The War of 1812 and the decisive battle of Baltimore gave Americans both a new sense of unity and a stirring national anthem. But envision for a moment what it must have been like for simple men — bricklayers, ship caulkers, shoemakers, tailors – to take up arms in defense of their city, knowing that they faced a larger, well-seasoned and superior force. Imagine what it might have been like to stand with Francis Scott Key aboard the deck of a British vessel several miles from the harbor, helplessly witnessing the brutal attack on Fort McHenry. Picture him there in the thin pale light of dawn, his heart aching over what must be certain defeat for the Americans, straining for some sign that the fort at Baltimore had withstood the bombardment of the night.
“Baltimore is a doomed town.” — Admiral Warren, British Navy
The British, busy with Napoleon, had not been able to give full attention to the war with the Americans. Nonetheless, from 1812 through 1814, the British navy successfully attacked a variety of properties in Maryland and Virginia. Raids along the bay resulted in the sacking and burning of towns, plantations, and businesses; goods were confiscated, ships destroyed or captured. The British defeat of Napoleon in the Spring of 1814 meant that they could now fully concentrate on winning the war with America. On August 14 General Cochrane’s fleet brought General Ross and his victorious veteran troops to expand the war on the Chesapeake. On August 25, 1814 they inflicted a painful and shocking blow by successfully attacking Washington D.C., scattering the federal government and torching the White House and other public buildings. They now turned their attention to Baltimore.
Baltimore was viewed with particular hostility by the British. Her privateers had been the bane of British merchant ships and Britain had vowed to wipe out the hated “nest of pirates” on the Chesapeake. The assault was planned on two fronts –-troops disembarking at Northpoint would attack Baltimore by land from the southeast. Simultaneously, the British navy would begin the dual bombardment of the city and Fort McHenry, the star-shaped fortification which guarded the entrance to Baltimore’s harbor.
“It is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” — Major Armistead, Commander of Fort McHenry, 1814
“I will eat dinner in Baltimore or Hell.” — General Robert Ross
Troops led by General Ross landed at Northpoint on September 12. A smaller American force under the leadership of General John Stricker waited in several battle lines at the narrowest portion of the Northpoint peninsula. The Americans knew that they were outmanned and outgunned but operated as an exploratory force whose purpose was to initiation confrontation — to surprise, test and harass the advancing enemy. The ensuing skirmishes resulted in losses on both sides— but the British suffered the greater cost–for early in the battle their leader, General Ross, was killed.
Emotions ran high in the city. Baltimoreans remained defiant but many went to church to pray for God’s protection. Residents who attended the Light Street Methodist Church received the benediction of Rev. John Gruber as he dismissed his congregation upon learning of the imminent British attack.
“The Lord Bless King George, convert him, and take him to heaven, as we want no more of him.”
Between Northpoint and the city, Americans had constructed large earthen works at Hampstead Hill (now Patterson Park) where additional troops and city militia now awaited the main battle. The defenders also had batteries at additional sites around the harbor and had sunk ships between Fort McHenry and Lazaretto Point to block the channel and deny the British access to the inner harbor. At Fort McHenry, General Armistead’s regiments braced for the attack by sea.
It rained….a hard rain that turned the approach to Hampstead Hill into a slippery, muddy slope. Col. Brook, General Ross’s successor, thinking that Stricker’s expeditionary force had been the main American army, was subsequently stunned by the earthworks at Hampstead Hill and overestimated the numbers of troops waiting in those trenches. And the British Navy, after a full day and night of bombing, were not able to destroy Fort McHenry nor penetrate the harbor in order to join Col. Brook’s troops for the planned attack on the city.
Imagine the reaction of the city militia when dawn revealed that the British troops had withdrawn during the night, leaving their campfires burning so that the defenders would not know of their retreat. Imagine the thrill in the heart of Francis Scott Key when dawn revealed that despite the brutal bombing, Baltimore had survived, and the stars and stripes still flew over the city’s fort.
The main portion of the British fleet departed the Chesapeake on October 19 and the Treaty of Ghent which ended the British-American conflict was signed on December 24 of that year.
The inability of the British to take Baltimore was a turning point in the war, and the battle could not have been won without the strategies of soldiers, the courage of everyday citizens, and the providence which graced their actions. Subsequent July 4th celebrations in Baltimore included an honoring of Baltimore’s “Old Defenders” until the last one died in 1898. The Battle Monument, completed in 1825, was erected in the old courthouse square originally reserved for the Washington Monument. Fort McHenry, beloved by Baltimoreans, was named a national monument in 1928.
“In the varied scenes which have put to the test the constancy of the nation, Baltimore ranks among the portion most distinguished for devotion to the public cause.” — President James Madison, 1815