It was early September 1814 and the British, having just burned Washington, D.C., were turning their attention to Baltimore. If the British took the city, the third largest in the nation at the time and a major port, it would be a blow to the economy and morale of the fledgling nation.
Refugees from Washington arrived in Baltimore in late August with stories of the Capitol and the White House in flames. The fire’s glow could actually be seen in Baltimore, and residents knew it was only a matter of time before the British would set their sights on the city — Baltimoreons were determined to avoid the same fate, explained Ranger Vincent Vaise of the National Park Service, the chief of interpretation at the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.
“That really was an impetus to start digging entrenchments and getting the defenses (ready),” he said, adding that Britain’s decision to first attack Alexandria, Va., gave Baltimore two weeks to prepare. The city’s leading businessmen formed the Committee of Public Supply, raising money for ammunition, muskets and food and hiring an Army engineer to strengthen Fort McHenry, which guarded the city from a small peninsula on the Patapsco River. The Army had increased its normal garrison from 150 Soldiers to more than a thousand, while 15,000 militiamen poured into the city from Maryland, southern Pennsylvania and northern Virginia. The sheer size of the militia scared off a British land force of about 4,000, so the enemy’s naval forces turned their attention to Fort McHenry, Sept. 13.
Completed in 1803, Fort McHenry was one of the first American-built forts, and its five-pointed star shape meant that the men guarding each point could also defend the fort to the left and the right. It was “the lynchpin in Baltimore’s defenses: If the fort fell, the city would fall,” Vaise said. “British ships could get in to make off with all the booty and the goods from the city. I think that influenced the decision of putting almost all the regular U.S. Army men available at Fort McHenry.”
The battle raged for 25 hours through a terrible thunderstorm and driving rain. It would have been terrifying, Vaise said. While Fort McHenry’s guns had a range of a mile and a half, the guns on the British ships had a range of two miles. The British anchored just out of range and bombarded the fort with “impunity,” firing an estimated 1,400-1,600 shells and about 700 rockets.
“That’s tons of iron that was just hurled at the fort during that period of bombardment, and 25 hours is a long time to endure it,” he said, pointing out that it would have been the first time most of the men had been in combat. “In addition to the actual combat, you have to add in the fact that your adrenaline is rolling for that long. You have to add in the fact that you’re sleep-deprived, that you’re afraid, that you’re wet. When you put all of those things together, it took a great deal of fortitude just to endure that bombardment.”
But when the sun came up on the morning of Sept. 14, the British were shocked to see how little damage they had inflicted on the fort. Even casualties were low: five Americans were killed in action and 25 were wounded. Their ships would have had to come dangerously close to the fort’s guns to affect substantial damage, a risk Vaise said the British weren’t willing to take, so they turned and sailed away.
The garrison’s Soldiers were “elated,” he said. “There was this feeling of elation and relief. I think it was initially relief, this idea that ‘I just lived another day. I made it.’ And then this elation that ‘We did it man! We sent them away. We sent them packing.’ One of the militiamen described the regulars as jumping up on top of the walls and cheering as the ships sailed away. That gives you the jubilant feeling that everyone must have felt as the fifes and drums played ‘Yankee Doodle,’” and the Soldiers lowered the battle-stained American flag and raised a fresh one with 15 stars and 15 stripes. (At the time, the nation added a stripe as well as a star to recognize each new state.)
It wasn’t just any American flag, however. It was an oversized flag of 42 by 30 feet specially commissioned in anticipation of the attack, a flag so big the garrison commander, Maj. George Armistead, said, “that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.”
They weren’t the only ones: A 35-year-old lawyer named Francis Scott Key saw the flag from the truce ship on the Patapsco where he was negotiating a prisoner release. He was so moved that he wrote a poem he titled “The Defense of Fort McHenry” describing his experience. Set to music and renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it became the country’s national anthem in 1931.
“From the American perspective, this was huge. A seemingly invincible force had been turned away. The shame at losing the capital two and a half weeks earlier had been erased. … The fact that everyone felt what Key felt was a large reason why his words became so popular so quickly. I think Key put into words what everyone else was feeling in their hearts,” Vaise explained, adding that it was “the professionalism of the United States Army that enabled Francis Scott Key to see that star-spangled banner by dawn’s early light.”
Editor’s Note: Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine is open daily from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. (7:45 p.m. in the summer). On weekends from noon to 4 p.m., park rangers dress in 1814-era uniforms. Active duty servicemembers (including activated members of the National Guard and the Reserve) and their families are eligible for a free annual pass, good at every national park, including Fort McHenry. For more information, visit http://www.nps.gov/fomc/index.htm.