Bombs bursting in air, rockets with their red glare…yes America’s prospects hung in the balance of a 25 hour barrage. On the 14th of September, 1814, everything the British forces could throw at us, and seriously taking America’s rights of Sovereignty, rained on the first Fort in the United States, Fort McHenry.
Located at the top of the long, narrow Chesapeake Bay, it protected the richest city in America, Baltimore. After burning down Washington DC and the White House, the British planned to land and destroy the 18 shipyards of Fell’s Point, ending the War of 1812 in their favor. Fell’s Point built the infamous privateers, destroying their sea commerce. The 130 ‘Pirate Ships’, as called by our invaders, were ordered by our fourth (and shortest) President, James Madison. America had only 20 ships at the beginning of the War of 1812 and the British had over 1000. During the city-wide burning of Washington DC, Madison’s wife Dolly (much taller than the President) saved the original copies of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and Gilbert’s famous portrait of George Washington.
Fort McHenry was named after the Secretary of War, James McHenry, one of four members of President George Washington’s Cabinet. Built in 1799, Fort McHenry is a 5 Star Fort, a hub with 5 fingers, called bastions, extending for gun defense. Two miles away, in the heavy rain, the British had an Armada: over 80 ships and 9000 men, veterans of fighting Napoleon in France. Although it was supposed to be manned by 125 men, the Fort had only 90 regular soldiers. However, many had heard ‘The British are Coming’ and did not show up for the Battle. Still there were over 500 volunteers for the Fort’s and Baltimore’s defense outside. In the Fort’s moat, trenches, and along the shore of the Patapsco (Iroquois Indian for ‘Backwater’) river, they waited.
The British began their bombardment with cannon, some of which used 54 pound balls. McHenry’s cannons were from a French ship and could not reach the British Fleet. Additionally, the British had three Rocket Ships, the HMS Erebus was the largest, special modified to carry Congreve rockets. On a 15 foot wooden pole, the rockets were 2 feet long and made a screeching sound with flaming red tail. Only one rocket hit the Fort, causing no damage.
The British also had five bomb ships. Two bombs hit the Fort. One hit bastion finger number 3, killing 4 men of McClafferty’s battery. He had refused to seek shelter in the Fort’s tunnels and continued to fire his guns without effect. The other bomb went into the round topped building in the Fort’s center. If it had exploded, the Fort would have been destroyed, for that was the ammunition Armory. But it was rainy and cold and the bomb’s lit fuse went out. The Fort, and America, was saved by Divine Providence.
The British tried a few more maneuvers. In the dark night, they tried to float barges of Royal Marines, their best soldiers, to the rear back of the Fort. Discovered by a man named Webster, most were sunk. Eventually, running out of ammunition, the British withdrew. They sailed to New Orleans, and fought Andrew Jackson and his troops. Suffering 2500 casualties they returned to England. The Treaty of Ghent was signed ending the War of 1812, ensuring the United States of America in the ‘Forgotten War of Independence’.
At the time of the siege of Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key, then aged 26, was the most recognized Lawyer in America. He had been trying to get the release of a prisoner taken during the burning of Washington DC. As the battle began, he was detained aboard the British Flagship HMS Tonnant, and from there Key watched the continuous shelling of the Fort by cannon, rockets, and bombs lighting the night’s skies. In the sunny morning hours of the 15th of September 1814, he was moved to see the large flag above the Fort still flying strong. The woolen flag, 30 X 42 feet, had been sown by Mary Pickersgill, her two daughters and her servants and was completed in six weeks in Brown’s (later McClafferty’s) Brewery. She was paid $408 by Major Armistead, 34 year old Commander of the Fort.
Key took from his pocket an envelope, still existing today. On its back he wrote the poem, “Defense of Fort McHenry”. Key gave the poem to his brother-in-law Joseph Nicholson 2 days later on his release by the British. Mr. Nicholson got the poem published. It was handed out on street corners in all the states and, in celebration, people added music to Mr. Key’s words. For many years Mr. Key’s poem was sung to a British drinking song, ‘To Anacreon in Heaven’. After Key’s death in 1861, Key’s brother put the poem to musical arrangement. Finally, in 1931, Americans adopted it as their National Anthem, ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. They choose Key’s musical poem partially on the recommendation of composer John Phillip Sousa, whose opinion Congress had requested. In a 1930 letter Sousa said that Key’s ‘Star Spangled Banner’ sounded more like a march than ‘Hail Columbia’, ‘My Country, Tis of Thee’ and ‘America the Beautiful’ (the last of which shares its melody with ‘God Save the Queen’).
At the entrance of the Fort today stands Mr. Key’s Memorial. Twenty-seven feet high, it is the tallest free-standing bronze statue of a figure in the world. It represents the Greek hero of music and poetry, Orpheus, dedicated to Mr. Key in 1923. Also at the Fort is the sight of the Visitors Center with its walls angled 14 degrees honoring the 14th of September 1814. The movie inside is 14 minutes long. As our only National Shrine and National Park, Fort McHenry stands today as a symbol of the freedom and Independence of America’s United States.
Photos from Paul-Allan Lewis