Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

During the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, the British Royal Navy stopped American ships and forcibly impressed their sailors into naval service after attempts by the Jefferson and Madison administrations to use embargoes and trade sanctions to compel British respect for freedom of the seas. In June 1812, Congress declared war to defend American national sovereignty from repeated British violations. Most of the battles were fought at sea and around the Great Lakes.

However, in August 1814, the British fleet arrived in the Chesapeake Bay and landed 4,000 troops who humiliated U.S. forces at Bladensburg, Maryland. The British marched into Washington, D.C. and burned the capital in revenge for the burning of York (Toronto). A few weeks later, British Admiral Alexander Cochrane and his officers decided to invade the nearby port-city of Baltimore because he thought the “town ought to be laid in ashes.”

Francis Scott Key was a prosperous D.C. attorney who had argued before the Supreme Court and had a large family. Like many Easterners, he was opposed to the war whose main proponents were “war hawks” from the West and South. However, Key was appalled by the threats to the capital and then the burning of Washington, and joined the local militia. He was persuaded by some friends to help secure the release of Dr. William Beanes from British captivity. Key gained an audience with President James Madison and soon joined with prisoner of war agent, John Skinner, to seek Beanes’ release.

Meanwhile, Major General Samuel Smith of the Maryland militia prepared Baltimore’s defenses for a British assault. During the morning of September 12, 4,700 redcoats and royal marines disembarked along the Patapsco River for a fifteen-mile march to Baltimore. They were led by General Robert Ross who promised to “sup in Baltimore tonight, or in hell.” A Royal Navy squadron sailed up the river to bombard Fort McHenry in the harbor and then the city itself.

The American militia was 3,000-strong and deployed along a narrow part of the peninsula to block the British advance. A rifleman among the forward skirmishers killed General Ross in the opening round. The British attacked after a brief, but sharp artillery exchange and forced the Americans back several times. The British pressed the attack the next day but suffered increasing numbers of casualties and were forced to withdraw. The Americans had held, and the British infantry attack on Baltimore had ground to a stop and failed.

Meanwhile, at sunrise on Tuesday, September 13, Commander of Fort McHenry, Major George Armistead, and commander of a volunteer artillery company from the city which had joined in the defense of the fort, peered through their spyglasses into Baltimore Harbor. They saw five British bomb-ships maneuvering into position one and a half miles from the star-shaped fort.

Armistead’s soldiers in the 1,000-man garrison were up and preparing the 36 guns to defend the fort. The tension was rife, and their nerves were stretched to the limit. Suddenly, the ship Volcano lobbed 200-pound explosive shells into the fort. The other four bomb ships and the rest of the fleet fired on the fort. Inaccurate but terrifying, screaming rockets were launched from Erebus toward the fort.

Major Armistead ordered his soldiers to return fire, and several cannonballs scored direct hits on British ships. The American fire was unexpectedly severe and forced the British to move out of range of the fort’s guns. The British had moved out of range of the American guns, but their bomb ships could still hit Fort McHenry. Finally, Armistead ordered his men to take cover in a moat.

A few observers of the battle from the British fleet were Key and Skinner. They had rented a packet-ship and went to the enemy fleet to secure the release of their prisoner. They had been stuck with the British fleet aboard the HMS Surprize for several days as it had moved toward the harbor. They were transferred with Beanes back to their small vessel but not allowed to depart until after the battle.

They were as distressed as the men in the fort at being bombarded and suffering casualties but impotent to return fire. A British shell crashed through the roof of the fort’s magazine where 300 barrels of gunpowder were stored, but miraculously, did not explode.

In the early afternoon, the sun disappeared, and heavy rain fell from a nor’easter. The men in the fort lowered the American flag stitched by Mary Pickersgill and raised a storm flag due to the rain. The British fleet moved closer to fire broadsides from several warships. The Americans quickly fired their own guns and caused severe damage to three warships forcing the British back.

However, the British bomb ships continued to fire as darkness settled with the arrival of evening, Admiral Cochrane had thought he would force a surrender in less than two hours leaving Baltimore vulnerable to a coordinated land-sea assault. But Armistead had no intention of surrendering.

The shelling continued through the night. Finally, the first light of dawn approached with Fort McHenry still standing. From his vantage point, Key watched as the fort raised the immense 30 by 42-foot star-spangled banner as the soldiers stood at attention. Meanwhile, Key pulled a letter from his pocket and started to jot down some words and notes for a song that came to mind. “O say can you see by the dawn’s early light . . .” it began, and ended with “O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.”

The American forces redeemed themselves at Baltimore and Fort McHenry after the national humiliation in Washington, D.C. Only a few months later, American commissioners including John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Albert Gallatin signed the Treaty of Ghent officially ending the War of 1812. Key’s words became America’s national anthem, marking its great victory in what some have called the Second War for American Independence.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

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