War of 1812: Battle of Fort McHenry

Attack on Fort McHenry, 1814
Battle of Fort McHenry, September 13, 1814. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Battle of Fort McHenry was fought September 13/14, 1814, during the War of 1812 (1812-1815). Having defeated Napoleon in early 1814 and removed the French emperor from power, the British were able to turn their full attention to the war with the United States. A secondary conflict while the wars with France were ongoing, they now commenced sending additional troops west in an effort to achieve a swift victory.

Into the Chesapeake

While Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, the governor-general of Canada and commander of British forces in North America, commenced a series of campaigns from the north, he ordered Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, the commander of the Royal Navy's ships on the North American Station, to make attacks against the American coast. Though Cochrane's second-in-command, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, had been raiding up and down the Chesapeake Bay for some time, additional forces were en route.

Arriving in August, Cochrane's reinforcements included a force of around 5,000 men commanded by Major General Robert Ross. Many of these soldiers were veterans of the Napoleonic Wars and had served under the Duke of Wellington. On August 15, the transports carrying Ross' command entered the Chesapeake and sailed up the bay to join with Cochrane and Cockburn. Reviewing their options, the three men elected to mount an attack on Washington DC.

The combined fleet then moved up the bay and quickly trapped Commodore Joshua Barney's gunboat flotilla in the Patuxent River.

Pushing up the river, they destroyed Barney's force and put Ross's 3,400 men and 700 marines ashore on August 19. In Washington, President James Madison's administration worked fruitlessly to deal with the threat.

Not thinking that the capital would be a target, little work had been done in regard to constructing defenses. Overseeing the troops around Washington was Brigadier General William Winder, a political appointee from Baltimore who had been captured at the Battle of Stoney Creek in June 1813. Since the majority of the US Army's regulars were occupied on the Canadian frontier, Winder 's force was largely made up of militia.

Burning Washington

Marching from Benedict to Upper Marlborough, the British decided to approach Washington from the northeast and cross the East Branch of the Potomac at Bladensburg. On August 24, Ross engaged an American force under Winder at the Battle of Bladensburg. Achieving a decisive victory, later dubbed the "Bladensburg Races" due to the nature of the American retreat, his men occupied Washington that evening. Taking possession of the city, they burned the Capitol, President's House, and Treasury Building before encamping. Additional destruction ensued the next day before they departed to rejoin the fleet.  

Following their successful campaign against Washington DC, Cochrane and Ross advanced up the Chesapeake Bay to attack Baltimore, MD. A vital port city, Baltimore was believed by the British to be the base of many of the American privateers that were preying on their shipping.

To take the city, Ross and Cochrane planned a two-prong attack with the former landing at North Point and advancing overland, while the latter attacked Fort McHenry and the harbor defenses by water.

Fighting at North Point

On September 12, 1814, Ross landed with 4,500 men on the tip of North Point and began advancing northwest towards Baltimore. His men soon encountered American forces under Brigadier General John Stricker. Dispatched by Major General Samuel Smith, Stricker was under orders to delay the British while the fortifications around the city were completed. In the resulting Battle of North Point, Ross was killed and his command took heavy losses. With Ross' death, command devolved to Colonel Arthur Brooke who elected to remain on the field through a rainy night while Sticker's men withdraw back to the city.

Commanders & Forces:

United States

  • Major General Samuel Smith
  • Major George Armistead
  • 1,000 men (at Fort McHenry), 20 guns

British

  • Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane
  • Colonel Arthur Brooke
  • 19 ships
  • 5,000 men

The American Defenses

While Brooke's men suffered in the rain, Cochrane began moving his fleet up the Patapsco River toward the city's harbor defenses. These were anchored on the star-shaped Fort McHenry. Situated on Locust Point, the fort guarded the approaches to the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco which led to the city as well as the Middle Branch of the river. Fort McHenry was supported across the Northwest Branch by a battery at Lazaretto and by Forts Covington and Babcock to the west on the Middle Branch. At Fort McHenry, the garrison commander, Major George Armistead possessed a composite force of around 1,000 men.

Bombs Bursting in Air

Early on September 13, Brooke began advancing towards the city along the Philadelphia Road. In the Patapsco, Cochrane was hampered by shallow waters which precluded sending forward his heaviest ships. As a result, his attack force consisted of five bomb ketches, 10 smaller warships, and the rocket vessel HMS Erebus. By 6:30 AM they were in position and opened fire on Fort McHenry. Remaining out of range of Armistead's guns, the British ships struck the fort with heavy mortar shells (bombs) and Congreve rockets from Erebus.

Advancing ashore, Brooke, who believed they had defeated city's defenders the day before, was stunned when his men found 12,000 Americans behind substantial earthworks east of the city.

Under orders not to attack unless with a high chance of success, he began probing Smith's lines but was unable to find a weakness. As a result, he was forced to hold his position and await the outcome of Cochrane's assault on the harbor. Early in the afternoon, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, thinking the fort had been badly damaged, moved the bombardment force closer increase the effectiveness of their fire.

As the ships closed, they came under intense fire from Armistead's guns and were compelled to draw back to their original positions. In effort to break the stalemate, the British attempted to move around the fort after dark. Embarking 1,200 men in small boats, they rowed up the Middle Branch. Mistakenly thinking they were safe, this assault force fired signal rockets which gave away their position. As a result, they quickly came under an intense crossfire from Forts Covington and Babcock. Taking heavy losses, the British withdrew.

The Flag Was Still There

By dawn, with the rain subsiding, the British had fired between 1,500 and 1,800 rounds at the fort with little impact. The greatest moment of danger had come when a shell struck the fort's unprotected magazine but had failed to explode. Realizing the potential for disaster, Armistead had the fort's gunpowder supply distributed to safer locations. As the sun began to rise, he ordered the fort's small storm flag lowered and replaced with the standard garrison flag measuring 42 feet by 30 feet. Sewn by local seamstress Mary Pickersgill, the flag was clearly visible to all of the ships in the river.

The sight of the flag and the ineffectiveness of the 25-hour bombardment convinced Cochrane that the harbor could not be breached. Ashore, Brooke, with no support from the navy, decided against a costly attempt on the American lines and began retreating towards North Point where his troops re-embarked.

Aftermath

The attack on Fort McHenry cost Armistead's garrison 4 killed and 24 wounded. British losses were around 330 killed, wounded, and captured, most of which occurred during the ill-fated attempt to move up the Middle Branch. The successful defense of Baltimore coupled with victory at the Battle of Plattsburgh aided in restoring American pride after the burning of Washington DC and bolstered the nation's bargaining position at the Ghent peace talks.

The battle is best remembered for inspiring Francis Scott Key to write The Star-Spangled Banner. Detained aboard the ship Minden, Key had gone to meet with the British to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes who had been arrested during the attack on Washington. Having overhead the British attack plans, Key was forced to remain with the fleet for the duration of the battle. Moved to write during the fort's heroic defense, he composed the words to an old drinking song entitled To Anacreon in Heaven. Initially published after the battle as the Defense of Fort McHenry, it eventually became known as the Star-Spangled Banner and was made the National Anthem of the United States.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Battle of Fort McHenry." ThoughtCo, Dec. 5, 2017, thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-battle-fort-mchenry-2361371. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, December 5). War of 1812: Battle of Fort McHenry. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-battle-fort-mchenry-2361371 Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Battle of Fort McHenry." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-battle-fort-mchenry-2361371 (accessed December 16, 2017).