One of the most fascinating things about conducting family history, whether your own or someone else’s, is the discovery of personal connections to significant historic events. My fourth great-grandfather, the subject of this post, was present at an event that has become part of the shared American consciousness.
The greatest challenge of studying the Sunningshine branch of my family tree is, quite frankly, the surname itself. I have discovered the name spelled a variety of ways including Sunshine, Sunenshine, Sonnenshine, and Suninshine. The original surname was likely the German surname Sonnenschein. Michael Sunningshine’s service record would also indicate that he was of German descent.
I have yet to determine when Michael Sunningshine, or his ancestors, arrived in North America. He first appears in the historical record in 1812 when he married Rebecca Dorsey at the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore County, Maryland. Given the year he was married, and his subsequent military service, I believe that he was born around 1790. Whether he was born in Maryland is not clear from the records I have reviewed.
According to post-War of 1812 sources, Michael was a harness maker by trade and Rebecca was a mantua maker. Michael’s work as a harness maker indicates that he served an apprenticeship and learned the trade associated with the creation of leather products associated with horses and other livestock. Rebecca’s trade, that also may have had her serve an apprenticeship, involved the sewing and creation of women’s clothing.
For the first two years of the War of 1812 the residents of Baltimore, and much of the east coast, saw little military activity apart from blockades, small scale raids, and attacks on shipping. Once Great Britain turned their full attention to the United States in 1814, following the defeat of Napoleon, the cities of Washington, DC and Baltimore, Maryland were placed in the British crosshairs.
Baltimore had not been complacent during the two years since the war started. Its defenses included a number of small harbor fortifications, significant earthworks to protect the city from a land invasion and, of course, Fort McHenry. Giving credence to the theory that Michael Sunningshine was of German descent is that he served as a private in Captain Joseph Meyer’s militia unit known as the Franklin Artillery and composed primarily of German immigrants.
After the British successfully attacked Washington DC in August 1814, they turned their attention to Baltimore. They landed 5000 troops in preparation for a land assault on the city on September 12, 1814. Baltimore’s defenders sent 3000 men to stall the advance and provide more time for the completion of the defenses immediately around the city. Their efforts were successful and the Maryland forces were able to withdrawal in an orderly fashion into the city’s defenses. This engagement became known as the Battle of North Point.
The next day, September 13, the British force marched towards the city only to discover that Baltimore was defended by a three mile long earthworks and over 10000 troops. Among them was Michael Sunningshine and the rest of the Franklin Artillery. While the British were able to make successful assaults at different points along the earthworks, the British determined the defenses were too formidable to risk a full-on assault. The British withdrew and returned to their ships in the early morning of September 14.
As Baltimore’s defenders fought off British attacks on their earthworks on the 13th, they could also see in the distance that the British fleet was heavily bombarding Fort McHenry. The fort guarded Baltimore’s harbor and was garrisoned with 1000 troops. The British launched over 1500 projectiles at the fort over a 25 hour period. Francis Scott Key witnessed this continuous barrage, and the large American flag flying over the fort, and penned his famous poem, “Defense of Fort McHenry” based on the sight.
Was Michael Sunningshine able to witness the British bombardment of Fort McHenry from his position in the earthworks protecting Baltimore? Did he see the “rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” It is impossible to say. Regardless, my fourth great-grandfather was present and served in the battles that led to Key’s poem and the creation of what would become the United States’ national anthem.
Michael Sunningshine passed away in 1826, but his wife Rebecca continued to work in the city of Baltimore into the 1830s. His son, Thomas Sunningshine, eventually moved to Trenton, New Jersey where he set up shop as a tobacconist. Thomas’s daughter, named Rebecca, married my second great-grandfather, Louis Bentz in 1878.
© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.