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  • James Houser

September 14, 1814 - Fort McHenry & the Star-Spangled Banner

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

September 14, 1814. Fresh off their burning of Washington, the British forces invading America turn their attention north to Baltimore. Against all odds, it turns out that Baltimore’s garrison of Army troops and militia will resist more fiercely than the defenders of Washington. This small fight would be mostly forgotten, except for the man who saw the Star-Spangled Banner waving above Baltimore after a night of bombardment.

There’s “losing a war,” then there’s “getting your capital city burned to the ground.” And that’s pretty much where the United States was in September 1814. Just to recap: on August 24, I talked about the British campaign into Maryland that burned Washington. This was only the most recent humiliation in a string of American humiliations during the War of 1812. First, the fledgling U.S. Navy, after getting a couple of good licks in, had been swept from the seas. Then both the 1812 and 1813 invasions of Canada had collapsed in inglorious failure.

When the Allies had finally defeated Napoleon in Europe and sent him into his (first) exile, Britain now had a shiny veteran army kicking around and knew just where to send it. In 1814, the British finally began to get serious with the whole American war. Admiral Alexander Cochrane and a British army under General Robert Ross were sent to the Chesapeake to strike the fear of God into the Americans. Along with their attack, the British would launch their own series of attacks from Canada into New York state, and eventually try an expedition against New Orleans. As we know, the British were successful in the Chesapeake. Cochrane and Ross had routed a ragtag American army at Bladensburg and proceeded to burn the brand spanking new city of Washington, D.C. to the ground on August 24, 1814.

Flush with success, Cochrane and Ross returned to the British fleet in anchor with loot, prisoners, and escaping slaves in tow. On the way back, Ross arrested an American doctor, William Beanes, for allegedly attacking British sentries. (I promise this is important later.) They sent another expedition up the Potomac to raid Alexandria, Virginia. When this small flotilla passed Mount Vernon, they lowered their flags in respect to George Washington – then promptly raised them again and set to work pillaging the river towns of northern Virginia. Chivalry only goes so far, after all, and there was a war on.

Admiral Cochrane had to wait for this expedition to return before proceeding north to his next target – Baltimore. Burning Washington was a nice start, but the British Admiral had orders to thoroughly chastise the Yankees, and he wanted to make it as difficult as possible for them to keep the war going. The British wanted to destroy the Baltimore Naval Yard in particular, but Cochrane needed the bomb vessels that had accompanied the Potomac expedition. This diversion turned out to be a mistake for the British, since it gave the Americans in Baltimore time to prepare. When Cochrane set out to attack Baltimore on September 5, the few defenders of Baltimore were hard at work getting ready for a defense.

The citizens of Baltimore had seen the orange glow as Washington burned only a few weeks ago. Baltimore in 1814 was the third-largest city in the United States (after New York and Philadelphia) with a population of around 50,000 – 20% of whom were black, of whom nearly half were free and owned property. The city docks were full of captured British goods and military supplies, and at Fell’s Point were both the U.S. Navy and privately owned shipyards, held by only a couple of small sloops and the brand new frigate USS Java.

Astride the harbor entrance sat Fort McHenry, a brick star fort garrisoned by the 36th and 38th Infantry Regiments, militia artillery units, and a few Naval personnel who had escaped the disaster at Bladensburg. All told, the garrison composed about 1,000 men, with an additional battery of 450 men and three cannons on the other side of the harbor. The Baltimore harbor defenses, led by Major George Armistead, were not a foreboding obstacle for the big battleships of Cochrane’s expedition. As far as the land defenses, all the city could muster were the local Maryland militia of Major General Samuel Smith. Smith had been hard at work organizing the defense of the city – which was good, because the British were on their way.

We have to pause this narrative just a bit. Dr. Beane, the American doctor who had been taken prisoner by General Ross, had friends back home who sought his release. They found a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key to go out to the British flotilla and try to intercede with them to release the doctor. Key was a smart guy, and managed to secure letters from a few wounded British soldiers that confirmed Beane had not attacked anyone, but had actually cared for the wounded British after Bladensburg. When Key arrived, he used these letters to convince Ross to release Beane. Ross agreed – but only AFTER the attack on Baltimore, since Key and Beane already knew too much about the plan to be set free. Key and Beane were taken in tow with the British fleet as they moved north.

General Ross led about 4,000 British infantry ashore at North Point, 10 miles to the north of Baltimore, in the early hours of September 12. His plan was to approach the city from overland while Cochrane bombarded the city from the sea. Between them they planned to crack the city open like an egg. Smith needed time to complete the Baltimore defenses, so he sent off a brigade of about 3,000 Maryland militia under General John Stricker to delay Ross’s advance. Unlike Ross – who had brought bronze cannon and a battery of the famous Congreve rocket artillery – Stricker brought only a little artillery. Instead of a straight-up fight, he only planned to fight a skirmish action. He was trying to buy time, not defeat Ross in the field.

The militia intercepted Ross’s advance at North Point, only about 5 miles outside of Baltimore. The British had already passed through one line of unfinished American trenches when they ran into Stricker’s skirmish line. As Ross enjoyed breakfast, the rest of his troops began filing in to prepare for battle. By noon, though, the American militia was building up faster than the British numbers, and both prepared for a larger fight. A few captured Americans were brought to Ross, who questioned them as to the American strength in Baltimore. When he got an unpleasant answer, he scoffed that he did not care if it rained militia, for “I shall sup in Baltimore or in hell.”

He didn’t wait long. Leading a reconnaissance towards the American flank, Ross’s glittering, bright uniform immediately drew the attention of American riflemen. At about 2pm, one of their bullets found the British commander, who fell mortally wounded. Ross died before he made it back to the ships.

The brief confusion at his death left the British soldiers wavering, but a local commander took charge and began to press the militia back. As Congreve rockets whistled over the American lines, cannon and howitzer fire racked their positions and the redcoats, with their iron discipline, slowly pushed back successive lines of Stricker’s militia. Stricker eventually led them away in an orderly withdrawal, battered but not really beaten. The American militia had lost 24 killed and 121 wounded, and inflicted 39 killed and 251 wounded. The Battle of North Point was over, and it had accomplished its purpose: it bought General Smith 24 hours.

They would have to hope it was enough. As the British land force slept on the bloody battlefield at North Point, the masts of the Royal Navy appeared two miles outside of Baltimore. Cochrane’s armada, twenty ships strong, approached Fort McHenry as Major Armistead’s 1000-man garrison prepared for the bombardment. They had sunk a line of merchant ships at the entrance to the harbor to impede the British advance, and put together a series of small barges behind this barrier, each with a 12-pounder light gun – a pretty pathetic flotilla, all things considered. Both the Maryland militia inside Baltimore’s defenses, and Armistead’s men in the fort, prepared to weather the storm of September 13.

At dawn on September 13, the British army forces marched on the city itself, even as a thunderstorm clearly began to brew. The new commander, Colonel Arthur Brooke, approached the eastern defenses along Hampstead Hill held by General Smith’s defenders. In the time that the engagement at North Point had bought, Virginia and Pennsylvania troops had arrived to fill out the line, along with remnants of the force defeated at Bladensburg. The key strongpoints of the Baltimore defenses were held by Navy and Marine forces – including artillery - under Commodore John Rodgers. You may or may not remember that Rodgers led one of the American naval squadrons that fought in the Barbary Wars and took the Marines to “the shores of Tripoli.” All told, the Americans had almost 10,000 men concentrated in Baltimore against 4400 British.

As they heard the sound of gunfire echo across the harbor, mimicking the sound of thunder crashing from the skies as sheets of rain began to fall, the British and Americans prepared to fight. The British artillery pounded away at the American defenses, and Brooke tried to attack either flank of the American line, only to shy off when he realized how outnumbered he was. The “Battle” of Hampstead Hill was…barely a battle. Brooke saw the strength of the American position, noted that they had twice his numbers, and elected to wait for a night attack. He also hoped that the British fleet could enter the harbor and give him fire support during his assault.

Out in the harbor, the 20 Royal Navy ships approached Fort McHenry. Keeping their distance from the fort’s batteries, the HMS Volcano fired its first shot at about 6:30am. Soon the whole fleet joined in: the other bomb vessels included the HMS Meteor, Aetna, Devastation and Terror. (There’s no reason to list them all, British ship names were just awesome back then.) In particular, the rocket vessel HMS Erebus let out shrieking streams of the famous Congreve rockets, designed by a British inventor – Sir William Congreve – in 1804. Though Fort McHenry tried to return fire, the better British guns had the longer range. The Royal Navy continued to hammer away at the fort for the next 25 hours.

Fort McHenry’s American flag was notably oversized; it had been a gift to the fort’s garrison by a local woman named Mary Pickersgill, who had sewn it together with her teenage daughter. This flag, however, was not flying throughout September 13 – instead, Fort McHenry had raised their storm flag because it was, well, storming. It was this flag that Key and Doctor Beane watched flying throughout the day and well into the night of September 13. Throughout the bombardment, the British would fire almost 1800 cannonballs, but they barely made a dent on Fort McHenry’s masonry.

Around nightfall, the lack of heavy firing from the land assault caused Cochrane some concern, and he sent Colonel Brooke a note telling him not to assault the city if there were more than 2,000 men in its garrison. Brooke received this note at 9:30pm, just as he was planning his night attack. Since he knew there were far more than that, he decided to withdraw his troops and help with the bombardment rather than risk a ground assault. With Brooke’s withdrawal at 3:00am on September 14, the battle was virtually over, but the Americans didn’t realize it yet.

As dawn approached on September 14, gunsmoke hung over the whole harbor as the British continued to bang away at Fort McHenry. Key, still a prisoner of the British, was distraught, especially once the American flag vanished behind the smoke. He was concerned that Fort McHenry had lowered its flag in surrender, and Baltimore was about to fall. In reality, he was watching the Fort’s garrison change out their tattered storm flag for the giant garrison flag sewn by Mary Pickersgill because…the storm was over, and it was time to put the good-weather flag out. Military people REALLY love their drill and ceremonies, guys.

So it was that when the smoke finally cleared on September 14, 1814, the American flag still flew over Baltimore harbor, and it was a BIG damn flag that no one could ignore. (It is THIS flag, not the f-ed up storm flag, that is still in the Smithsonian today – with, unusually, 15 stripes, representing Vermont and Kentucky as well as the Thirteen Colonies.) Fort McHenry had held, and this was really news to no one except Francis Scott Key, who wrote a whole song about it. You might know it:

…Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight

O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?

And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there…

Considering how famous the British assault on Baltimore became thanks to the Star-Spangled Banner, it was really not much of a fight. The garrison of Fort McHenry had lost a whopping 4 dead, 24 wounded; the British had one naval seaman wounded. It wasn’t a fierce, magnificent battle of determined resistance. It was a British force expecting an easy victory, realizing that Baltimore was going to be WAY harder to take than Washington, so they got out while the getting was good. The Chesapeake Campaign was over, and the next target for Cochrane’s British fleet would be…New Orleans, where there WOULD be a fierce, magnificent battle of determined resistance, and thanks to British ineptitude Andrew Jackson and his militia would win a stunning victory.

As a postscript, the really stunning American victory of the War of 1812 was not Fort McHenry, or New Orleans; it was the Battle of Lake Champlain. I didn’t have a chance to talk about it in my history posts this year, but Irish-American naval officer Thomas Macdonough basically built a navy from scratch in northern New York to hold off a major British assault down the Hudson River. On September 11, 1814, the day before the British began their attack on Baltimore, Macdonough won a stunning victory at Plattsburgh. The combination of Plattsburgh and Fort McHenry ended the active period of the War of 1812 with two undeniable American victories.

For even as those battles were going on, American and British delegates were meeting at Ghent in the Netherlands to negotiate a treaty ending the war. It was the victories at Plattsburgh and Fort McHenry that denied the British leverage to win any territory from the war, resulting in the Treaty of Ghent basically saying nothing except “This war sucks, we’re done.” And that was that. (Except that word of the treaty didn’t arrive in time to stop the Battle of New Orleans, which only confirmed what the treaty had already decided.)

So that’s the story of the Star-Spangled Banner, and of Fort McHenry. Fun fact: the United States did not even HAVE a national anthem until Key’s song was adopted in 1931. That’s a nice case of “newer than you think,” in my opinion. Also, if you think having a war song as your national anthem is in bad taste, you do NOT want to look up the lyrics to France’s national anthem.

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