Attack That Inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner"

Color lithograph of the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814

 Library of Congress

The attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore's harbor was a pivotal moment in the War of 1812 as it successfully thwarted the Chesapeake Bay campaign the Royal Navy had been waging against the United States.

Coming only weeks after the burning of the U.S. Capitol and the White House by British forces, the victory at Fort McHenry, and the associated Battle of North Point, were much-needed boosts to the American war effort.

The bombardment of Fort McHenry also provided something no one could have anticipated: a witness to the "rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air," Francis Scott Key, wrote the words which became "The Star-Spangled Banner," the national anthem of the United States.

The Bombardment of Fort McHenry

After being thwarted at Fort McHenry, the British forces in the Chesapeake Bay sailed away, leaving Baltimore, and the center of America's East Coast, safe.

Had the fighting in Baltimore in September 1814 gone differently, the United States itself might have been gravely threatened.

Before the attack, one of the British commanders, General Ross, had boasted that he was going to make his winter quarters in Baltimore.

When the Royal Navy sailed away a week later, one of the ships was carrying, inside a hogshead of rum, the body of General Ross. He had been killed by an American sharpshooter outside Baltimore.

The Royal Navy's Chesapeake Campaign

Britain's Royal Navy had been blockading the Chesapeake Bay, with varying results, since the outbreak of war in June 1812. And in 1813 a series of raids along the bay's long shorelines kept local residents wary.

In early 1814 the American Naval officer Joshua Barney, a Baltimore native, organized the Chesapeake Flotilla, a force of small ships, to patrol and defend the Chesapeake Bay.

When the Royal Navy returned to the Chesapeake in 1814, Barney's small boats managed to harass the more powerful British fleet. But the Americans, despite astonishing bravery in the face of British naval power, could not stop landings in southern Maryland in August 1814 which preceded the Battle of Bladensburg and the march to Washington.

Target Baltimore: The "Nest of Pirates"

After the British raid on Washington, D.C., it seemed apparent that the next target was Baltimore. The city had long been a thorn in the side of the British, as privateers sailing from Baltimore had been raiding English shipping for two years.

Referring to the Baltimore privateers, an English newspaper had called Baltimore as "a nest of pirates." And there was talk of teaching the city a lesson.

Reports of the destructive raid on Washington appeared in the Baltimore newspaper, the Patriot and Advertiser, in late August and early September. And a popular news magazine published in Baltimore, Nile's Register, also published detailed accounts of the burning of the Capitol and the White House (called "the president's house" at the time).

Citizens of Baltimore prepared themselves for an expected attack. Old ships were sunk in the harbor's narrow shipping channel to create obstacles for the British fleet. And earthworks were prepared outside the city on the path that British soldiers would likely take if troops landed to invade the city.

Fort McHenry, a brick star-shaped fort guarding the mouth of the harbor, prepared for battle. The fort's commander, Major George Armistead, positioned extra cannon and recruited volunteers to man the fort during the anticipated attack.

British Landings

A large British fleet appeared off Baltimore on September 11, 1814, and the next day approximately 5,000 British soldiers landed at North Point, 14 miles from the city. The British plan was for the infantry to attack the city while the Royal Navy shelled Fort McHenry.

British plans began to unravel when the land forces while marching to Baltimore, encountered advance pickets from the Maryland militia. British General Sir Robert Ross, riding on his horse, was shot by a sharpshooter and mortally wounded.

Colonel Arthur Brooke took command of the British forces, which marched forward and engaged American regiments in a battle. At the end of the day, both sides pulled back, the Americans taking up positions in entrenchments the citizens of Baltimore had constructed during the preceding weeks.

The Bombardment

At sunrise on September 13, the British ships in the harbor began to shell Fort McHenry. Sturdy vessels, called bomb ships, carried large mortars capable of tossing aerial bombs. And a fairly new innovation, Congreve rockets, were fired at the fort.

The "rocket's red glare" mentioned by Francis Scott Key in "The Star-Spangled Banner" would have been the trails left by the Congreve rockets fired from British warships.

The military rocket was named for its developer, Sir William Congreve, a British officer who was fascinated by the use of rockets for military purposes encountered in India.

The Congreve rockets are known to have been fired at the Battle of Bladensburg, the engagement in the Maryland countryside that preceded the burning of Washington by British troops.

One factor in dispersing the militiamen in that engagement was their reputed fear of the rockets, which had not been used before against Americans. While the rockets were not terribly accurate, having them fired at you would have been terrifying.

Weeks later, the Royal Navy fired Congreve rockets during the attack on Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. The night of the bombardment was rainy and very cloudy, and the trails of the rockets must have been a spectacular sight.

Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer involved in a prisoner exchange who became an eyewitness to the battle, was obviously impressed by the rockets and incorporated the "rocket's red glare" into his poem. Though they became legendary, the rockets had a little practical impact during the bombardment.

In the fort, American troops had to patiently wait out the bombardment, as the fort's guns did not have the range of the Royal Navy's guns. However, at one point some British ships sailed closer. American gunners fired upon them, driving them back.

It was later said that the British naval commanders expected the fort to surrender within two hours. But the defenders of Fort McHenry refused to give up.

At one point British troops in small boats, equipped with ladders, were spotted approaching the fort. American batteries on shore opened fire on them, and the boats quickly retreated back to the fleet.

Meanwhile, British land forces were unable to make any sustained attack upon the fort.

On the morning of September 14, 1814, the Royal Navy commanders realized they could not force the surrender of Fort McHenry. And inside the fort, the commander, Major Armistead, had raised an enormous American flag to clearly demonstrate that he had no intention of surrendering.

Running low on ammunition, the British fleet called off the attack and began to make plans to withdraw. The British land forces had also been retreating and marching back to their landing spot so they could row back to the fleet.

Inside Fort McHenry, casualties were surprisingly low. Major Armistead estimated that about 1,500 British bombs had exploded over the fort, yet only four men in the fort had been killed.

The flag-raising on the morning of September 14, 1814, became legendary as an eyewitness to the event, Maryland lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key, wrote a poem to express his joy at the sight of the flag still flying on the morning after the attack.

Key's poem was printed as a broadside soon after the battle. And when the Baltimore newspaper, the Patriot and Advertiser, began publishing again a week after the battle, it printed the words under the headline, "The Defense of Fort McHenry."

The poem, of course, became known as "The Star-Spangled Banner," and officially became the national anthem of the United States in 1931.

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McNamara, Robert. "Attack That Inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner"." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 29). Attack That Inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner". Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Attack That Inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner"." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).