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The British Attack on Fort McHenry Was Immortalized in The Star-Spangled Banner

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The Bombardment of Fort McHenry
Bombardment of Fort McHenry in September 1814

Lithograph depicting the bombardment of Fort McHenry in September 1814

Library of Congress

The attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore's harbor was a pivotal moment in the War of 1812 as it successfully thwarted the Chesapeake Bay campaign the Royal Navy had been waging against the United States.

Coming only weeks after the burning of the U.S. Capitol and the White House by British forces, the victory at Fort McHenry, and the associated Battle of North Point, were much-needed boosts to the American war effort.

And the bombardment of Fort McHenry also provided something no one could have anticipated: a witness to the "rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air," Francis Scott Key, wrote the words which became "The Star-Spangled Banner," the national anthem of the United States.

After being thwarted at Fort McHenry, the British forces in the Chesapeake Bay sailed away, leaving Baltimore, and the center of America's East Coast, safe.

Had the fighting in Baltimore in September 1814 gone differently, the United States itself might have been gravely threatened.

Before the attack, one of the British commanders, General Ross, had boasted that he was going to make his winter quarters in Baltimore.

When the Royal Navy sailed away a week later, one of the ships was carrying, inside a hogshead of rum, the body of General Ross. He had been killed by an American sharpshooter outside Baltimore.

The Royal Navy Attacked the Chesapeake Bay

Britain's Royal Navy had been blockading the Chesapeake Bay, with varying results, since the outbreak of war in June 1812. And in 1813 a series of raids along the bay's long shorelines kept local residents wary.

In early 1814 the American Naval officer Joshua Barney, a Baltimore native, organized the Chesapeake Flotilla, a force of small ships, to patrol and defend the Chesapeake Bay.

When the Royal Navy returned to the Chesapeake in 1814, Barney's small boats managed to harass the more powerful British fleet. But the Americans, despite astonishing bravery in the face of British naval power, could not stop landings in southern Maryland in August 1814 which preceded the Battle of Bladensburg and the march to Washington.

Baltimore Was Called "A Nest of Pirates"

After the British raid on Washington, D.C., it seemed apparent that the next target was Baltimore. The city had long been a thorn in the side of the British, as privateers sailing from Baltimore had been raiding English shipping for two years.

Referring the Baltimore privateers, an English newspaper had called Baltimore as "a nest of pirates." And there was talk of teaching the city a lesson.

The City Prepared For the Battle

Reports of the destructive raid on Washington appeared in the Baltimore newspaper, the Patriot and Advertiser, in late August and early September. And a popular news magazine published in Baltimore, Nile's Register, also published detailed accounts of the burning of the Capitol and the White House (called "the president's house" at the time).

Citizens of Baltimore prepared themselves for an expected attack. Old ships were sunk in the harbor's narrow shipping channel to create obstacles for the British fleet. And earthworks were prepared outside the city on the path that British soldiers would likely take if troops landed to invade the city.

Fort McHenry, a brick star-shaped fort guarding the mouth of the harbor, prepared for battle. The fort's commander, Major George Armistead, positioned extra cannon, and recruited volunteers to man the fort during the anticipated attack.

British Landings Preceded the Naval Attack

A large British fleet appeared off Baltimore on September 11, 1814, and the next day approximately 5,000 British soldiers landed at North Point, 14 miles from the city. The British plan was for the infantry to attack the city while the Royal Navy shelled Fort McHenry.

British plans began to unravel when the land forces, while marching to Baltimore, encountered advance pickets from the Maryland militia. British General Sir Robert Ross, riding on his horse, was shot by a sharpshooter and mortally wounded.

Colonel Arthur Brooke took command of the British forces, which marched forward and engaged American regiments in a battle. At the end of the day, both sides pulled back, the Americans taking up positions in entrenchments the citizens of Baltimore had constructed during the preceding weeks.

Fort McHenry Was Shelled For a Day and Throughout the Following Night

At sunrise on September 13, the British ships in the harbor began to shell Fort McHenry. Sturdy vessels, called bomb ships, carried large mortars capable of tossing aerial bombs. And a fairly new innovation, Congreve rockets, were fired at the fort.

The cannon of the fort could not fire as far as the British naval guns, so the American troops had to patiently wait out the bombardment. However, by mid-afternoon some British ships approached, and American gunners fired upon them, driving them back.

It was later said that the British naval commanders expected the fort to surrender within two hours. But the defenders of Fort McHenry refused to give up.

At one point British troops in small boats, equipped with ladders, were spotted approaching the fort. American batteries on shore opened fire on them, and the boats quickly retreated back to the fleet.

Meanwhile, British land forces were unable to dislodge the American defenders on land.

The Morning After the Battle Became Legendary

On the morning of September 14, 1814, the Royal Navy commanders realized they could not force the surrender of Fort McHenry. And inside the fort, the commander, Major Armistead, had raised an enormous American flag to clearly demonstrate that he had no intention of surrendering.

Running low on ammunition, the British fleet called off the attack and began to make plans to withdraw. The British land forces had also been retreating, and marching back to their landing spot so they could row back to the fleet.

Inside Fort McHenry, casualties were surprisingly low. Major Armistead estimated that about 1,500 British bombs had exploded over the fort, yet only four men in the fort had been killed.

"The Defense of Fort McHenry" Was Published

The flag-raising on the morning of September 14, 1814 became legendary as an eyewitness to the event, Maryland lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key, wrote a poem to express his joy at the sight of the flag still flying on the morning after the attack.

Key's poem was printed as a broadside soon after the battle. And when the Baltimore newspaper, the Patriot and Advertiser, began publishing again a week after the battle, it printed the words under the headline, "The Defense of Fort McHenry."

The poem, of course, became known as "The Star-Spangled Banner," and officially became the national anthem of the United States in 1931.

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