Today is “Defenders Day” (a legal holiday in the State of Maryland) and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore (also known as the Battle of Fort McHenry), which occurred from 12-15 Sep 1814 during the War of 1812. My family has no direct connection to the battle that I am aware of, but I grew up in Baltimore and visited the Fort many times as a youngster, both with my family and on school field trips. Like all Maryland schoolchildren, I learned of the battle and the “Star Spangled Banner” from an early age. During the battle, American forces repulsed sea and land invasions of the busy port city of Baltimore, Maryland, and killed the commander of the invading British forces. The British defeated an American force at North Point, however they made no further progress and later withdrew. The resilience of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry during bombardment by the Royal Navy inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the poem “Defense of Fort McHenry” which later became the lyrics for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States of America.
Tied down in Europe until 1814, the British at first used defensive strategy, repelling multiple American invasions of the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada. However, the Americans gained control over Lake Erie in 1813, seized parts of western Ontario, and ended the prospect of an Indian confederacy and an independent Indian state in the Midwest under British sponsorship. In the Southwest, General Andrew Jackson destroyed the military strength of the Creek nation at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. With the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the British adopted a more aggressive strategy, sending in three large invasion armies. In August 1814, British forces sailed from the Royal Naval Dockyard in Bermuda to attack the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C., and on 24 Aug 1814, the British Army overran confused American defenders at the Battle of Bladensburg and marched into Washington, which had been abandoned by the military. After burning and looting the White House, Capitol, Treasury, War Department and other public buildings and forcing the destruction of the Washington Navy Yard, the British carted public and private possessions back to their ships. President James Madison and the entire government fled the city and went North, to the town of Brookeville, Maryland. The British also sent a fleet up the Potomac to cut off Washington’s water access and threaten the prosperous ports of Alexandria, just downstream of Washington, and Georgetown, just upstream. The mere appearance of the fleet cowed American defenders into fleeing from Fort Warburton without firing a shot, and undefended Alexandria surrendered. The British spent several days looting hundreds of tons of merchandise from city merchants, then turned their attention north to Baltimore, where they hoped to strike a knockout blow against the demoralized Americans. Baltimore was a busy port and was thought by the British to harbor many of the privateers who were raiding British shipping. The British planned a combined operation, with Ross launching a land attack at North Point, and Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane laying siege to Fort McHenry, which was the point defensive installation in Baltimore Harbor.
At Fort McHenry, some 1,000 soldiers under the command of Major George Armistead awaited the British naval bombardment. The attack began late on 12 September, as the British fleet of some nineteen ships began pounding the fort with rockets and mortar shells from vessels offshore. After an initial exchange of fire, the British fleet withdrew to just beyond the range of Fort McHenry’s cannons and continued to bombard the American redoubts for the next 25 hours. Although 1,500 to 1,800 cannonballs were launched at the fort, damage was light due to recent fortification that had been completed prior to the battle. As the attack began, an American lawyer and poet, Francis Scott Key, was on a mercy mission for the release of Dr. William Beanes, a prisoner of the British. Key showed the British letters from wounded British officers praising the care they received from Dr. Beanes. The British agreed to release Beanes, but Key and Beanes were forced to stay with the British until the attack on Baltimore was over, and Key watched the proceedings from a truce ship in the Patapsco River. On the morning of the 14th, Key saw the American flag waving above Fort McHenry. Inspired, he began jotting down verses on the back of a letter he was carrying. He composed the words to the tune of an old British drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven”. When Key reached Baltimore, his poem was printed on pamphlets by the Baltimore American. His poem was originally called “Defense of Ft. McHenry”, and the song eventually became known as “The Star-Spangled Banner”. It was declared the National Anthem by an act of Congress in 1931.
American victories in September 1814 and later in January 1815 repulsed all three British invasions in New York, Maryland and Louisiana. (12)