"The American navy must be annihilated, his arsenals and dockyards must be consumed, and the truculent inhabitants of Baltimore must be tamed with the weapons which shook the wooden turrets of Copenhagen."
Thus fulminated the editor of a London newspaper. The American people had been humiliated by the raid on their capital. No less humiliated were the British people in the utter inability of their navy, in spite of the proud boast that "Britannia rules the waves," to protect shipping even in home waters against American privateers and letters of marque. Baltimore was the chief nest of these swift and graceful clippers that lay in wait on the trade routes and struck devastating blows at Britain's commerce; and, consequently, it was upon Baltimore that the British people cried out for vengeance.
Hardly had war been declared before commerce raiders set sail from American ports upon their voyages of destruction and plunder. Privateering was a legalized form of piracy that, in 1812, was recognized by all nations.a The vessels themselves were owned by individuals or companies whose stockholders advanced money for the purchase and outfitting of the ships and shared in the division of the spoils. The risks were great and the profits proportionately large. The nature of the investment was a subject of popular debate. Albert Gallatin, always conservative in matters of finance, regarded the industry as being in the nature of a lottery; others contended vehemently that it was a quite legitimate speculation.
To each vessel the President issued "a letter of marque and reprisal" which amounted to a commission to prey upon enemy ships. These vessels were known either as privateers or letters of marque, the only difference being that the privateer was bent solely upon p305 voyages of plunder, while the letter of marque engaged in regular trade, carried a cargo and plundered when occasion offered. The standard privateer was a trim schooner armed with from six to 10 carronades and a single long gun mounted on a swivel in the center. She was manned by about 50 men, not including her officers, and carried a complement of muskets, cutlasses and boarding pikes for use in fighting at close quarters.
However, as privateering was primarily a business enterprise, a privateer's aim was to capture an enemy ship and get off without damage to herself. Fighting was engaged in only as a last resort. Therefore speed was an essential quality, and the graceful Baltimore clippers, packing on a maximum of canvas, could run away from anything on the seas. When a ship was captured a prize crew was put aboard her and she was sailed to the nearest American port. There her cargo was appraised and a duty upon it exacted by the government. When the duty and other charges had been paid, the cargo was sold and the net proceeds divided among the officers, the crew, and the owners of the vessel which had made the capture. Success of a venture depended upon the skill of the captain and crew and the number and value of the ships captured. The promoters were soon complaining of the government imposts and the difficulty of making a profitable voyage.
During the first months of the war privateers were few, since most of the American merchantmen had fled their home ports to escape the embargo and were on their way abroad when the President's proclamation was issued. They had to return to be fitted with guns and altered to meet the requirements of their new duties. Those that first went out did their hunting near home waters, either in the neighborhood of Halifax or of the West Indies. Conspicuous among them was the Rossie, of Baltimore, commanded by the redoubtable Joshua Barney, who was always ready for new adventure on the high seas. On two voyages in 1812 he took 13 prizes and captured or destroyed enemy property to the estimated value of $1,500,000. Even more successful was the America, of Salem, which made four cruises, took 41 prizes and, after deduction of expenses and government charges, had $1,100,000 left to divide among her crew and owners.
As the war advanced the number of privateers increased through p306 the refitting of old vessels and the building of new ones. During 1813 New York alone built 26 privateers and letters of marque. And, as the number increased, the privateers ventured farther afield until they penetrated the China Seas, boldly attacking heavily armed East India merchantmen, and even setting up a blockade of the English Channel and the coasts of Great Britain, so that British vessels did not dare to venture out except under convoy.
By 1814 experience had brought improvements in the design of the vessels and in the skill of their captains in handling them. The English lamented that even the Thames was no longer safe. Another famous marauder was the Governor Tompkins, of New York, which stood at the mouth of the English Channel for several weeks, challenging every ship that passed, and capturing and burning 14 of them. Meanwhile the Harpy, of Baltimore, cruised for three months off the coast of Ireland, in the English Channel and in the Bay of Biscay taking numerous prizes and returning eventually to Boston with rich booty which included $500,000 in British Treasury notes and bills of exchange. The Prince of Neufchatel, of New York, boldly entered the Irish Channel and demoralized coastal traffic.
Finally Captain Thomas Boyle, a daring and picturesque skipper commanding the Chasseur, of Baltimore, cruised for three months off the British coast, spreading terror among shipping. He had the presumption to send a "Proclamation of Blockade" to Lloyd's with a request that it be posted. In it he declared, with mock seriousness, that his blockade now extended to "all the ports, harbors, bays, creeks, rivers, inlets, outlets, islands and seacoast of the United Kingdom."
Insurance rates skyrocketed and, in the case of vessels trading between England and Ireland, insurance was virtually unobtainable. British merchants, who had been jealous of American trade and keen for the war, now complained bitterly of their lack of protection. How was it, inquired the Annual Register, that while Britain had a navy of nearly 1,000 ships "it was not safe for a vessel to sail without convoy from one part of the English and Irish channels to another?" The merchants of Glasgow, Liverpool and Bristol solemnly met in the Scottish port, drew up and addressed a remonstrance to the government in which they declared that "there is reason to believe, in the short space of 24 months, above 800 vessels p307 have been captured by the Power whose maritime strength we have hitherto impolitically held in contempt." Lloyd's published a list showing the names of 825 prizes that had been taken by the Americans.
The British Admiralty could not then deny the charges made against it, but blamed the merchantmen for failing to stick to the convoys. The Navy, stung by the taunts of the American captains and the criticisms at home, lost its temper and, on occasion, violated the international code of laws in its anxiety to run down and punish the privateers. Thus, for example, the Plantagenet, a 74‑gun ship of the line, tracked the American privateer General Armstrong to the neutral port of Fayal in the Azores. The British commander, Captain Robert Lloyd, waited until night, then, in total disregard of Portuguese rights, he sent out 12 boats containing 200 armed men to the side of the privateer. Captain Samuel C. Reid, of the General Armstrong, discovered the visitors in the moonlight and shouted to them to keep off. When they failed to obey quickly enough to suit him he ordered his crew of 90 men to fire. The Plantagenet's boats withdrew but not before the men in them had suffered severely. Reid meanwhile had grounded his ship under the guns of the Portuguese fort. The boats from the Plantagenet soon returned with reinforcements and a sharp exchange of shots followed. Rather than surrender, Reid scuttled his ship. He lost in the engagement only nine men killed and wounded. The Plantagenet's loss was 34 killed and 86 wounded, more than that of the Guerrière in the battle with the Constitution.
Another engagement between a British man-of‑war and an American privateer took place off Gay Head, New Jersey, when the frigate Endymion came up with the Prince of Neufchatel, of New York, put out boats and tried to board her. Again the British came off the worse, losing 28 killed and 37 wounded to the American loss of 31 killed and wounded. The privateers did not look for a fight but they showed that they knew how to take care of themselves when they ran into one. In view of the spectacular activities of the privateers well might the London Times lament: "The American cruisers daily enter in among our convoys, seize prizes in sight of those that should afford protection, and if pursued put on their sea wings and laugh at the clumsy British pursuers. To what is this owing? Cannot p308 we build ships? It must be encouraging to Mr. Madison to read the logs of his cruisers. If they fight, they are sure to conquer; if they fly, they are sure to escape."
It is not surprising then that, after the destruction of Barney's flotilla and the easy capture of Washington, the thoughts of the British expeditionary force should have turned toward Baltimore; or that Lord Bathurst who directed operations from the War Office in London, while complimenting Ross on his victory in Washington, should have suggested that he deal more severely with the Baltimoreans after he had conquered them in order to give them a real taste of the bitterness of war. Besides, as General Armstrong had pointed out, Baltimore was a place of consequence. It was in that day the third largest city in the country, with a population of 40,000 and a thriving commercial center. Here was a better opportunity than in Washington to inflict material damage upon the enemy.
Ross and Cockburn, upon rejoining the fleet at Benedict, did not immediately set sail for the city on the Patapsco. There was more urgent business elsewhere. While the battle of Bladensburg was being fought, a British squadron under Commodore Gordon was sailing up the Potomac River. It consisted of two frigates, two rocket ships, two bomb vessels and one schooner. On August 27 the British force appeared off Fort Washington, •12 miles below the capital and guarding its southern approach. In spite of the threatened invasion the fort had been neglected and it was now held by a force of only 80 men under Captain Samuel T. Dyson. General Winder had warned Captain Dyson against capture and his order was followed literally. Upon sighting the British Dyson laid fuse to the magazine, blew up the fort and fled without firing a single shot.
This left Alexandria, Virginia, undefended; and, on the following day, Commodore Gordon moved up the river and anchored off the town where his guns frowned ominously upon the inhabitants. The psychological effect was instantaneous. A deputation of prominent citizens waited on Gordon and asked him what his price would be for sparing the town. He demanded naval stores and ordnance, shipping, merchandise and refreshment for himself and his men. The Alexandrians had scuttled several ships in the harbor to prevent their capture, and Gordon ordered these raised. There he remained p309 while vessels were loaded with valuable cargoes of flour, cotton and tobacco.
Meanwhile Commodore Rodgers, who had yielded command of the President to Decatur, assembled at Philadelphia a force of 450 seamen and 50 marines, armed with four 12‑pounders. He was too late to take part in the defense of Washington. However, when the government returned to the capital immediately after the departure of the British and resumed its functions, Rodgers received orders to move posthaste to the Potomac and, if possible, cut off Gordon's retreat. Rodgers at once set out to fulfill his mission. At Baltimore the column was joined by Commodores Perry, Porter and Creighton and when they reached the Potomac they were reinforced by Virginia militia and proceeded to erect batteries at the White House, below Mount Vernon on the Virginia shore, and at Indian Head on the Maryland shore.
When the British squadron appeared on its way down the river the batteries were turned loose and gave Gordon considerable trouble; but, by concentrating his fire first on one and then the other, Gordon succeeded in getting by. Hearing of his predicament the British fleet in the Patuxent made sail for the mouth of the Potomac to go to his assistance. Upon its arrival it learned that he was no longer in need of help. At last the British were free to devote their undivided attention to Baltimore.
Washington had been taken by surprise; but for a year — ever since the British fleet entered Chesapeake Bay — Baltimore had been anticipating the blow that was now about to fall. As early as April of the previous year the City Council voted $26,000 for the improvement of the fortifications and, when Cockburn threatened the town during the same summer, 5,000 militia and 40 pieces of artillery were paraded, a gesture which proved sufficient to frighten him away. The city sprawls over the banks of the Patapsco River •some 12 miles from the bay. Within the city itself the river forks, the north branch forming a narrow channel which leads to the inner harbor. At the tip end of the peninsula between the two branches lies Fort McHenry guarding the approach to the inner harbor and also the approach to the city by way of the south or ferry branch. From the city to the Chesapeake the Patapsco is a wide, irregular stream distinguished by numerous bays, inlets and peninsulas. At p311 the time of the attack Fort McHenry was a thoroughly modern fortress of masonry and earth that had but recently been strengthened by the mounting of 32‑pounders. It was garrisoned by regulars and volunteers numbering 1,000 men under the command of a regular army officer, Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead. (see Map IX)
Map IX. Battle of Baltimore
Further to protect the inner harbor, a cable had been stretched across the entrance between the fort and Lazaretto Point, where a battery had been erected, and 24 ships had been sunk in the narrows effectually blocking the channel. To the west and rear of the fort, and guarding the ferry branch, were two other fortifications, Fort Covington and City Battery, both manned by sailors and the latter by a detachment of Barney's flotilla men. These fortifications took reasonably good care of any attack on the south of the city by a fleet sailing up the river.
To meet an attack by land from the east, a fortified line •a mile long had been constructed on an elevation known as Loudenslager's or Hampstead Hill. At several points in the line were semicircular batteries and one near the southern extremity bore on the harbor, thus linking the defenses with those at Lazaretto Point and McHenry. The batteries were manned by the sailors under the command of Commodore Rodgers who had hastened back from the Potomac. In the trenches between the batteries were volunteers and militiamen. The construction of the works was achieved by the townspeople under the direction of a Committee of Vigilance and Safety which divided the city into four sections and called on the sections to labor alternately. The appeal met with universal response, for the fate of Washington was fresh in everybody's mind.
On September 10 General Winder arrived in the city with Maryland troops which had been with him at Bladensburg, now reorganized and somewhat recovered from their unfortunate experiences in that battle. There were present, too, for the first time on the field, Pennsylvania volunteers from the near‑by towns of York and Marietta. There was also a brigade of volunteers from Virginia. The defenders numbered in all over 10,000 and in supreme command was General Samuel Smith, 62 years old, a hard-bitten veteran of the Revolution. Though Winder protested being superseded by a militia general, the Baltimoreans would not have him after what had happened p312 at Bladensburg. In short, the city was protected on the east, from which direction the British were expected to come, by a fortified arc bristling with guns and manned by troops among whom there were enough regulars and sailors to act as a steadying influence upon the less experienced volunteers and militia.
Such was the situation when, on Sunday, September 11, anxious lookouts on the hilltops, scanning the east through their glasses, made out the British fleet as it came into view at the mouth of the Patapsco. At once the watchers announced the news and the ringing church bells spread the alarm throughout the town. In short order the place was in turmoil, dispatch riders galloping through the streets, volunteers saying good‑bye to their families and hastening off to take their posts in the fortifications, and townspeople with worried looks collecting in little groups to discuss the situation. Many of the more timid fled the city, and the roads leading to the west were filled with revenges toiling under the weight of the few personal possessions they could take with them. All the inns in the surrounding country that night were packed with old men, women and children who, remembering what had happened to Washington, were fearful that a like fate awaited Baltimore. Before the mansions of the wealthy merchants, which lay on the outskirts of the town, family coaches waited at the doors ready at an instant's notice to convey the womenfolk and the jewelry, silver and plate to places of safety.
The fleet itself presented such a spectacle of naval strength as no Baltimorean had ever seen. No less than 50 sails were spread to the wind, from a distance looking like so many great white birds settling on the broad bosom of the Patapsco. Included in the array were ships of the line, frigates, bomb ships and rocket ships; and crowded in among the sailors and marines were some 6,000 soldiers. Commanding the fleet was Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, and also aboard were those two old companions in arms, Ross and Cockburn. •Two miles off shore, where North Point juts out toward the bay, the vessels lowered their sails and dropped anchor for the night.
The day had been warm; after sunset the air cooled and dew was thick on the grass. It should have been a good night for sleeping, but there was little sleep in Baltimore. Many had left the town, yet the majority remained, and observers say that following the excitement p313 which attended the news of the enemy's arrival and in spite of the danger that hung over the city, there set in a surprising calm. There could, however, be no sleep for there was hardly a household that did not have a son, a father or a husband in the fort or in the entrenchments. In anxious silence they awaited what the following day might bring forth.
Shortly after midnight American horsemen who watched from North Point noticed activity on the ships. At 2 A.M. the first boats were lowered and shortly thereafter their prows became visible as they were rowed to shore. As the boats touched land and delivered their cargoes of armed men, the videttes withdrew; and while some continued to observe, others galloped back the •15 miles to the fortifications to report that the British were landing. From the information that reached him General Smith estimated that the land force must be in the neighborhood of from 7,000 to 8,000 men. He at once order Brigadier General John Stricker with his City Brigade to advance to meet them. Stricker's force was composed of 3,185 men and included the 5th, 6th, 27th, 39th and 51st Regiments of Baltimore militia and small detachments of artillery, cavalry and riflemen.
•Some five miles from the fortifications the North Point Road crosses a neck of land little more than a mile wide which separates Bear Creek on the south from a branch of Back River on the north. Here, as the troops arrived, Stricker arranged them in line of battle. In the front line he placed the 5th Regiment with its right resting on Bear Creek, and the 27th Regiment with its left reaching out toward a swamp at the edge of Back River. The two regiments were separated by the North Point Road and on this he stationed the Union Artillery, a volunteer force, with six 4‑pounders to sweep the road. Three hundred yards to the rear he posted the 51st Regiment and the 39th Regiment, the former on the right supporting the 5th and the latter on the left supporting the 27th. •A half mile farther to the rear he held the 6th Regiment in reserve.
Having completed these dispositions Stricker sent forward riflemen to feel out the enemy. The advance guard had not gone far when someone spread the rumor that the British were landing at Bear Creek or Back River; and, without waiting to confirm it, the riflemen, fearful of being taken in the rear, came scurrying back as p314 fast as their legs could take them without seeing the enemy or firing a shot. After this somewhat discouraging prelude to the day's events Stricker placed the riflemen on the line beside the men of the 5th.
Meanwhile the British force, consisting of soldiers, sailors and marines, and accompanied by six field pieces and two howitzers, had formed into column and set out on the 15‑mile march to the city. At the head rode Ross and Cockburn. The day was warm and about noon, when the column had covered half the distance, a halt was ordered at Gorsuch's farm, to give the troops rest and a breathing space in preparation for the more strenuous work that lay ahead of them.
News that the enemy was at Gorsuch's was quickly brought back to Stricker who detached 150 men of the 5th, 70 of Aisquith's riflemen, a field piece and some cavalry, placed Major Richard K. Heath in command and ordered them to move on to the farm and break up the siesta. When this advance guard gained contact with the enemy a sharp skirmish ensued. While leading his men, Major Heath's horse was shot from under him and several Americans were killed.
But a greater misfortune befell the British. When Ross heard the firing he quickly mounted and galloped to a knoll the better to observe the field and determine the size and nature of the force that was being brought against him. As he sat his horse in this exposed position he did not know that concealed in a hollow near by were two Baltimore youths, Daniel Wells and Henry McComas, members of Aisquith's rifle corps. Recognizing the general the youths took careful aim and fired. Ross fell to the ground mortally wounded. Infuriated by the loss of their commander the British swept forward and drove off the attackers. In this engagement both Wells and McComas were killed, but they had made the enemy pay dearly. Ross was lifted from the ground by his aides and hurried to the rear; he died in the arms of one of them before he reached the boats.
Their mission accomplished, Heath's men now fell back upon Stricker's brigade, closely pursued by the British. When Ross fell his place was taken by Colonel Arthur Brooke who, according to British estimates, was an inferior officer. By ten minutes to three in the afternoon the main bodies were facing each other across the narrow strip of land between Middle River and Bear Creek. Adopting p315 the same tactics that had served them so well at Bladensburg the British opened the engagement by firing a barrage of Congreve rockets in an attempt to shake the American morale. The American artillery planted in the center of the road responded, the British guns came into action and soon the battle was being hotly fought all along the line. From a vantage point behind the front line General Stricker and his aides endeavored to penetrate the pall of smoke that soon fell over the battle ground. To his relief he found that the men of the 27th and of the 5th had withstood the first assault and remained firmly planted in line.
Having failed to shake the center, the British now directed their attention to the left flank. As we have noted, the line of the 27th extended toward, but did not reach, the swampland along the shore of Middle River. Here was an opening by which the flank could be turned. To close it Stricker ordered the 39th Regiment, which had been stationed 300 yards to the rear of the 27th, to move up and extend the front line to the swamp. This the 39th accomplished.
Further to strengthen his left Stricker then directed Colonel Amey to move the 51st, which was stationed to the rear of the 5th, across the front and place it at right angles to the 39th, thereby forming two sides of a hollow square. But there were two disadvantages to this maneuver. The order entailed their passing across a field of fire and, when they reached their new position, facing away from the enemy. The 51st, it must be remembered, was composed of green troops who were receiving their baptism of fire.
Execution of the order was attended by some confusion, involving marching and countermarching, which was seen by the British. Taking advantage of it they trained their guns on the area through which the 51st had to pass. The shriek of the rockets overhead, the bursting of shells and the whizz of bullets proved more than the taut nerves of the men of the 51st could stand. They hesitated, then broke. Ignoring the appeals of their officers they fled the field, every man for himself, in a wild rush to get out of range of shot and shell.
When the 51st broke the panic was communicated to a company of the 39th whose men threw down their arms and followed the 51st in flight. This exposed the American left flank and, to save the p316 rest of his force, Stricker ordered a general retreat. He did not have to give the order twice. In a twinkling the whole of his force was marching at the double to the rear, and it did not halt until it had reached the fortifications on Loudenslager's Hill, while the British were left in possession of the field. The whole engagement lasted just 55 minutes, but it had been hotly fought. The Americans lost 35 killed, 115 wounded and missing. The British loss was estimated at twice the number. In contrast to Bladensburg the invaders did not attempt to follow up their success, but bivouacked on the field. Had they continued their pursuit they might have profited by the confusion among the American forces. They missed the driving power of Ross. Brooke preferred caution and so lost whatever opportunity he might have had. On the other hand the situation was not altogether the same as that at Bladensburg. Stricker's men had been driven from the field but they had not been demoralized. And they had accomplished their mission which was to fight a delaying action. There still stood between the British and the city a fortified line such as had not stood between them and Washington. Under the circumstances Brooke's caution may have been justified. As darkness descended there ensued a few hours of quiet among the forces on both sides.
It had been the British plan to attack simultaneously by land and by sea. The land force was now within striking distance of the fortifications; so, pursuant to the plan, the fleet now entered into the engagement. At dawn on Tuesday, the 13th, five bomb vessels approached to within •two miles of Fort McHenry and opened a heavy fire. On the previous day soundings of the river had been taken and the waters near the fort were found to be so shallow that the frigates did not dare to approach closer than •two miles and a half and, consequently, did not take part in the action.
Major Armistead ordered his artillerists to reply, and the big guns thundered at each other across the water. Armistead soon perceived that the shots from the fort were falling short and reluctantly gave the command to cease firing. There was nothing for the Americans to do but take refuge in the entrenchments and, without replying, accept the punishment of the bomb ships. From early morning until the afternoon this one‑sided engagement continued. It was enough to try the nerves of the most hardened veterans. Very soon the Americans p317 discovered that though the British bombs were terrifying, actually they were doing little damage. There was one critical moment when a bomb landed squarely on top of the magazine but, fortunately, it failed to explode and so the Americans were spared a disaster.
Finally, at 2 P.M., an enemy shell scored a direct hit on one of the fort's 24‑pounders, killing one of the gun crew and wounding several others. The incident caused some confusion which did not escape the enemy observers and they seized the opportunity to move one of the bomb ships closer for a last assault. No doubt they assumed from the fort's silence during the morning either that the gunners had fled or that the batteries had been put out of action. In this, however, they were mistaken. Armistead now had the opportunity for which he had been waiting throughout the day. A bomb ship was within range. It was a welcome development for the Americans who at last had a chance to return the compliments the British had been paying them for what seemed an eternity. At Armistead's command the gunners leaped to their stations, trained their guns on the enemy and let them have it. The bomb ship lost no time in retreating to safety, well out of range. From a distance the British returned to the methodical business of pouring fire on the fort. And so the bombardment continued throughout the afternoon and on into the evening while "the rocket's red glare" added a certain dramatic touch to the scene and served to illuminate the target.
It was now clear to the British high command that little progress was being made by the frontal attack. If the fort was to be taken it would have to be taken in the rear. The American left flank offered little promise. The approach by way of the north branch of the river was blocked by the sunken vessels in the channel and protected also by the battery on Lazaretto Point facing the fort. On that side, too, was Commodore Rodgers' semicircular battery on the hill that might be expected to enter into the engagement. There was no question that the ferry branch offered better prospect of success and upon the ferry branch the British high command decided.
The night was dark, affording an excellent opportunity for a surprise attack. Shortly after midnight 1,200 men, equipped with scaling ladders, embarked in barges and put out silently, passed the fort undetected and glided up the ferry branch. But here they faced p318 the problem of finding a suitable landing place. The darkness which up to this point had protected them now proved a serious handicap. There was no other way except to send up rockets to illuminate the scene of operations.
The decision proved fatal, for immediately the attackers revealed themselves and right before them was the City Battery. In an instant Barney's men were at their guns pouring a murderous fire into the barges while Fort Covington, farther inshore, joined the City Battery in the defense. Even the guns on Lazaretto Point, and some of those in McHenry, uncertain where the attack was being aimed, added their voices to the chorus. The barges were unprepared for this hot reception. One of them was sunk by the fire and members of its crew drowned in the black waters of the Patapsco, while others struggled to safety. In a few minutes the attack was repulsed and the barges were driven back without reaching the shore.
Once more the British returned to the attack on McHenry and kept it up until after dawn of the 14th. For 25 hours the garrison of the fort had been subjected to a gruelling rain of missiles. General Armistead estimated that in the course of the day and night the British fired from 1,500 to 1,800 shells and bombs. Of this number, 400 had found their mark in the fort. Yet, strange to relate, in the course of the bombardment, only four men were killed and 24 slightly wounded. At 7 A.M. the attackers ceased firing while they considered what next should be done.
In keeping with other anomalies that gave the War of 1812 its peculiar character was the fact that the words of our national anthem were composed by a patriot who, at the time of battle, was a visitor with the enemy fleet. During their Washington campaign the British seized as prisoner a Dr. Beanes, a prominent physician of Upper Marlboro and a friend of Mr. Francis Scott Key, who then resided in Georgetown. Appeals for Dr. Beanes' release were ignored by Cockburn, who appears never to have lost an opportunity to make himself objectionable. As a last resort Dr. Beanes' friends determined to try Mr. Key's acknowledged charm of manner upon Sir Alexander Cochrane. To this end President Madison was petitioned and consented to send Mr. Key to Cochrane aboard a cartel ship under a flag of truce to plead for the good doctor's release. p319 The ship selected for the purpose was a packet that ordinarily plied between Baltimore and Norfolk. Mr. Key set out in the vessel and came up with the British fleet as it reached the mouth of the Patapsco. The messenger proved equal to the estimation of his friends. Sir Alexander consented to the release of Dr. Beanes; but, as the attack on Baltimore was about to take place, he refused to let either Dr. Beanes or Mr. Key go for fear of their carrying valuable information back to the Americans.
So it was that Francis Scott Key witnessed the preparations for the assault and the bombardment itself from the enemy's position. As a patriot his agony of mind may be imagined while he observed the operations, and wondered what would be the result of the prolonged fire. The flag which waved above the ramparts was the only evidence upon which he could rely. If the flag disappeared, he might know that the stronghold had fallen. Throughout the bombardment of the 13th it continued to fly defiantly, but as night came on its "broad stripes and bright stars" faded out of sight in the enveloping gloom; and, as the battle continued on until midnight, Key's hopes faded almost as completely, to be raised at intervals when
the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
And so, at last, when "the dawn's early light" revealed the flag in all its might and glory still flying "o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave," Mr. Key drew a sigh of relief and also a letter from his pocket and on the back of it began to compose his immortal lines. Upon his return to Baltimore Key brushed up his poem and submitted it to his uncle, Judge Nicholson, who had commanded a battery in the fort. The Judge was enthusiastic, gave the work his imprimatur and the verses were rushed to a printer. Set to the tune of a drinking song, it was sung by an actor before a limited number of patriots in a restaurant adjoining the Holliday Street Theater and was so heartily applauded that its rendition became the feature of the performances on succeeding nights in the theater itself. From there it spread throughout the country, establishing itself as the song hit of the day, laying the groundwork for its eventual p320 immortality. Though critics have decried the meter and hinted that as a poet Key was no better than he should be; though prudists have lamented the ribald origin of the music and patriots by the hundreds of thousands have faltered over the words which defy the memory and high notes which their voices cannot attain, nevertheless the anthem has stood up gallantly against the bombs and rockets that have been hurled against it, and, like the flag it honors, "is still there."
While the British fleet was launching its attack upon McHenry, Colonel Brooke and his victorious column, it will be recalled, was left bivouacked upon the field of battle. On the morning of the 13th he broke camp, formed his men for an attack and made a feint to the north of the fortifications as though intending to turn the flank. But here he met a strong force under General Winder and was driven back. He then moved to within a mile of the fortifications and made a careful study of their strength in men and guns. Having checked the information gained, he arrived at the conclusion that the American position could not be taken by storm. On the 14th he conferred with Admiral Cochrane who had arrived at the same conclusion with reference to the chances of the fleet against McHenry. And so it came about that further efforts to capture Baltimore were abandoned.
Rain set in during the afternoon and, cover of darkness, Colonel Brooke proceeded unmolested on his march back to North Point to re‑embark on the fleet which had dropped down the Patapsco to meet him. But not before some of his officers had discovered the home of Colonel Sterett, of the 5th Regiment, which lay outside the fortifications. They made free with the Colonel's wines, plundered the bureau drawers in search of valuables, ordered the servants about and, after enjoying a sumptuous meal, left an impudent note on the sideboard informing the owner that "Captains Brown, Wilcox and McNamara, of the Fifty-Third Regiment, Royal Marines, have received everything they could desire at his house, notwithstanding it was received at the hands of the butler and in the absence of the colonel."
"Awful was the period from Sunday till Wednesday evening," wrote Margaret McHenry, wife of the ex‑Secretary of War for whom the fort was named and whose son John was with the 5th Regiment p321 in the battle, to a cousin in the country. "John was taken with a chill, obliged to go to bed, poor fellow. He had undergone a great deal in body and mind of late — he had just recovered from a fever, and had not recovered his strength when he went out with the troops, to meet the enemy; great fatigue and laying on the ground all night in a heavy rain has laid him up again, but Blessed be God, that he is still living.
"Oh, that we may be truly thankful for our present relief; — but we are by no means certain that they will not return; from all we can hear we have every reason to fear it, if they see any prospect of success — the thought is overwhelming. Oh God, in thine infinite mercy preserve us from this dreaded event — poor Sophia has an intermittent, her dear child is also unwell . . .
"Mr. McHenry desires me to tell you that a fullblooded Marino ewe would sell here for a hundred dollars and a ram from 50 to 70; the salt herrings and other articles remaining at Mr. McMahon's proper to be sold you will request him to dispose of . . . Sophia's and Charlotte's cloaths please to send as soon as possible . . ."
"Mr. McHenry has got over the effects of the mercury, & notwithstanding his late agitations is rather better than a month ago."1
After the glorious defense of their city the Baltimoreans were once more back at their homely pursuits.
1 Reprinted by permission of Juliana Keyser Clark.
a Privateering is clearly explained and the history of American privateering is given from its beginnings to the abandonment of the practice — and in particular during the War of 1812 which was its heyday — in a little book onsite, D. B. Chidsey's The American Privateers. The book expands on most of what is told in the chapter above.
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