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This Week in History
September 7-13, 2014

The Defense of Baltimore Saves the Nation

September 12-14, 1814

by Colin Lowry

Francis Scott Key looking at the flag raised over Fort McHenry following the unsuccessful bombardment by the British Navy.

This week marks the Bicentennial of the heroic battles in Baltimore, including the resistance to the British naval bombardment of Ft. McHenry, which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner, and the Battle of North Point, culminating in the retreat of the British forces from Baltimore harbor, and the Chesapeake Bay during the final months of the War of 1812. The situation the citizens of the United States faced in late August 1814 was dire, with the question of whether the young republic would survive its second war with Britain hanging in the balance

On the night of August 24, 1814, the people of Baltimore standing on Federal Hill watched with horror the orange glow in the sky emanating from the fires engulfing the Capitol City of Washington, knowing the British would soon make them their next target for destruction. British troops under General Ross had burned the White House, the Capitol, the Senate, the Navy Yard, and many other public buildings, while also looting and pillaging whatever goods they could find throughout the city with a savagery that even repulsed some of the junior officer’s under Ross’s command. Retreating Federal troops and frightened militia streamed into Baltimore over the ensuing days, relating the stories of the American defeat at the Battle of Bladensburg earlier in the day of August 24th, and the scenes of destruction throughout Washington.

The local political leaders and the army commanders at Baltimore resolved that they would not suffer the same fate as Washington, and launched a series of additional preparations to defend against a British attack on the city. They had already been preparing this defense since the spring of 1813, when British Admiral Cockburn had launched his naval campaign in the Chesapeake Bay, burning and raiding dozens of towns along the shores.

The ship is the Pride of Baltimore, a Clipper ship typical of the Privateers built in Baltimore during the War of 1812.

In the spring of 1813, the British wanted to lure the Americans to withdraw troops from the Canadian front along Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, after successful victories by the American Army under General Winfield Scott at Chippewa, Lundy’s Lane, and York. To commence the new Chesapeake campaign, Admiral Cockburn sailed into the Chesapeake Bay with 8 large frigates, and other smaller ships, including landing barges and Congreve rocket ships. The British Navy was attempting to blockade most of the American coast, but the faster ships built especially at Baltimore, called Baltimore Clippers and Schooners, could outrun the heavier British frigates, and attacked and captured approximately 250 British merchant and military supply ships during the war. This earned Baltimore particular hatred in the eyes of the British Navy, who called it a ‘nest of pirates’. Admiral Cockburn first attacked smaller towns along the bay, including Tilghman’s Island, and established an artillery battery at Poole’s Island in the Upper Chesapeake Bay, and then a small base on Spesutia Island, opposite the mouth of the Susquehanna River.

From this location, Cockburn called upon his spy network before launching his next series of raids, and the remaining Tory sympathizers in the area who had never reconciled themselves to the success of the American Revolution. The Tories were known as ‘blue lights’ as they often left blue colored lanterns out at night along the shore to alert the British forces where it was safe to land, and where they could find supplies. He sent out spies and fake ‘deserters’ to alert the local militia at Havre de Grace that there would be an attack on the night of May 1. The small militia of about 250 men was on duty that night, but when no attack came, many left for their homes and farms. Havre de Grace controlled the important ferry route crossing towards Philadelphia across the Susquehanna, which Cockburn wanted to disrupt. He then attacked the town of Havre de Grace on the night of May 2, firing Congreve rockets, and grapeshot from cannons at the thinly defended American battery of 3 small guns defending the town. Caught off guard, the militia returned fire, but the overwhelming force of 15 British ships bombarding them forced them to retreat. The landing party stormed onto the battery, and turned the guns on the town itself, and continued firing Congreve rockets causing many houses to burst into flames, and killing a resident who was cut in two by a rocket. Cockburn’s troops then demanded a ransom they knew the town could not pay, and then proceeded to loot it, taking what they pleased from houses, killing farm animals with their swords, and burning almost every home in the town.

Cockburn then raided Frenchtown, Elkton, and Georgetown, burning and sacking the towns as he went, before turning up the Susquehanna river to attack and burn the Principio Ironworks, which had been in service since before the Revolution, and was an important maker of cannonballs. The news of the savage raids by Cockburn’s troops filled the pages of the newspapers across America, and hardened the resolve of the people to defeat this old menace once and for all. In the Baltimore paper, The Weekly Register, an advertisement taken out by a naturalized Irish American named James O’Boyle, offered a $1000 reward for “the notorious and infamous scoundrel, violator of all laws, the British Adm. Cockburn, or $500 for each of his ears, on delivery.” By late May, Cockburn brought his ships south of Annapolis in the Chesapeake Bay, and waited for his chance to attack the smaller American Flotilla commanded by Commodore Joshua Barney, the only naval force that stood in the way of a full assault on the well fortified Baltimore Harbor. Reflecting on the impact of Cockburn’s raids, Captain Joseph H. Nicholson, with the US Volunteers stationed at Baltimore said, “we should have to fight hereafter, not for free trade and sailors rights, not for the conquest of the Canadas, but for our national existence.”

Commodore Barney had about 18 small ships in his flotilla at Baltimore, and had avoided a direct attack on Cockburn’s squadron of larger ships with superior firepower, but by June of 1814, he believed he had no choice but to attack. With the war in Europe on Napoleon’s forces winding down in 1814, the British sent an additional 4500 troops and new large frigates to invade the Chesapeake Bay, with Washington and Baltimore as the primary targets, in an effort to split the United States in two geographically, combined with a renewed assault from Canada on New York, and the upcoming attacks in the Gulf of Mexico on New Orleans. Barney sailed from Baltimore to attack the British fleet near Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, but the British fleet pushed Barney into the area near St. Leonard’s Creek. From June 8-10, the two sides fought, with Barney’s ships escaping up the Patuxent River, but with no way to get back to the relative safety of Baltimore Harbor. Now trapped, the American flotilla fought valiantly until August 22, when under heavy fire, near Upper Marlboro, Barney ordered his men to burn the remaining ships and come ashore. With only about 400 Marines left, he waited for the British to advance toward Washington, at Bladensburg, Maryland. He was reinforced by thousands of inexperienced militia, and there was a split in the command between the state militia troops, and the Federals under Commodore Barney, leading to mistakes in the battle, where most of the militia fled under fire of the British Marines, while Barney’s 400 Federal troops stood their ground, leading to Barney being wounded and most of his men killed or captured. The way to Washington was now clear of American troops, leading to the burning of Washington.

The Battle of Baltimore

After the burning of Washington, Baltimore Mayor Edward Johnson and the Committee of Vigilance and Safety, requested that Maryland Militia General Samuel Smith be made a Federal Major General, to take control of the overall defense of Baltimore, and avoid any divisions in leadership, such as had occurred at the Battle of Bladensburg. General Smith had already been working for a year on the defensive earthworks and artillery batteries from the east side of Baltimore and down along North Point, concluding that since the stone and brick Ft. McHenry was so well positioned to defend the inner harbor, the British would have to land troops out of range of its guns and approach the city from the east from North Point. He built a series of trenches, and earthworks stretched for about 6 miles, culminating in the large earthworks fortress atop Hampstead Hill in east Baltimore, in the area of present day Patterson Park. General Smith was a Revolutionary War hero, and a veteran of the Whiskey Rebellion, and using the Committee of Vigilance he sent out an order on August 24, calling on all citizens to bring all available shovels, axes, carts and wheelbarrows to come and create the defenses on the east side of the city. Thousands of people pitched in to defend the city, the effort described by Baltimore merchant George Douglass in a letter as, “all hearts and able hands have cordially united in the common cause. At this moment we cannot have less than 10,000 men under arms, all sorts of people, old and young, white and black, in so much we expect that every vulnerable point will be strongly fortified.”

General Smith’s efforts were joined by General George Armistead, commander of the Federal troops in Ft. McHenry, who upgraded many of the cannon, adding longer range 42 pound guns, and creating two artillery batteries along the Patapsco River, just west of the fort. These were named Ft. Covington, and Ft. Babcock, and the defenses also included barges and sunken merchant ships, to create choke points in the harbor, to lure attacking ships into channels covered by the range of the guns of the forts. Across from Ft. McHenry, another artillery battery at Lazaretto Point was reinforced, leaving no way for ships to get into the Baltimore Inner Harbor, unless they could get past the forts. General Smith drilled the Maryland Militia daily, and also integrated the local militia known as the City Brigade into the preparations. The shipyards at Fells Point had built hundreds of Privateers that had inflicted serious damage on the British Navy and its merchant ships, and under construction at that time was the USS Java, which was to be Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s new flagship. Commodore Perry himself was already in Baltimore overseeing the construction, and was involved in the building of the defenses around Hampstead Hill.

Vice Admiral Cochrane had sailed into the Chesapeake Bay in early August to assume overall British command of the campaign, bringing with him 4500 veteran troops who had served in Spain and Italy against Napoleon’s forces, and 14 more ships to add to Cockburn’s forces. The Vice Admiral was himself a British Lord, and a good friend of Lord Nelson of the Navy, and he cared very little for the Americans, remarking to his officers that “like a naughty spaniel, they must be treated with great severity before you can ever make them tractable.”

Cochrane moved his ships up the Chesapeake toward Baltimore before dawn on September 12, and then sent Admiral Cockburn with General Ross and his troops on six ships that landed at North Point at about 3 o’clock in the morning, unloading about 4500 marines and equipment. General Ross and Cockburn went ahead with a small party of about 250 men, to do reconnaissance while the rest of the troops disembarked, taking about 4 hours to completely get ashore. The Americans had seen the British ships at night coming north, and had alerted the Maryland Militia east of the city, under the command of General John Stricker. General Stricker was born in Frederick, was a veteran of both the Revolutionary War and Whiskey Rebellion, and had about 3200 troops with him on North Point, including the City Brigade and the 3rd Maryland Militia Division, including one cavalry regiment, one artillery regiment and a company of riflemen.

At around 7 in the morning, American cavalry scouts reported back to General Stricker the location of the British landing, and that a brigade was moving toward a farm owned by the Gorsuch family. General Ross and his brigade had stopped at the Gorsuch farm to eat breakfast at the expense of the family. After serving him breakfast, Mr. Gorsuch asked General Ross whether or not he would require him to serve him dinner on his return trip, to which Ross replied, “I’ll sup in Baltimore tonight, or in hell.” After finishing his breakfast, General Ross greeted Colonel Brooke, who arrived at the Gorsuch farm with his regiment and the remainder of the artillery. General Stricker ordered a small force of 150 men to confront Ross and his reconnaissance party, sending some mounted troopers and men of Captain Edward Aisquith’s rifle company toward the Gorsuch farm. At about 1 o’clock, the American advanced guard found Ross and his company, and opened fire. Ross was ahead of his line of troops, and made an inviting target riding on his horse. Two teenage riflemen, Daniel Wells and Henry McComas, fired at Ross, with a bullet going through his arm, and into his chest, and he fell mortally wounded to the ground. His horse, with the saddle stained with blood, ran back through the British line, causing a scene of horror and dismay among his troops. British Lieutenant Glieg described the scene, stating “we were already drawing near the scene of action, when another officer came at full speed towards us, with dismay in his countenance, and calling loudly for a surgeon. Just after the officer had passed us, the General’s horse, without its rider….came plunging onwards. It is impossible to conceive the effect which this melancholy spectacle produced throughout the army.” As Ross lay dying, he ordered he be covered to hide his wounds, as he wanted to preserve the morale of his men. The command fell to Colonel Brooke to continue the attack, and he quickly advanced upon the small American force that had shot Ross, killing both Wells, Daniels, and Captain Aisquith in the counter attack. Brooke then paused his advance, seeing the main force of General Stricker, arrayed in 3 lines, one in reserve, with trees covering part of the front, along Long Log Lane, and water from small creeks on both sides. Among the trees, Stricker had positioned his artillery, so Colonel Brooke attempted to turn his left flank by attacking with Congreve rockets and artillery. The Americans did not panic, and determined to stay in the fight, loaded their cannons with grapeshot, and opened fire on the advancing British at 100 yards, inflicting heavy losses on Brooke’s lines. The British and American lines traded artillery fire for over an hour, with Brooke’s light infantry finally pushing back the American left flank. Stricker moved back, and reformed his lines at one of the trenches and earthworks dug weeks before, and went musket to musket with the British Regulars for another hour. Brooke halted his advance at this point, not knowing what lay ahead of him, and Stricker ordered his men into a firing retreat, heading back to the large earthworks at Hampstead Hill. The American militia had not fled in the face of the attack by the seasoned British Regulars, and had inflicted heavy losses on the invaders, with the British suffering 46 killed and 300 wounded, while American losses were 24 killed, and 139 wounded. With darkness coming, and his men exhausted, Colonel Brooke prepared to camp his men for the night, but since they expected to already have been in Baltimore that night, they lacked tents and had to sleep in the open as the rain began to fall. All night a drenching rain soaked the invaders, who waited for the second phase of the attack plan to commence the following morning, using the British fleet to bombard the American defenses in Baltimore Harbor.

Once General Stricker’s men returned to the earthworks fortress at Hampstead Hill, the call went out from the Committee of Vigilance for reinforcements to join in the defense of the city. Riders spread the word as far as Pennsylvania and Virginia, and by the early morning, 10,000 new militia and citizens had come to man the defenses at Hampstead Hill. When the British troops under Colonel Brooke awoke, they looked toward the fortifications in front of them at Hampstead Hill, believing they would encounter only a small band of militia. To their great surprise, they now faced 15,000 Americans manning over 100 cannons pointed down toward them from the sprawling complex of earthworks on the hill. The citizens themselves had come to save the city and their own country from the sure destruction and burning promised to them, if they allowed the British to take Baltimore. Outnumbered three to one, the British stopped their advance again, and Brooke sent out scouting parties to look for weaknesses in the American defense, but none could be seen. All Brooke could do now was wait for the British Navy to bombard Ft. McHenry, in the hopes it could break through into a position in the Inner Harbor, and use its guns to attack the fortifications on Hampstead Hill that blocked his advance.

Vice Admiral Cochrane had brought his fleet of 16 ships to within 4 miles of Ft. McHenry by 6 o’clock on the morning of September 13. He could see that the Americans had sunk ships across the harbor, and in front of the fort to block any ships from passing into the inner harbor. At 6:30 in the morning, he ordered the bombardment to begin with Congreve rockets and mortar bombs upon Ft. McHenry and the surrounding artillery batteries. The defenders of Ft. McHenry were well prepared, with about 530 men inside, and the thick walls of the stone star fort able to withstand hits from cannonballs and mortars. Major General Armistead kept his men calm during the bombardment, though it was deafening to the soldiers inside, and the residents of Federal Hill close by could feel the earth shaking as bomb after bomb fell around the fort. The British ships attempted to move closer to the fort in the afternoon, as their fire so far had been ineffective at harming the fort. This proved to be a mistake on the part of Admiral Cockburn, who moved two frigates within the range of more of the guns of the fort. In response, General Armistead mounted the parapet, and ordered a battery of guns to fire on the two ships in front, striking them with heavy shot several times, forcing them to retreat back. Isaac Monroe, serving at the fort with the US Volunteers, described the scene in a letter, as “two of their headmost frigates opened upon us, but finding their shot not reaching us, they ceased and advanced up a little nearer. The moment they had taken their position,…a battery of 42 lb guns was opened upon them, and we let the whole fort let drive at them. We could see the shot strike the frigates in several instances, when every heart was gladdened, and we gave three cheers, the music playing Yankee Doodle.”

The British pulled their two damaged ships back, and commenced firing mortars and rockets at the fort for the remainder of the day from their original position. After sunset, the rain increased in intensity, and around midnight, the British attempted to land troops along the shore of the Patapsco River, just west of the fort, in an effort to attack it by land. Using barges with about 1200 marines, these small ships slipped away from the main body of ships in the darkness, and landed between Ft. McHenry, and the smaller artillery batteries known as Ft. Covington and Babcock. However, once near the shore, these small ships launched Congreve rockets, perhaps as a signal to their fleet, but the light of the rockets gave away their location, and the artillery at Ft. Covington and Ft. Babcock immediately opened fire on the landing boats. The majority of the 1200 marines were killed by artillery fire, or drowned in their sinking boats as they tried to flee, thus ending the threat of a land attack on Ft. McHenry.

The Star-Spangled Banner

Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?  

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!  

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!  

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

The British fleet continued its relentless bombardment of Ft. McHenry for the remainder of the night, while the American defenders of the fort, and those at Hampstead Hill, waited to see what morning would bring. The rooftops of many houses in Baltimore were covered with people watching the bombardment of Ft. McHenry, and it was distinctly seen by the American troops stationed on Federal Hill. All night the fort had flown the smaller storm flag, but at dawn, they had a surprise for the British ships in the harbor. General Armistead had commissioned a very large 15 stripe and 15 star American flag be made that could be seen from miles away. The flag was made by local seamstress Mary Pickersgill, and measured 30 feet by 42 feet, with each stripe being 2 feet wide, and 15 tilted or 'spangled' stars arranged in five rows. At dawn on September 14, the rain stopped, and the mists began to clear. The British stopped their bombardment and looked out toward the fort they had launched 1500 bombs at for over 25 hours. General Armistead ordered the firing of the morning gun, and raised the large flag up the flagpole of the fort, showing the British the defenders would not surrender. Isaac Monroe, serving in the fort, described the scene as, “at dawn of day, when they appeared to be disposed to decline the unprofitable contest, at this time our morning gun was fired, the flag hoisted, Yankee Doodle played and we all appeared in full view upon the ramparts, of a formidable and mortified enemy, who calculated upon our surrender in 20 minutes after the commencement of the action.”

Vice Admiral Cochrane now realized he could not take Baltimore, and after consulting with Colonel Brooke, withdrew his troops from North Point back to their ships, and slowly sailed south, leaving the Chesapeake Bay and sailing for Bermuda. Many of the Admiral’s ships and men would take part in the Battle of New Orleans in early 1815, a devastating defeat for the British, that marked the end of the war. Francis Scott Key had witnessed the entire bombardment from an American truce ship, that was tethered to a British vessel about 4 miles from Ft. McHenry, as he was an attorney involved in negotiating the release of an American doctor, wrongly taken prisoner by the British in Upper Marlboro. Inspired by the events he saw, he wrote a four verse song, called the Star Spangled Banner, which was first printed and given to the troops that defended Ft. McHenry, on September 20. The morning of September 14 was described by John Dagg, of the 57th Virginia Regiment serving on Federal Hill, writing in his letter that “at first dawn, every eye was directed towards the Fort, to see whether the American banner still waved there; and when the morning mists had sufficiently dispersed, we were filled with exultation at beholding the stars and stripes still floating in the breeze.”

Very soon after the battle was over, the veterans and citizens were honored and became known as the “Old Defenders” with Defenders Day September 12 becoming a State Holiday. The city of Baltimore laid the cornerstone for the Battle Monument in 1815, and artist Rembrandt Peale was commissioned to paint portraits of five of the heroes of the day. In 1914, for the Centennial Star Spangled Banner celebration, the US Navy restored the ship USS Constellation, and delivered it to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where it remains today. Overseeing the ceremony for the Centennial was the young Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Secretary of the Navy.

Perhaps one of the most eloquent expressions of the thoughts of the people of Baltimore after the defense of the city, is the sermon given by Rev. James Inglis at the First Presbyterian Church, with the 1st Maryland Regiment Artillery in attendance, he said, “after a night of awful darkness, interrupted by the yet more awful fires of bombardment, while the thunder of hostile squadrons poured its long and terrific echo from hill to hill around our altars and our homes, our wives and our children, the flag of the Republic waves on our ramparts; scattering from every undulation, through an atmosphere of glory, the defiance of the free, and the gratitude of the delivered.”

Click any image to view full size.
Photo credits: The photographs were taken by Sara Barrientos, and are from the historical re enactment of the Battle of North Point on Sept. 7, 2014, the bicentennial of the original battle.