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Posts Tagged ‘Baltimore’

Fort McHenry was still standing when the sun peeked over Baltimore’s horizon on September 14, 1814.  And that was something of a surprise in light of the relatively large array of firepower that was stacked against it the night before.  As you recall, British ships of the line had set up camp just beyond a line of merchant ships that had been sunk by the Americans as a water defense in Baltimore’s harbor.  And throughout the night, they had lofted cannon balls and rockets at the fort.

But whether it was the distance, or the not-so-nice evening weather, or that British gunners were terrible at hitting static targets (or some combination of all three), Fort McHenry survived the night not only intact, but largely undamaged.  Arthur Brooke, the newly-appointed leader of the British assault team situated to the east of Baltimore (following the death of General Ross), saw McHenry in a “non-rubblized” state and realized that its capture would be impossible.  He and his men withdrew from the city and made their way back to Cochrane’s ships.

The Battle of Baltimore is most famous for Francis Scott Key and The Star-Spangled Banner, which he penned on the morning of September 14th.  But a couple of things should be noted.  First, Key’s composition was called The Defence of Fort McHenry, and the lyrics of our national anthem comprise just the first part (I don’t know the exact literary term) of the larger piece.

Second, Key was sitting in a boat to write our national anthem (in fact, The Star-Spangled Banner didn’t become our official anthem until President Hoover made it so in 1931).  Though a budding poet, he was first and foremost a lawyer, and his job was to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes (which he succeeded in doing).  Forced by the British to wait out the attacks before returning to the city, his boatside view of the night’s spectacle gave inspiration to the prose he produced.

Finally, and most important of all, the British lost the Battle of Baltimore, and a major port was saved.  Admiral Cochrane and his men would turn up again later in the year…in New Orleans.  And their struggles there with General Jackson would see the end of fighting with the British.  The Battle of Baltimore was, for the Americans, a resounding victory in the face of recent defeats, and a victory that accomplished much in the way of ending the War of 1812.

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As summer turned to autumn in 1814, things weren’t looking too good for the United States in its war with Britain.  Having begun more than two years earlier, the early flush of exchanging musket and cannon fire war with the former homeland had given way to the realization that the British were a very tough foe.

By mid-September of 1814, the nation’s capital lay in smoldering ruins, its brand-new buildings the victim of British torches.  President James Madison was wandering around Maryland and Virginia homeless, the victim of British pursuit.  And the important ports of Georgetown and Alexandria were either threatened with surrender or had already done so, the victim of British naval power.

And now it was Baltimore’s turn.  The British came up with a two-pronged attack on Fort McHenry, which protected Baltimore’s harbor.  General Robert Ross and 5,000 of his men were landed and would head towards the target from the southeast.  Admiral Alexander Cochranes’s 20 ships would pour cannon, rocket, and mortar fire into the Fort from the harbor itself.  It was assumed that, based on previous outcomes, the Fort’s occupants would panic under the constant shelling and simply abandon it.

But Ross will killed in the Battle of North Point, fought just to the east of the city on September 12th against General Sam Smith’s 12,000 American soldiers.  Ross’ attacking men halted, waiting for the British Navy to simply beat the enemy into submission.  The fight against Fort McHenry began in earnest on September 13, 1814, and for the next 24 hours the British pounded it.  On the American side, Major George Armistead and 1,000 troops were holed up in the Fort enduring the onslaught and manning the 20 cannon there.

As night fell, Admiral Cochrane off-loaded another group of soldiers from his ships.  Their orders were land west of Fort McHenry.  Cochrane’s hope was that this group would draw Smith’s men off from the east and allow that force, now under Arthur Brooke’s command, to move in.  The idea failed badly as the boats were spotted by the men behind the American cannon, and they subjected the diversionary assault to a withering fire.

But still the British cannon raged.  During the night, more than 1,500 cannon balls left the ships in anger.  The explosions gave quite a spectacle to those watching the action from their homes (if they were brave), the harbor (if they were very brave), or from the ships themselves.  One such man was a lawyer (and budding poet) named Francis Scott Key.  Key, along with two other men, had been negotiating the release of a prisoner when the battle began.  They returned to their boat, but were not allowed to return to Baltimore, and so they watched the action from the harbor.

The next morning would reveal the result of the night’s bombardment…

Recommended Reading:  James Madison

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