The Battle of Baltimore and “The Defense of Fort McHenry”

Admiral Cochrane kept his promise and bombarded Ft McHenry all night. On 13 September 1814, the last thing he saw of the fort was a giant American flag flying over it before the smoke of the cannon and the bad weather obscured it. A storm blew in that the afternoon and it rained all night. For Major Armistead, this was a gift from God. While many “bombs bursted in air” and the rockets gave off a “red glare” amidst the thunder and lightning of the gale that blew in off the Atlantic, many of Cochrane’s cannon balls did not explode because the rain extinguished the fuses and they landed harmlessly on the fort.

The bombardment was furious, but largely ineffectual. At sunset, Armistead was forced to take down the giant American “garrison” flag which he put up as a taunt to Cochrane, and replace it with a smaller “storm” flag lest the weather snap the flagpole. Armistead refused to capitulate, even after the casualties he took repelling a landing by Royal Marines under cover of the bombardment and weather. The cannons on both sides raged at each other all night.

Onboard Cochrane’s flagship, Annapolis lawyer Francis Scott Key was negotiating the release of his friend Dr. William Beane, who was to be hanged for spying. Key was successful but he was not allowed to return to shore while the bombardment continued. Like Cochrane, the last thing he saw on that evening was the giant American flag flying over Ft McHenry. To pass the long night, Key wrote poetry. He was not an especially patriotic man, he opposed the war and railed against it at every opportunity, but there was something about the tiny American garrison fighting back against the might of the largest and most powerful force on earth, the British Empire, which “stirred one’s soul”. The first verse of his poem, “The Defense of Fort McHenry”, the one that would become our national anthem, was full of doubt… and hope. He would also write third verse that night. It was full of vengeance and righteous fury against anyone that would oppose the experiment that was America.

The next morning, Armistead took down the smaller storm flag and raised the giant garrison flag just as the sun rose. The message was clear: the Americans were still in control of the fort and no naval assistance would be available for Brooke to continue his land assault of Baltimore. As the smoke cleared and night lifted, Francis Scott Key finished the second, jubilant verse when he knew Ft McHenry was still in American hands. Dawn also signaled the end of the battle for the British Navy. Adm Cochrane could not continue the bombardment because he had little powder and shot left for the fort, and what remained was soaked and needed to dry. He left the decision to continue up to Brooke, who promptly called off the attack and had his troops re-board the ships.

On his way back to Baltimore, Francis Scott Key finished the final verse, one of redemption and thanksgiving.

Admiral Cochrane and Col Brooke left for the Caribbean the next day. Failing to destroy Baltimore, Cochrane’s next target was the soft underbelly of America: the strategic port of New Orleans

“The Defense of Fort McHenry”, a poem by Francis Scott Key.

O! say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d, 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;

O! 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 new shines in the stream,

‘Tis the star spangled banner, – O! 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 wash’d out their foul footsteps pollution.
No refuse 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.

O! thus be it ever when freemen shall stand,
Between their lov’d home, and the war’s desolation,
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land,
Praise the Power that hath made and preserv’d 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.

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