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In the Battle of Baltimore, one of the turning points in the War of 1812, Americanmarker forces warded off a Britishmarker sea invasion of the busy port city of Baltimoremarker, Marylandmarker. The American defense of Baltimore’s Fort McHenrymarker in this battle inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the poem which would become the national anthem of the United States: "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Background

On August 24, 1814, the British Army had overrun confused American defenders at the Battle of Bladensburg and marched into the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C.marker, which had been abandoned by the military. After burning and looting the White House, Capitol, Treasury, War Department and other public buildings and forcing the destruction of the Washington Navy Yard, the British carted public and private possessions back to their ships. President James Madison and the entire government fled the city; Madison wandered around Virginia and Maryland for several days. The British also sent a fleet up the Potomac to threaten the prosperous ports of Alexandria and Georgetown, which lie just west of Washington, and cut off Washington's water access. The mere appearance of the fleet cowed American defenders into fleeing from Fort Warburton without firing a shot, and undefended Alexandria surrendered. The British spent several days looting hundreds of tons of merchandise from city merchants, then turned their attention north to Baltimoremarker, where they hoped to strike a knockout blow against the demoralized Americans. Baltimore was a busy port and was thought by the British to harbor many of the privateers who were raiding British shipping. The British planned a combined operation, with Major-General Robert Ross launching a land attack at North Pointmarker, and Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane laying siege to Fort McHenrymarker, which was the point defensive installation in Baltimore Harbormarker.

Battle

North Point

The British landed a force of 5,000 troops who marched toward Baltimore and first met heavy resistance at the Battle of North Point which was fought about 5 miles from the city. The city’s defense was under the overall command of Major General Samuel Smith, an officer of the Marylandmarker Militia. He dispatched a column under the command of General John Stricker which killed the British General Robert Ross, who ordered the burning of the White House, and blunted the British attack. As a result, the British army halted their advance and awaited the results of the sea campaign.

Fort McHenry

At Fort McHenry, some 1,000 soldiers under the command of Major George Armistead awaited the British naval bombardment. Their defense was augmented by the sinking of a line of American merchant ships at the adjacent entrance to Baltimore Harbor in order to further thwart the passage of British ships.

The attack began on September 13, as the British fleet of some nineteen ships began pounding the fort with Congreve rockets (from rocket vessel HMS Erebus) and mortar shells (from bomb vessels HMS Terror, HMS Volcano, HMS Meteor, HMS Devastation, and HMS Aetna). After an initial exchange of fire, the British fleet withdrew to just beyond the range of Fort McHenry’s cannons and continued to bombard the American redoubts for the next 25 hours. Although 1,500 to 1,800 cannonballs were launched at the fort, damage was light.
After nightfall, Cochrane ordered a landing to be made by small boats to the shore just west of the fort, away from the harbor opening on which the fort’s defense was concentrated. He hoped that the landing party might slip past Fort McHenry and draw Smith’s army away from the main British land assault on the city’s eastern border. Operating in darkness and in foul weather, Armistead's guns opened fire onto the landing party and the diversionary attack failed. On the morning of September 14, the × 42 ft oversized American flag, which had been made a few months before by local flagmaker Mary Pickersgill and her 13-year-old daughter, was raised over Fort McHenry (replacing the tattered storm flag which had flown during battle).

Brooke had been instructed not to attack the American positions around Baltimore unless he was certain they could be taken. Seeing that Cochrane had failed to subdue the Fort, Brooke withdrew from his positions, and returned to the fleet.

Aftermath

An American lawyer and amateur poet, Francis Scott Key, was on a mercy mission for the release of Dr. William Beanes, a prisoner of the British. Key showed the British letters from wounded British officers praising the care they received from Dr. Beanes. The British agreed to release Beanes, but Key and Beanes had to stay with the British until the attack on Baltimore was over. Key watched the proceedings from a truce ship in the Patapsco Rivermarker.
Battle Monument, Baltimore
the morning of the 14th, Key saw the American flag waving above Fort McHenry. Inspired, he began jotting down verses on the back of a letter he was carrying. He composed the words to the tune of an old British drinking song, "Anacreontic Song." When Key reached Baltimore, his poem was printed on pamphlets by the Baltimore American. His poem was originally called "Defense of Ft. McHenry." The song eventually became known as "The Star-Spangled Banner." Congress made it the National Anthem in 1931.

Colonel Brooke’s troops withdrew, and Admiral Cochrane’s fleet sailed off to regroup before his next assault on America at New Orléans, Louisianamarker. Armistead was soon promoted to lieutenant colonel. Much weakened by the arduous preparations for the battle, he died at age 38, only three years after the battle.

The battle is commemorated in the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrinemarker.

Footnotes

  1. Borneman p.247


References and further reading

  • George, Christopher T., Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay, Shippensburg, Pa., White Mane, 2001, ISBN 1-57249-276-7
  • Pitch, Anthony S.The Burning of Washington, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000. ISBN 1-55750-425-3
  • Whitehorne, Joseph A., The Battle for Baltimore 1814, Baltimore: Nautical & Aviation Publishing, 1997, ISBN 1-877853-23-2


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