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On September 13th 1814, during the War of 1812, The British had started to pull off attacks on Americcan soil, an unbelievable feat of combat consisting of American soldiers tasked with the defense of Baltimore, Maryland, within the structure Fort McHenry, standing off against a British force that outnumbered them five to one, but even with their unfavorable odds, against a hail of artillery, they ultimately succeeded in their defense, raising the great American flag once the assault had stopped. This great battle and its visuals guided the hand of Scott Key, who witnessed this event of the fortress holding through for hours through day in night, as to be the inspiration for the poem that which became the United States one great anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.
Nearing the final year of the war of 1812, that being 1814, the british had just ended the Peninsula War and where able to finally say goodbye to Napoleon for a while, having exiled him to Elba Island after a number of losses consisting of his offensive against Russia turning out to be a disaster and having Spain taken away from him by The Duke of Wellington, they would not be seeing him until a year later.1 so the British could now focus the entirety of their military on the United States to try to end this other war they were participating in.1 Now only having to focus on one front, the British went with a full on attack on the United States, starting on August 19th, 1814, 19 warships and 4500 battle-hardened British soldiers who had been previously fighting Napoleon’s army arrived in Benedict, Maryland.2 he men were commanded by British Major General Robert Ross and the warships under the command of Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane who had both served in the Peninsula War.3 General Ross had his men perform a swift, focused blitzkrieg strategy of attack, strategizing to take the New England states, go onto attack New Orleans as to separate the north and south through cutting off the transportation routes as to cripple the American’s trading, and wanted to hurt American morale through attacking coastal cities, two of these being Washington and Baltimore. General Ross and his forces came in contact with the Maryland militia on August 24th, where the American forces being commanded by a General William Winder would try to defend Bladensburg, a town in Maryland, as it was a key point for the defense of both Washington and Baltimore. Even though the Americans had 2000 more men than the British, they were inexperienced and lacked proper training, which meant disaster when they came up against the more experienced British soldiers who had just been fighting a few months before.4 With the main defense now in shambles, the British soldiers walked into Washington, D.C., which, thankfully, neither President Madison, his family, his cabinet, nor the portrait of George Washington had stayed to occupy, and proceeded to go and set many monuments and government buildings on fire including U.S Capitol and the White House, at the time called the President’s Mansion.5 Now with Washington captured, The British turned to the north, setting their sights on their next objective, Baltimore.
Baltimore, Maryland was generally more important for the British to take than Washington, as Baltimore’s port was important to the American war effort, which the British were hoping would be enough to force the Americans into peace now that this strategically important port was gone. Now the Americans were aware of how important Baltimore was, so it was generally more defended than Washington, even having most of the defenses set to defend the harbor specifically.6 The main part of this defense was Fort McHenry, a large star fort that had been built in 1800, that guarded the interior of the harbor. It was designed by a Frenchman named Jean Froncin and the fort itself was named after the Secretary of War at the time, James McHenry.7 The British’s strategy consisted of having all their ground troops come on the eastern side of Baltimore while having the warships combined payload decimate the fort so that they could further support their soldiers when they went after the rest of the city’s defenses. On September 12th, 1814, The assault began with the British soldiers being deployed at a peninsula at the fork of the Patapsco River and the Chesapeake Bay, which was called North Point. They were met with no resistance during their landing and so they proceeded towards Baltimore. While they made their move towards their objective, the Maryland militia Commander, Major General Samuel Smith, sent out 250 riflemen along with cannons commanded by Brigadier General John Stricker to engage the incoming British to buy time. Brigadier General Stricker’s forces where able to approach the British at a time of weakness, as they had stopped their advancement in turn to have a meal, in which Stricker ordered his men to force the British towards them with their fire. In this spontaneous attack on his troops, General Ross tried his best to assess the situation, ordering his men to retaliate against their attackers, but in his efforts, was struck with a killing shot in the chest, dying hours later and resulting in the position of the ground forces’ commander being put upon Colonel Arthur Brooke. Now down the man that had lead them to two victories during this campaign in the past, the British had to press on, with Brooke taking his troops to perform a frontal attack on the American positions, which only resulted in the Americans inflicting heavy casualties on his men, at one point the Americans even resorted to instead for scrap metal from their cannon due to running out of canister shot for their cannons. Despite their effectiveness at dispatching their opposition, the American’s defense started to collapse with British soldiers starting to make progress with their offense. Both sides took a break from fighting, with the Americans withdrawing to Baltimore and Brooke having his forces hold off as to confront the casualties they took as well as get them organized for their upcoming offensive. Overnight, the Americans went into improving and solidifying their defenses for Baltimore, gathering more troops and artillery for the upcoming battle that would take place. The next day, September 13th the British had resumed their offense, coming up upon Philadelphia Road where they where met with a large force of American soldiers, 10000 strong and with 100 cannons as to act as artillery. They had set themselves up on this road to block the British’s path to Baltimore, and with their numbers they doubled the number of British troops. This is when the British realized that they would be needing help from their warships if they wished to push anymore forward, meaning that they would have to destroy Fort McHenry, which at the time was being defended by only 1000 men, a considerably smaller force when compared to the numbers the British had, making their offense a seemingly easy victory for them.
The planned naval support for taking Fort McHenry had become flawed as it turned out that the water was shallow, disallowing for any of the more heavy warships to be used in the assault, instead having to use ships that specialized in mortar fire, aswell as one ship, the HMS Erebus, that was suited with new Congreve Rockets that could fire incendiary rockets.9 The naval ships got into a shooting match with the fort cannons, and when realizing that their attacks where doing minimal damage, withdrew from the fort’s cannon’s range and instead opted to constantly lay down fire on the fort for 27 hours, firing off 1500 round of combined ordinance consisting of cannonballs, shells, and rockets. Despite the British’s best efforts to lay waste to the fort, but due to the down time given for the Americans to go back and reinforce the fort’s defenses, the fort only took minimal damage. At night the British made an effort to see if they could just drive away from the defensive line that was blocking Brooke’s forces, sending out troops from the Cochrane’s unit to harass the Americans at the line hoping they would follow, but these efforts were unsuccessful in drawing troops from the Baltimore defensive line.9 On September 14th, the American soldiers stationed within Fort McHenry lowered the storm flag they had up during the bombardment, now decrepit and battered, and raised a large, thirty by forty-two foot garrison flag that had been ordered by the commander of the American defenders, Major George Armistead, which was raised every morning for reveille, showing that the fort still stood.10 This failure to destroy the fort resulted in Brooke and his troops to give up on taking Baltimore, as with the fort still standing they couldn’t get the naval support to assist in taking out the defensive line leading to Baltimore and therefore could not push any further, deciding to instead attack New Orleans, where they would famously be defeated by the Americans again thanks to the defensive prowess of Andrew Jackson.This defeat in taking Baltimore would be a large component in the peace agreement between the two nations later that year. This imagery of the American Fort McHenry being seemingly demolished by an utter bombardment of enemy artillery, only to still stand the next morning and to have the flag of the United States raised in a glorious fashion is an iconic one, and enough to be the very background for United States’ National Anthem.
Francis Scott Key lived in Georgetown, he worked as a respected lawyer, had lived in Georgetown since 1804 with his Wife and their six sons and five daughters. The placement of Georgetown was only a few miles from both the Capitol, the White House, and the Federal buildings, which turned out to be an unlucky place to live in due to the British coming in 1814 for their capturing of Washington, D.C, lighting alot of Washington on fire in a blaze so large that it could be seen from Baltimore 40 miles away. Now while American soldiers focused on the upcoming attack of Baltimore, it had been found out that a well known elderly physician named Dr. William Beanes had been captured by the British and was now being held on one the TONNANT, the British’s flagship. People feared that Dr. Beanes could end up being hung by the British so they asked Francis Scott Key to help get him back, in which he decided to go through with along with the assistance of Colonel John Skinner who specialized in prisoner exchange.
On September 3rd, the duo set sail on a boat bearing a flag of truce that had been approved by President Madison himself. For four days they sailed, until finally coming upon the TONNANT and boarding, where they discussed the freedom of Dr. Beanes with General Ross and Cochrine, who refused to give up the prisoner to the two, who produced letters from British soldiers who had been injured in combat and where taken in by Americans, one of these being Dr. Beanes, praising them for their hospitality. The messages persuaded the British enough to let them go, but still wouldn’t due to Colonel Skinner, Key, and Dr. Beanes having been on the ship for long enough to know the strategy and preparations the British were making for their attack on Baltimore, as they didnt want to have an intel leak. They were now under British guard where they were moved to the H.M.S Surprise and then back onto the boat they had came on where they would follow the rear of the fleet. On September 17th, the bombardment began, starting at 7 a.m., Colonel Skinner, Key, and Dr. Beanes watched as the British fleet did its best to demolish the fortress, firing tons of explosive and incendiary artillery at the structure for hours on end, with nothing they could do but spectate. When the shelling finally stopped in the morning, Key continued to view the fort, hoping to see a sign that those within the fortress still held strong, his prayers had been answered when he saw the massive United States flag be brought up for rebeille, showing that those defending the fort had still not yet surrendered. This unbelievable sight of liberty standing through imminent destruction struck Key with a sense of inspiration, and so he took a letter from his pocket and began writing a poem about the scene. He continued to write as the trio sailed back to Baltimore and more once he had taken refuge in the Indian Queen Hotel where the poem was completed. His poem referenced the many aspects of the defense, “the perilous fight” is referencing the Battle of Baltimore in general, “the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air” is clearly talking about the British’s cannon and mortar fire, the rocket’s red glare is the visual of the Congreve Rockets being fired by the HMS Erebus, also including a lot of references to the arrogance of the British, “that band who so vauntingly swore” as well as a lot about the flag’s appearance after the fort’s survival, “In full glory reflected now shines in the stream”, It truly is a piece that prominently expressed the glory in which the sight held. He had his brother, Judge J.H Nicholson take his poem to be printed and handed out around Baltimore in which they circulated under the name, “Defense of Fort M’Henry”. It was first printed in a newspaper on September 20th, in the Baltimore Patriot, and began to be included within the newspapers nationwide, in which it was added as a note that the poem was to the tune of Anacreon in Heaven, resulting in the first time the song was sung publicly as well as where its new name originates, being done by an actor during a public performance within Baltimore, calling their rendition, “The Star Spangled Banner”. The popularity of this rendition soared immediately, becoming one of the most popular patriotic pieces among others, and on March 3rd, 1931, it was officially adopted as the United States National Anthem. The flag that was flown after the assault on Fort McHenry was shown at the Old State House in Philadelphia on January 1st, 1876 for the centennial celebration, and now resides at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History.
This important and inspirational event of withstanding against such a powerful and destructive force has resulted in being a true showing of triumph over all adversity, symbolised by both the flag that was raised by the men within Fort McHenry as well as the great National Anthem that was born from the event’s imagery, truly it is a piece of American history that can not afford to be forgotten.
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