Defence of Fort Mchenry
"DEFENCE OF FORT MCHENRY"
September 14, 1814
By MAJ Christopher L’ (RET)
Most Americans believe the American Revolution ended at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 when General Lord Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington. Little do they realize that this was merely the end of the first act of a two act play that would last more than thirty additional years. Where most of the first act had taken place on land, some of the most spectacular scenes of the second act were set at sea.
Much of America’s success in a war that became known by the year, in which it started, was due to the development of a secret weapon during the interwar years. The causes of the war were both complicated and simple. Commercial and political considerations were eclipsed by a more emotionally powerful issue; impressment. The British Royal Navy, with 1000 ships, was the most powerful in the world. With intermittent war with France, Britain was hard pressed for men to sail her ships. The British Admiralty authorized the captains of her warships to stop American ships to ‘recover sailors whom they deemed to actually be British subjects’. While there were naturalized Brits serving on American ships, Britain did not recognize ‘naturalization’. Over time, thousands of sailors were removed from American ships. American commercial interests viewed this as an impingement of free trade. Together, the issues gave rise to the rallying cry of "Free trade and sailors' rights!" America declared war on Britain, on June 1, 1812.
America’s secret weapons were six frigates, which formed the core of the United States Navy. The frigate was a three-masted square rigged ship that was capable of extended independent operations. These particular frigates were more powerfully built and armed than any ships of their class anywhere. Foremost among these was USS Constitution, which earned the nickname “Old Ironsides”, and survives to this day.
For a good part of the conflict, America did not fare well against the British in the campaigns which were fought on both sides of the border with Canada. This had less to do with the qualities of the American soldiers than the incompetence of the politically appointed commanders who had little or no military experience. American naval actions on Lakes Erie, Ontario, and Champlain were very generally very successful, in every way matching the victories at sea.
By 1814, the British had recommitted to victory against the upstart Americans who had bested them on the sea and inland lakes. The Chesapeake Bay area represented a considerable strategic arena for operations. Baltimore was the third largest city in the country, but Washington DC was the prize. Landing from the British fleet at Benedict, Maryland led to the Battle of Bladensburg. The Americans again suffered from incompetent amateur commanders, though Commodore Joshua Barney’s sailors and Marines acquitted themselves well by providing strong resistance to repeated British assaults. With inadequate support of militia, and too few regular Army troops, the Americans could not hold, and eventually gave way. This opened up the capitol to the British, who burned the Capitol, the Treasury, and the President’s Mansion. After leaving Washington, the British reboarded their ships, sailed back to the Chesapeake, and headed north towards Baltimore.
Their combined fleet was the most powerful yet assembled in the war with America. The British landed 5,000 troops at North Point. The Americans had learned valuable lessons at Bladensburg, and the burning of the capitol served as the final straw, which brought men to defend Baltimore, from not only Maryland, but also Pennsylvania and Virginia, some 15,000 in all. These were largely the little trained militia which had lacked success against the British in the past, but this time, there were differences.
In overall command was Major General Samuel Smith, who, though a militia officer, had been a combat officer during the Revolution. Under General Smith was Brigadier General John Stricker, who was also a combat veteran of the Revolution. With a core of regular soldiers, sailors, and Marines, these experienced commanders developed an effective plan that capitalized on their greater number of inexperienced troops. Defenses were prepared in depth, which included effective entrenchments. Stricker met the British at North Point and fought a delaying action,
which provided more time for the main forces east of Baltimore to prepare. When the British finally reached the main American defenses, they found them far stronger than expected, bristling with 100 cannon and manned by 12,000 troops. The British decided on another tactic.
Sitting at the tip of a peninsula jutting out into Baltimore harbor was a stout American fort, mounting heavy cannon, and manned by 1000 regular Army troops and militia. Fort McHenry was commanded by Major George Armistead, who made every preparation possible, but then realized that one more thing was needed. He contracted with a widow of Baltimore, Mary Young Pickersgill, to fabricate a flag large enough that the British would have no trouble seeing it from a distance. The flag was 30’ x 42’, and required the efforts of Mrs. Pickersgill, her daughter, two nieces, and two servants.
Aboard a ship in the midst of the British fleet was a two man American delegation that had arrived under a flag of truce to negotiate the release of a captured American civilian, Dr. William Beanes. One of these two was a Georgetown lawyer and self-styled poet, by the name of Francis Scott Key. The second was John Stuart Skinner the U.S. Prisoner Exchange Agent for the region.
Key had been told that he, Skinner, and Dr. Beanes would have to remain on board until the bombardment and assault on Baltimore had been completed.
The British planned to bombard Fort McHenry with 10” and 13” diameter mortars from the bomb ships of the fleet, and a ship that fired their newfangled 32 pound Congreve rockets. The bombardment began before dusk on September 13th, and continued all night. Throughout the night, the only illumination above the fort was provided by the red glare of the rockets, and bombs bursting in the air. When not obscured by smoke, with each explosion, the oversize flag was visible from far out in the British fleet.
By the early light of dawn, the smoke lay thick and heavy between the fort and the fleet. On the deck of the ship where he was being held, Key strained to see what the morning light would disclose. Finally, a breeze began to blow, and with a gasp, Key watched as the great red, white, and blue banner was lifted out from the pole. The Americans had withstood the bombardment! With an American victory at both North Point and at Fort McHenry, the British withdrew.
As he reflected on what he had seen, Key took an envelope from his pocket and began writing down lines; “Defence of Fort McHenry”. Within days it was published and renamed as “The Star Spangled Banner”, and “The Anacreontic Song”, a well know tune, was adapted. This song spread like wildfire, because it spoke of a well-earned and uncontestable victory against a staggeringly more powerful enemy.
In the world, a national anthem helps define a nation. From our founding, as a nation born in strife, America was a nation of many songs. For many years, “Hail Columbia” was a commonly heard patriotic song throughout the country, though “The Star Spangled Banner” had many admirers. In the late 1880s the Navy and the Marine Corps began playing it each day, when the flag was raised. The Army followed. In 1916, momentum picked up with President Woodrow Wilson’s support, but it was not until 1931 that President Herbert Hoover signed a bill into law declaring “The Star Spangled Banner” as our official national anthem.
©2014 Christopher Gray Lamberton
We are honored to welcome Christopher as a contributing writer!
Mr. Lamberton is a retired Marine Corps officer, and Executive Director of the Scottish Clan & Tartan Information Center.