By Command Sergeant Major James Clifford, USA-Ret.
These few words—the opening line of the United States’ national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”—are some of the most recognizable in American history and move the heart all that hear them. Nearly every school child in America knows that Francis Scott Key wrote the anthem as a poem after observing the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor throughout the night of 13 September and into the morning of 14 September 1814. From his vantage point on a British ship he watched through the rainy night as British guns pummeled the fort. As dawn broke, Key saw a massive American flag defiantly flying over the fort signaling that the British attack had failed. Had the British captured and burned Baltimore, as they had Washington the month before, Philadelphia and New York City would have been the next likely targets.
This story is well known but only tells a small part of what are known as the Battles of North Point and Baltimore, depending on which part of the engagement is being discussed. In truth these are just part of the same combined arms effort undertaken by the British on land and sea against Baltimore in September 1814. Fort McHenry is important and the most famous aspect of the battle, but there is much more to the events of 13 and 14 September 1814. This article will discuss some of those important and little known aspects of the battle.
The story begins in August 1814. After sailing up the Chesapeake Bay, British troops marched on Washington, DC, where they easily scattered the militia and handful of Regulars, Marines, and sailors assembled at the Maryland village of Bladensburg. This engagement, often derisively referred to as the “Bladensburg Races,” left the nation’s capital defenseless. Soon much of Washington, including the Capitol building, the White House, and other federal buildings, was in flames and President James Madison was forced to flee. Only severe thunderstorms saved the entire city from burning to the ground.
The British then focused their attention on Baltimore, a significant commercial and naval center, just forty miles northeast of Washington. Perhaps more than any other American city, the British wanted to capture Baltimore. One London newspaper declared, “The seat of the American government but particularly Baltimore, is to be the immediate object of the attack.”
Situated on the Patapsco River which offered entry to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, Baltimore was the homeport for a group of nautical soldiers of fortune called privateers. Privateering was a legal activity of the day in which privately armed and outfitted sailors roamed the seas under the license of a combatant nation looking for commercial and military prey of an enemy nation. These privateers seriously damaged British naval aims while bolstering the local economy. Other cities saw the effectiveness of privateering and soon commissioned their own schooners, but Baltimore alone accounted for thirty percent of British merchant ships seized during the war. The British response was an attempt to seize the privateers’ homeports and strike blows against America’s economy as well as its morale. They hoped to destroy Baltimore’s ship building facilities at the Fell’s Point Naval Yard, where the large frigate USS Java was nearing completion, along with stockpiled naval stores. The potential economic damage made Baltimore a lucrative target for British military might.
During their march back to their ships after torching Washington, British troops took Dr. William Beanes of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, into custody. Dr. Beanes was said to have harassed British troops on the march—specifically he jailed two drunken British soldiers as they passed through Upper Marlboro. In retaliation for his bold actions the British seized Dr. Beanes and threw him in irons aboard the ship HMS Tonnant. Friends enlisted the aid of local lawyer and amateur poet, Francis Scott Key, to gain the release of Dr. Beanes. Key approached the British and was taken aboard a ship to negotiate Dr. Beanes’ release. The ship sailed up the Chesapeake to the Patapsco River, taking a station about eight miles before Fort McHenry. The British agreed to release Beanes but insisted that Key remain on the ship until after the imminent battle was over. From his vantage point on that ship, just beyond where the modern Francis Scott Key Bridge (Interstate 695) crosses the Patapsco today, Key observed the 25-hour bombardment of the fort.
Baltimore was not surprised by the approach of the enemy in mid-September 1814. They expected that the British would target the city sooner or later. A year and a half before the battle the governor of Maryland, Levin Winder, instructed Revolutionary War hero and Whiskey Rebellion veteran, congressman, senator, merchant, and commander of the state militia, MG Samuel Smith, to improve the defenses of Baltimore. Using extremely limited state and federal funds, and continuously soliciting funds from the local citizenry, Smith was able to emplace fifty-six long-range cannon at Fort McHenry. In addition, Smith ordered the construction of several other lesser installations around Baltimore Harbor.
Among the improvements were upgrades of Fort McHenry, a 32-pound cannon battery along the water’s edge, fortifications at Lazaretto Point, and additional batteries arrayed along the banks of the Patapsco. Barges were stretched across the watery approaches creating choke points that were covered by supporting batteries at Fort Covington (named for BG Leonard Covington, a Marylander who was killed at Chrysler’s Farm, 11 November 1813) and Fort Babcock (named for Army CPT Samuel Babcock, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who was the foreman in charge of the improvements and emplacements around the harbor). Channels were left open to lure the British ships into kill zones. All the improvements were designed to absorb the punishment expected from the better armed British in a “bend but do not break” strategy. A committee of public supply raised funds for construction projects. Volunteers dug huge entrenchments east of town. The city militia drilled regularly. Additionally, Smith anticipated that a naval bombardment would be just one aspect of the operation. He not only surmised that British troops would mount a ground campaign, he correctly predicted their route of march and prepared defensive positions along North Point.
The British plan was to squeeze the city in a combined land/sea pincer movement. Part of the plan was a naval bombardment to reduce the harbor defenses and land troops along the northern branch of the Patapsco. At the same time 5,000 infantry troops would land at North Point and march in an arc into the city from the east. Caught in the middle of these two overwhelming forces, the city was expected to capitulate just as quickly as Washington did a few weeks before. It all began in the predawn darkness of 12 September 1814.
At 0300 six British ships anchored off of North Point and began to offload troops and supplies under the command of MG Robert Ross, getting everyone on shore around 0700. Ross had three brigades of infantry, plus a company of Royal Sappers and a contingent of Royal Marines, under his command. British Rear Admiral George Cockburn accompanied Ross but had no authority to command. Once assembled into march formations the British began advancing up Long Log Lane, now Old North Point Road. The head of the mile-long column reached a homestead owned by Thomas Todd, established in 1664. The central feature of this 1,700 acre farm was a house called Todd’s Inheritance with a commanding view of the Chesapeake Bay. This aspect of the house doomed it to the British torch upon their retreat back down Long Log Lane.
Just over two miles along the march from Todd’s Inheritance, the British encountered an unfinished trench line designed to obstruct the British on a strip of land barely one mile across between Back River on the east and Humphrey Creek on the west. Today it is hardly visible and Humphrey Creek no longer exists. The line was abandoned for one a few miles closer to Baltimore at a point more strategically advantageous to the defenders. Although unmanned, this line did delay the British, as they had to deploy to meet the potential threat. Further up the road American BG John Stricker, who, like Smith, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War and the Whiskey Rebellion, posted his 3d Maryland Militia Brigade (also known as the City Brigade) of Maryland’s 3d Militia Division in three lines between the Back River and Patapsco River. Stricker had 3,185 men in five infantry regiments (5th, 6th, 27th, 39th, and 51st), one cavalry regiment, one artillery regiment, and a battalion of riflemen.
Approximately seven miles into the march, the British commander, MG Ross, stopped at Gorsuch Farm to eat breakfast. When Stricker learned of this he assembled a volunteer force of 250 men to reconnoiter the British advance. After breakfast, Ross rode to the front to observe and command his troops. As he moved forward of his own men, Ross presented a tempting target, all the while ignoring Admiral Cockburn’s warnings that he was too exposed. Legend has it that two youthful–some say as youthful as 14 years of age–American sharpshooters, PVT Daniel Wells and PVT Henry G. McComas from CPT Edward Aisquith’s rifle company from the 1st Rifle Battalion, Maryland Militia, took aim and fired at MG Ross.
Whether it was Wells and McComas or other soldiers that fired at Ross remains in dispute, but beyond question is that Ross was struck in the arm and the projectile lodged in his chest, knocking him to the ground. Although mortally wounded Ross refused the use of a rocket wagon to evacuate him, saying that he did not want to deprive his troops of an important weapon. Instead, soldiers commandeered a cart from the farm of George Stansbury to carry the general from the field. He died at a spot approximately one mile from the site where he was wounded. As British soldiers carried him to the rear, Ross’ blood-soaked horse ran back to the main body alerting the British troops to the wounding of their commander.
Ross’ body was taken to the HMS Tonnant, flagship of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane where he was preserved in a barrel of rum. On 29 September 1814 he was buried with military honors at Saint Paul Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His assailants, Wells and McComas, were themselves killed in action shortly after Ross was hit on 12 September.
Upon the death of Ross, COL Arthur Brooke, commander of the 1st (Light) Brigade, took command of the British ground forces. The American defenders were deployed in a line across Bolden’s Farm on the afternoon of 12 September. British and American artillery traded shots while the British attacked in an orderly and disciplined manner. As the enemy got closer, Stricker ordered the artillery to charge their guns with canister, which proved effective against the approaching British infantry. As the British ranks closed to within 100 yards–the effective maximum range for most smoothbore muskets of the day–the Americans kept up a heavy fire against the approaching infantry. In particular, the 5th Maryland, holding the American right flank and commanded by LTC Joseph Sterrett, put up stiff resistance in the face of murderous British rocket and artillery fire. Unlike the American forces at Bladensburg, Stricker’s troops did not panic and break when confronted by highly disciplined veteran British regulars. Once the British adavance was slowed, the Americans conducted a fighting retreat through a heavily wooded area to their next defensive line at Bread and Cheese Creek. Colonel Brooke did not pursue the Americans, choosing instead to camp for the night.
When Stricker saw that the British were not going to continue the attack he ordered his troops to fall back into the city to Hampstead Hill, part of an expanse owned by the second wealthiest Marylander at that time and the biggest contributor to Baltimore’s defenses. At this spot 5,000 defenders manned two and half miles of entrenchments. In some reports Hampstead Hill is also known as Loudenslager’s Hill or Chinquapin Hill. Today it is known as Patterson Park. As the American’s fell back they burned a large building used for making ship’s rigging commonly called in that day a “rope walk.” The fire’s glow seen from the city caused some panic among the populace.
The first day’s losses were significant for both sides, but the British suffered the heaviest casualties. Twenty-four Americans were killed that day and 139 were wounded. British losses were forty-six killed, including MG Ross, and 300 wounded. Many of the wounded, American and British alike, were treated at a local Methodist church where British surgeons worked through the chilly and damp night to save them.
The British suffered through the night for lack of shelter as they left their tentage and coats back at North Point, expecting that they would have been in Baltimore by nightfall. Heavy rain drenched the soldiers and rendered many weapons inoperable. As the British infantry shivered through the night, British warships moved up the Patapsco to within two miles of Fort McHenry. The second phase of the Battle of Baltimore had begun. Before dawn on the morning of 13 September the British continued their march on Baltimore along the Philadelphia Road. By first light they were within sight of the city at a position where the present day Francis Scott Key Medical Center is located.
At 0630 the Royal Navy opened their bombardment of Fort McHenry with five bomb ships, a rocket ship, and ten other warships of various types. British troops outside Baltimore were probably heartened by the sound, but what they saw must have shocked them. They believed that the day before they had defeated the entirety of the American defenders and expected to march easily into the city. The rising sun revealed the spectacle of 12,000 soldiers facing them. Among the defenders were militia units from the city and surrounding counties; some units came from as far away as Pennsylvania. Furthermore, the Americans possessed 100 cannon, giving the Americans a three-to-one advantage over their British foes. The land between the American and British lines had been largely cleared, offering little in the way of cover of concealment, and the heavy rains from the night before turned much of it into a quagmire. COL Brooke sent patrols out to probe for weaknesses in the American lines, but none were discovered. All Brooke could do was wait for support from the heavy naval guns of the British fleet. Before it could get within supporting range of the troops in Baltimore, however, it would have to reduce Fort McHenry.
The garrison commander of Fort McHenry, MAJ George Armistead, a Regular Army officer, had completed the preparation of the fort’s defenses only days before the British landings. Armistead had a 527-man composite unit comprised of soldiers from the 12th, 36th, and 38th U.S. Infantry Regiments, in addition to Regular and militia artillery units. The fort was well protected except for one glaring weakness: the magazine was a simple brick structure with only a shingle roof and vulnerable to a direct hit by enemy fire. One shell actually struck the magazine during the bombardment but failed to explode. Eventually, the 300 barrels of power stored within the magazine were distributed throughout the fort to reduce the chance of a devastating explosion.
The bombardment opened with rockets (the newfangled Congreve rockets made famous by Key’s line “rocket’s red glare”), bombs (actually mortars that exploded above the fort as in Key’s line “bombs bursting in air”), and cannon balls all aimed at the fort. For the defenders in the fort, the noise was deafening (CPT Frederick Evans described it as “overwhelming”). Four men were killed and 24 wounded, but overall, casualties were light and only a few guns were ever put out of action.
The bombardment continued until early in the afternoon when the fleet, under the command of Rear Admiral Cockburn, attempted to move closer so that their fire would be more effective. This maneuver failed when the return fire from Fort McHenry forced them back to their original positions. From there the British fleet resumed the bombardment of Fort McHenry.
After dark, with the rain falling and their army still menacing the outskirts of Baltimore, the British attempted to bypass the guns of Fort McHenry. Just before midnight on 13 September, boats carrying 1,200 soldiers slid under the guns of Fort McHenry making their way into the middle branch of the Patapsco River. The British obviously intended to mount a ground attack on the rear of the fort. Thinking that they were out of danger from the fort’s guns, they sent up rockets. Perhaps the firing of the rockets was an ill-advised celebration of their having bypassed Fort McHenry, or perhaps it was meant as a signal. In either case, it gave away their position and pinpointed them as targets for the guns at Forts Babcock and Covington. Many of the 1,200 unfortunate British troops were killed or drowned in the ensuing crossfire. Most of those who survived were taken prisoner.
With the coming of dawn on 14 September the British realized that despite firing 1,500 to 1,800 rounds at the fort, they were not going to prevail. The cold rainy night gave way to a breezy dawn. As the wind kicked up, Fort McHenry’s commander, MAJ Armistead, ordered the raising of a huge American flag that he had made by local seamstress Mary Pickersgill just for such an occasion. It is said that the fort’s musicians played “Yankee Doodle” as the garrison rasied the flag. The sight of that flag broke the will of British military commanders and convinced them that they could not take Baltimore.
This flag, the standard garrison flag measuring 42 feet by 30 feet, was large enough so that ships on the river would be able to see its fifteen 26-inch stars and fifteen two-foot wide stripes clearly from far away (the flag did not revert to the thirteen stripe version we know today until 1818). Some are under the impression that that flag flew during the entire battle but that is unlikely due to the weather. It is more likely that a smaller flag flew during the height of the bombardment. Today, the Smithsonian Institution is repairing damage done to the famous large flag by souvenir hunters and time.
As the fleet withdrew, COL Brooke retreated from Baltimore. The British infantry boarded the ships where they had disembarked two days earlier and the fleet sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay. For several days the defenders of Baltimore stood by to repulse an expected second assault, but the British did not return. British forces were as disheartened as Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the words that would become the United States’ national anthem 116 years later.
The burning of Washington during the British Chesapeake Bay offensive was their highlight of 1814. After being repulsed in the Chesapeake, and in upstate New York at Plattsburgh on 11 September, the British concentrated their operations in the Gulf of Mexico which resulted in further defeats and culminated in the disaster at New Orleans. The Battles of Baltimore and North Point silenced opponents of the war, restored national pride, and helped convince the British that the cost of the war would be more than they could bear.
There were many American heroes of the battle including MG Smith, MAJ Armistead, and the garrison of Fort McHenry. Smith used his military, political, and business connections to get the city prepared. After the battle he was held in such high esteem that the citizens returned him to Congress. The people of Baltimore honored him with a park in his name that disappeared in the urban renewal movement of the 1970s.
MAJ George Armistead was also a hero of the battle. This Regular Army officer saw to the preparations of Fort McHenry and was the backbone of the defenses throughout the 25-hour bombardment. Just when the time was right he ordered the raising of the most famous flag in American history signaling his defiance to the British leaders and inspiring Francis Scott Key. Coincidentally, he is not the only Armistead with a significant place in American military history. His nephew, Lewis Armistead, gained fame for himself as a Confederate general in the Battle of Gettysburg when he breached the Union lines during Pickett’s Charge before being mortally wounded. Both George and Lewis are interred together in Baltimore.
Fort McHenry is an icon of American history. It was built to withstand foreign invasion, a role it filled admirably. After serving in the War of 1812, Fort McHenry stayed on active duty into the twentieth century. During the Civil War it served as a Union prison for Confederates and southern sympathizers. At one point a son of Francis Scott Key was imprisoned there under suspicion of being a secessionist. Later it served as a training installation and hospital. Today it is part of National Park Service and host to thousands of visitors annually. Occasionally it still sees active service as the landing pad for the Presidential helicopter (Marine One) when the President of the United States pays a visit to Baltimore.
Most of the details of the Battles of North Point and Baltimore are seldom talked about today. Fort McHenry is more than the coincidental location of writing of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Both Fort McHenry and North Point are testaments to American bravery and commitment to the nation. Had it not been for the courageous defenders of Baltimore in September of 1814 the United States might have gone the way of Washington, DC. The young nation known as the United States of America might have ceased to exist and may have become a mere footnote in the history of the world. For that, all Americans owe the defenders a significant debt.
For additional information on the Battles of North Point and Baltimore, please read: The Battle for Baltimore, 1814, by Joseph A. Whitehorne; Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay, by Christopher T. George; The War of 1812 on the Chesapeake Bay, by Gilbert Byron; The Darkest Day: 1814, The Washington-Baltimore Campaign, by Charles G. Muller; Amateurs to Arms! A Military History of the War of 1812, by John R. Elting; and The War of 1812, by Harry L. Coles.