful to add: “This matter is still somewhat in doubt, and has given rise to some dispute.” The dispute was still fresh as of an 1833 issue of Niles’ Register, reporting on Coke’s visit to Baltimore.

Many years later a visitor of quite a different temperament, from a land much farther away, and speaking the King’s English with a broken accent, also gazed at Aquila Randall’s obelisk. His name was Eli Buniavas (1895-1962), and he had emigrated to America from Yugoslavia at the age of fourteen “because of democracy.” He became a coal miner in West Virginia, but eventually settled at Baltimore, where in 1944 he purchased the tavern property rising behind me.

When I say that he, too, gazed at Randall’s monument, I mean that he gazed down, not up; for he found it shattered and lying in fragments on the earth. At once Buniavas set to work on a labor of love. On October 14, 1945— one hundred and thirty-one years after the battle of North Point — he completed the monument’s entire reconstruction, at his own expense, to the tune of seven thousand dollars. Yet such is the casual puissance of “ingratitude, the proverbial sin of republics” (Josiah Quincy, History of Harvard University [1840], I, 5-6) that Eli Buniavas’ own small plaque has itself had to be restored.

Even more recently, not long after our 1973 Halt here, vandals toppled the shaft and badly damaged it. At once a reward of three hundred dollars on the culprits was posted by the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society — with our own Society donating a third of that amount — but the criminals have yet to be apprehended. In any event, Aquila’s obelisk was speedily repaired, and the local Boy Scout troop has undertaken its care. Long may their vigilance endure!

The Baltimore County Sheriff's Office uses the obelisk as their symbol on their official shoulder patch worn by sheriffs.

Sources

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