The Battle of Baltimore and the Defense of Ft McHenry

With the untimely death of Maj Gen Ross, command of the British invasion force fell to the much more cautious Col. Arthur Brooke. Brooke was surprised at the spirited defense of North Point, and his scouts told him he could expect the defense of Baltimore to be even more difficult. The Americans had large systems of redoubts and earthworks spanning the approaches to the city. And even more worrying were reports of two regiments of regulars and 4000 more militia to fill them, including the crews of the privateers.

Still, the British believed the Americans were weak and divided. They had heard reports that New England attempted to secede from the union (It tried, but failed), and the sacking of Baltimore might force the Americans to end the war. After that it would only be a matter of time before they were incorporated back into the Empire. Brooke knew he must attack, no matter the odds. But after a personal reconnaissance of the fortifications, he saw that he needed heavy siege guns to support the assault. He didn’t have any on land, but Admiral Cochrane had nineteen ships bristling with cannon that would do nicely.

Unfortunately for the British, Major George Armistead, commandant of Fort McHenry (and uncle of the future Confederate general, Lewis “Lo” Armistead of Pickett’s Charge fame), sank several merchantmen in the approaches to Baltimore harbor and this prevented Cochrane’s ships from reaching firing range of the fortifications. In order to support Brooke, Cochrane had to first reduce Ft McHenry then go around the sunken merchantmen. Armistead had only 20 cannon. Cochrane had over 200 cannon, and thousands of Congreve rockets, which although wildly inaccurate, proved to be very effective against militia.

At 6:30am, on 13 September 1814, Cochrane’s flotilla furiously opened fire on Ft McHenry. Armistead and his 1000 men and twenty cannon proved more resilient than expected. Cochrane was determined though, and said the bombardment would continue all day and night if need be. By noon, Ft McHenry was giving as good as it got and Brooke became impatient. He could see the Americans to his front improving their positions. His junior officers soon became adamant: their men had stormed the fortress at Ciudad Rodrigo and forced the breaches at Badajoz. And those assaults were against the best troops Napoleon had; the Continentals, shopkeepers, and pirates of Baltimore be damned. They convinced Brooke, and at 1 pm, he attacked.

His veterans took horrible casualties, but by 4pm his outnumbered troops miraculously held a solid foothold on Baltimore’s outer ring of fortifications. However, they would go no further. Their assault on the inner ring ran headlong into a counterattack by the veteran US 36th and 38th Infantry Regiments (Later, they formed the 4th US Infantry Regt., which today is the OPFOR at CMTC in Germany.) What can only be described as a barroom brawl with muskets and bayonets left both sides exhausted and both retreated to their respected redoubts. By evening, it seemed to Brooke that every person in Baltimore who could walk and hold a musket was opposing the British. It was all they could do to hold their gains. He needed Cochrane’s cannons to advance any further.

Admiral Cochrane continued his bombardment of Ft McHenry throughout the night.

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