Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
The morning rain had given way to a light mist and a warm, palpable humidity, an unfamiliar sensation after bone-dry Colorado. Leaving the glass and steel towers of downtown Baltimore behind, we carefully drove between two brick pillars that separated the rough industrial infrastructure of the port from the red brick and deep green grass of the grounds of Fort McHenry.
The War of 1812 is probably, along with Korea, the least known and understood of America's historical conflicts. The seeds of war were sown at first in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair. On June 22, 1807, the British warship HMS Leopard encountered and hailed the American frigate USS Chesapeake in the waters off Norfolk, Virginia. A British officer boarded and presented Captain James Barron with a warrant for British deserters. Captain Barron refused the warrant and sent the officer back to the Leopard. The situation quickly escalated when Leopard opened fire on the Chesapeake. The American ship had just put to sea prepared for a long voyage and her decks were cluttered with freight, and her guns unloaded. In response to the barrage, Chesapeake managed only one return shot. With his ship damaged and dead and wounded among his crew, Captain Barron struck his colors and surrendered. The British removed four crewmen from the Chesapeake, one of whom was eventually hanged. Captain Barron, upon his return to port, was court-martialed.
The news was received in America with indignation and fury. The systematic impressment of American merchant sailors, many in US territorial waters by the British added fuel to the growing fire. Also, the British were materially supporting the effort of a coalition of Native American tribes to control what was then called the Northwest Territories (modern-day Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota), which resulted in numerous clashes along the disputed border. Adding to all this was the persistent clamor among American politicians for annexation of British Canada and Spanish Florida. While this was all a big deal in the U.S., Britain was largely unaware of the deteriorating situation in her former colonies, being neck-deep in yet another continental war with France. So it was with a great deal of surprise when on June 18, 1812, President James Madison asked congress for a declaration of war.
The relevant event involving Baltimore occurred just over two years later, between September 12-15, 1814, less than a month after the Redcoats had burned Washington DC. The British landed 5,000 infantry and marched on Baltimore up the North Point Road. They were met at the village of North Point by an outnumbered, but determined force of Americans. In this fight, the British commander, Brigadier General Robert Ross was killed. Sheer weight of numbers forced the Americans to fall back towards the city. The British troops eventually ran into a desperately prepared line of defense on the city's outskirts on Hampstead Hill where they were stopped by 10,000 U.S. soldiers and 100 cannons.
General George Armistead, the
strong commanding officer of Fort McHenry.
Civil War buffs may remember that his nephew, Lewis Armistead,
was also a general, only for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
On the 13th, the British fleet, in a cooperative move, entered the Patapsco River and closed to within about two miles from Fort McHenry which guarded the entrance to the harbor.
Where the British Fleet anchored during the barrage.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge can be seen in the distance.
The British opened fire and continued shelling the fort for some 27 hours, firing as many as 1,800 iron cannon balls.
The stoutly built fort, however, resisted serious damage, and only four were killed. On that same day, a Washington lawyer, Francis Scott Key, along with two companions, approached the British fleet on a mission of mercy, to petition for the release of an imprisoned American doctor who had treated both American and British wounded. While aboard the truce ship, the British commander boasted to the three Americans about the coming bombardment. Key and his companions were thus detained aboard ship. During the day and throughout the long, rainy night, the three witnessed the onslaught. In the morning, they peered anxiously through the smoke and fog. Suddenly they saw an enormous 30 by 40 foot flag waving above the fort, a statement that the bastion was still in American hands. Thus inspired, Key began jotting down verses on the back of one of his letters of petition. The poem, originally entitled, "Defense of Fort McHenry," was later set to music using a British drinking song, "To Anachreon in Heaven." The rest, as they say, is history.
The song, although widely sung, wasn't designated our national anthem until 1931, beating out "America, the Beautiful," "My Country 'Tis of Thee,", and "Hail, Columbia!"
People are usually vague about this particular piece of history, sometimes confusing McHenry with another famous American fort, Sumter, the barrage of which kicked off the Civil War. But the song, as difficult to sing as it is, remains America's hymn, and continues to stir American hearts.
The post-1812 history of Fort McHenry is anything but static. It was a POW camp during the Civil War, a large hospital during World War I, part of the coast defense network during World War II, before becoming what it is today, a national monument and shrine. Today, the site covers some 43 acres and anchors a widely-used recreational area which includes the 560-mile Star Spangle Banner Trail.
Structurally, the fort is a classic star shape, more for tactical rather than aesthetic reasons. Invading troops trying to penetrate the interior of the fort would have to pass through choke points formed by the points of the star where they would be subjected to a deadly crossfire from the defenders. It is built of stone and brick filled with dirt and grass, making it highly resistant to artillery fire.
We walked the perimeter of the fort on a series of parapets. We passed examples of massive cannons, some pointed towards the city itself, a reminder of Abraham Lincoln's distrust of the sentiments of the citizens of Baltimore towards the Union.
From the walkway, we could readily see the vital strategic position the fort occupied. Afterwards, we entered the Sally Port which provided the only access to the pentagonal-shaped parade ground, ringed by barracks and mess facilities, and a powder magazine which had the capacity to store up to 30,000 pounds of black powder.
After touring the fort, we returned to the visitor's center. In an open auditorium, a video is presented, telling the story of the fort and the battle. It is a very effective show, helping the visitor understand just what those soldiers had to endure during the attack. We saw actors representing Key and his colleagues as they anxiously waited out the night, and their joy and pride when seeing the flag still flying in the morning light. Then, a male chorus begins to sing the national anthem. The wall opens up, and there revealed is a tall staff atop of which, floating majestically on the breeze, flies the Stars and Stripes. Spontaneously, the visitors rise and join in. It was for me, a stirring moment, a reminder that even as deeply divided as we are, and so unsure of where our country is headed, we still haven't forgotten from where and from whence we came. At a very basic level, we remember the character of the sacrifice that has sustained America through its short, turbulent history.
There have been times of late when I have despaired over the future of America. But there are also moments like that day when the light shines ever so briefly and I am assured that today, over two hundred years since that "dawn's early light," the hope we were founded on still survives.