200 years ago today the sun broke over a haze filled Baltimore harbor. The acrid smoke of black powder burned the eyes and throats of the sailors as they stared over the gunwales of the British men-of-war. What they saw surprised them, and inspired a “guest” who was on board to write four verses of a poem that would resonate through history.
Two years prior the fledgling United States republic had declared war on the mightiest military empire in the world. Despite constant armed conflict since 1775, either with the British during the revolution, the French at sea, the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean, or the Indian tribes on the frontier, this was the first time the Congress would officially declare war. Ever since the Treaty of Paris had ended the War of Independence Britain had wanted to reclaim her lost colonies, or at the very least protect its remaining holdings in Canada from the threat of republicanism. They feared that the ideals of liberty could spread to the north and jeopardize their possessions there. They had armed and encouraged their Indian allied tribes to raid the frontier villages of the Americans and had granted tracts of land to American royalists who fled to Canada. Their arrogant belief was that the misguided and insolate American children would fail at self-governance and that they could then reassert their rule over a population begging to be protected subjects of the Crown once more.
But they had severely misjudged the character of the new man that had been bred on the continent. He was fiercely independent, stubborn and violent. He resisted the Indian raids and had struck back hard. While the tit for tat raids waged on the frontier the Royal Navy was also used to attempt to subjugate and humiliate the United States and remind of them of their proper place. England arrogantly claimed that any man born a subject remained a subject, as did his heirs. The United States asserted that a citizen of the United States was sovereign regardless of their parentage or class. To press the issue the Royal Navy, desperate for sailors to man their ships and fight against the French, routinely intercepted American merchant ships and impressed into service anyone they deemed to be a British subject. After countless ship on ship engagements off the American coast the issue finally came to a head in June of 1812 and President James Madison asked Congress for a formal declaration of war.
And it had been a war which had mostly gone badly for the brash, upstart republic. Although the Americans had seized control of Lake Erie and parts of Ontario and had smashed the military strength of the Creek nation in the south, other incursions into Canada had been repulsed. Despite fighting only a defensive war in the new world (Its priorities being on the continent against France), the English had managed to overall severely handle the Americans. Now with Napoleon defeated they would finally bring the Americans to heel.
Thousands of British troops landed on the East Coast on August 24th 1814 and quickly routed the confused Americans at Bladensburg. Washington D.C. was burned and looted and a fleet was sent up the Potomac. Terrified militia fled at the sight of the massive British ships and surrendered Fort Warburton and Alexandria Virginia without firing a shot. The Americans were demoralized and on the run and the British eyed the busy port of Baltimore, the “nest of pirates” which had served as home port for the privateers that had harried the British for the past two years, for the knockout blow.
On September 12th 1814 a force of 5,000 Redcoats landed at North Point 14 miles from the city, where they were met by 3,000 militia under General John Stricker. Gen. Stricker had been dispatched to fight a delaying action while Major General Smith strengthened Baltimore’s defenses. During the battle the British commander, Major General Robert Ross, who had so efficiently routed the Americans at Bladensburg and burned Washington, was killed by an American sharpshooter. Command devolved to the less capable Colonel Arthur Brooke who was unable to press his advantage against the Americans, who were staging an organized and professional retreat to the main defenses of Baltimore.
On the morning of September 13th, underestimating the strength of the defenses at Baltimore, which now stood at close to 10,000 men entrenched behind fortifications erected by its citizens, the initial British assault was a failure. Col. Brooke decided not to risk further losses and rested his hopes on Admiral Cochrane’s fleet which had focused its attention on Fort McHenry, a star shaped brick fortress jutting into the Chesapeake Bay.
Ft. McHenry was defended by 1,000 men under the command of Major General George Armistead and had been under bombardment since the early morning of the 13th as Col. Brooke had launched his failed probes of Baltimore’s defenses. Now that the land forces had failed to breach the city’s fortifications it fell to the Royal Navy to crack the nut of Baltimore Harbor. The naval guns outranged the guns of Ft. McHenry and the fort’s defenders were forced to patiently endure the incoming shells and Congreve rockets. Firing with impunity Admiral Cochrane expected the outgunned fort to surrender within two hours. But General Armistead thought differently and the fort refused to give up. In the early afternoon a small force of British ships approached closer to increase their accuracy and efficacy of their guns. The range was close enough for the American gunners to unleash their pent up aggression and drive them off in a furious barrage of fire.
After night fell the British attempted to outflank the fort and break the stalemate by landing a force of 1,200 men to the west. Thinking that they were in a safe area they fired a signal flare which gave away their position. They were immediately taken under murderous fire by Ft. McHenry’s defenders and the supporting Forts Covington and Babcock. After suffering horrendous losses they were forced to withdraw to the fleet which was still pounding Fort McHenry through the rain.
Sometime that evening the greatest threat came when a shell pierced the fort’s magazine. Providence shone on the defenders and the shell failed to explode, either because the fuse had been extinguished by the rain or it was just a dud round. Of the more than 1,800 shells fired at the fort that night, most did little damage, the fort was very sturdily built and the range was too great. But they did kill four defenders, including one woman who was cut in half as she carried supplies to the troops.
The barrage lasted 25 hours until the morning of the 14th when Gen. Armistead lowered the tattered storm flag which had flown over the fort during the bombardment and hoisted the 42 foot long and 32 foot high garrison flag in a gesture of stubborn defiance while his troops fired their guns and sang “Yankee Doodle”.
The British had suffered 330 killed with nothing to show, and faced with casualties reminiscent of Bunker Hill if they again assaulted the battlements of Baltimore City, Admiral Cochrane realized they could not take the harbor and ordered a withdrawal. It was a turning point which boosted flagging American morale and led to the signing of the Treaty of Ghent three months later, ending the war in what could be called a stalemate, if not for the David and Goliath nature of the fight. America had fought and bloodied the mighty British Empire both on land and on sea. The British were forced to begrudgingly abandon their hopes of reclaiming the colonies and their arrogant belief that the American republic would disintegrate into chaos and that its citizens would come running back to their arms. The United States of America had defended their ideals and their citizens, and had earned the right to exist as an equal in the family of nations. America had been born on July 4th 1776, but it matured to adulthood on the morning of September 14th 1814.
That morning as the rain died down a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key watched from eight miles away aboard the treaty ship Minden as the great garrison flag rose above Fort McHenry. He had been sent there to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes, a civilian arrested during the sacking of Washington. Although successful in obtaining pardon for Beanes, Key had been detained out of fear that he had overhead British plans for the assault on Baltimore. As a result he had witnessed the bombardment and felt certain that the fort would fall and Baltimore would be captured. Instead the sight which he beheld that morning inspired him to write a poem he titled “The Defense of Fort McHenry”, which would later become our national anthem, “The Star Spangle Banner.”
O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave[