Baltimore and the War of 1812

After years of friction between the young United States and Great Britain over U.S. maritime rights during the Napoleonic Wars, affairs between the two countries came to a head in the spring of 1812. 

Unaware that Britain had softened its position on the offending issues, President James Madison submitted a declaration of war to Congress. Though many were opposed to hostilities, particularly in New England, which stood to suffer economically with any wartime interruption of its maritime trade, others saw in the war an opportunity to seize Canada - the seat of British power in North America - and Florida (Spain was Britain’s ally against Napoleon). War hawks carried the day, and American forces immediately invaded Canada. The first year’s fighting was confined to the Canadian border, Niagara and the Great Lakes and ended in stalemate.

In the spring of 1813, as northern operations resumed, the British decided to bring the war “home” to Americans living along the coast. A powerful naval squadron entered the Chesapeake Bay and began systematically raiding coastal towns and villages. Royal Navy ships and landing parties attacked Norfolk, St. Michaels, Frenchtown and Georgetown (Md.), and burned the town of Havre de Grace. The raids were led by Rear Admiral George Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn), who harbored no particular dislike for Americans but who despised their methods of fighting and who could be merciless.

The situation worsened in 1814, when Britain’s long war against the French ended in Napoleon’s surrender and exile to the Mediterranean island of Elba. Scores of British warships and thousands of battle-hardened veterans were now free to escalate the war in the former colonies. Hereafter, remarked Baltimore’s Joseph Hopper Nicholson, “we should have to fight . . . not for ‘free trade and sailors’ rights,’ not for the conquest of the Canadas, but for our national existence.”

In August 1814, Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, accompanied by Cockburn, cruised up the Chesapeake with a fleet of 50 warships and an army of 5,000 veterans under the able command of General Robert Ross, who had distinguished himself against Napoleon on the Spanish Peninsula. Cockburn and Ross sailed up the Patuxent, landed near Benedict and marched on Washington. After routing ineptly led American militia hastily assembled at Bladensburg, Ross and Cockburn entered the nation’s capital. To avenge the Americans’ earlier burning of public buildings in York (now Toronto), they set fire to several public buildings, including the President’s House and the Capitol, before returning to their ships and sailing out to the bay.

Their next target was Baltimore. The rapidly growing city on the Patapsco was regarded as the most pro-war city in the nation. Its shipyards had turned out the small, fast “Baltimore schooners” that, when armed as privateers and manned with large crews, could out-sail anything in the British fleet. The privateers created havoc with British merchant shipping. One particularly daring Baltimore privateer captain, Thomas Boyle of Fell’s Point, commanding the Chasseur, captured ship after British ship in the Irish Sea. In a spectacular act of defiance, he then sent a message to Lloyd’s Coffee House in London, declaring that “All the ports, harbors, bays, creeks, rivers, inlets, outlets, islands, and sea coasts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” were henceforth “in a state of strict and rigorous blockade.” Even before this declaration, the exploits of Boyle and other privateer captains were well known to Cochrane, who intended to punish that “nest of pirates” in Baltimore, and in addition take as prizes the ships lying in the city’s harbor.

The people of Baltimore were well aware that one day the British would come for them. In the spring of 1813, Admiral Cockburn himself had sailed his powerful ship-of-the-line, HMS Marlborough, close enough to alarm the city, but no shots were fired as Cockburn merely took soundings of the Patapsco River at the entrance to Baltimore harbor.

The one thing Baltimore lacked was a large flag for Fort McHenry. Major George Armistead, commander at Fort McHenry, commissioned Mrs. Mary Young Pickersgill, a widow born in Philadelphia during the Revolution who had since moved to Baltimore, to make such a flag that could easily be seen during battle. Mrs. Pickersgill, working with members of her family, cut English-made wool bunting for a large banner of 15 stars and 15 stripes (there were then 15 states in the Union), but her house had no room large enough in which to sew it together. With the permission of a local brewer, she spread the material on the floor of a malt house at night and, working by candlelight, made a flag 30 feet wide by 42 feet long. John Calhoun Jr., a former mayor and now Deputy Commissary for the War Department, paid Pickersgill $405.90 for the flag.

In late August and September 1814, with smoke from the fires in Washington visible in the southwestern sky, thousands of citizen volunteers contributed arms, munitions, food and supplies to the growing army under the direction of Revolutionary War hero General Samuel Smith. Militia units poured into Baltimore from as far away as Pennsylvania and Virginia. Blacks and whites worked side by side building fortifications to protect against a land assault, and well-known naval hero Commodore John Rodgers constructed a bastion on Hampstead Hill northeast of the city to block the most likely British land route from that direction.

“Yesterday afternoon, I was delighted with the scene on the hills & high grounds above Fell’s Point & Eastward of this city,” one citizen wrote as the work progressed. “Yesterday, from 7 in the morning to 6 in the evening, a vast entrenchment, at least a mile long, was raised, as if by magic; vast numbers were busily at work, old & young, black & white. It was a most cheerful & animating scene, certainly we had hands & hearts enough—all we want are heads.” Inside Fort McHenry at the approach to Baltimore Harbor, Major Armistead and his garrison of a thousand men awaited the inevitable.

On the morning of September 12, 1814, Cochrane and the British fleet arrived. General Ross, Admiral Cockburn and 4,500 men landed at North Point and quickly began the march up the peninsula toward Baltimore. At about 1 p.m., they ran into elements of Gen. John Stricker’s Third Brigade of Maryland Militia, which had been sent ahead from Hampstead Hill to prod the enemy into a fight. In the initial skirmishing, a sniper’s bullet mortally wounded Ross, and command of the British force passed to Colonel Arthur Brooke. For the next two hours on that blazing hot afternoon, a battle raged as Brooke attacked Stricker’s men. Though the lines were at times only 20 yards apart, the militia, whom the British despised and expected to flee as they had at Bladensburg, stood firm and inflicted heavy losses before making an orderly withdrawal.

By 3:00 the next morning, September 13, Brooke had advanced to within a mile of Hampstead Hill. Seeing that it was stoutly defended by cannon and upwards of 12,000 men, he decided to wait for the naval support that would come when Cochrane’s ships had crushed Fort McHenry and entered the harbor. At 6:30 a.m., Cochrane commenced firing. Anxious Baltimoreans climbed to their rooftops and gathered on Federal Hill all through that day and a rainy, lightning-filled night to witness the fort’s fate—and their own. The display was spectacular. Burning fuses let everyone follow the slow, terrible flight of the huge British bombs as they arced across the night sky and fell on the fort. (One pierced the magazine but miraculously did not explode.) The bomb ships remained beyond the range of the fort’s guns, but on the fort’s flank, cannons flashed in the darkness as shore batteries surprised and routed a British landing force. Dawn saw the skies clear and the firing stop. At precisely 9 a.m. on September 14, pursuant to army regulations—and just as the British ships were setting sail in withdrawal—Major Anderson lowered the 17-by-25-foot storm flag that had flown over the fort all through the terrible night and raised Mary Pickersgill’s grand garrison banner. It was a routine flag ceremony, but one that on this day announced to the world that the fort and the city had survived the 25-hour bombardment. The British facing Hampstead Hill returned to North Point, boarded their transports on September 17 and sailed down the bay to wreak havoc elsewhere.

Aboard an American flag-of-truce vessel with the British fleet was Francis Scott Key, a young Georgetown lawyer who had studied law and shared a practice with Roger Brooke Taney and whose current mission was to negotiate the release of Dr. William Beanes, a resident of Upper Marlboro whom the British had taken prisoner on their return march from Washington. Key, a sometime poet, watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry from the deck of his ship, saw the flag as the dawn broke that morning, and, greatly inspired, jotted down a few lines on the back of an envelope.

Two days later he checked into a Baltimore hotel, where he finished his poem. He then showed it to Judge Joseph Hopper Nicholson, who had married Key’s sister-in-law and who had been in the fort during the battle. Nicholson strongly recommended that it be published. A week later it appeared in the form of a handbill under the title, “The Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Newspapers around the country enthusiastically reprinted it to wide acclaim. In October it was set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heav’n,” a popular British song, and sung for the first time in a saloon and theater on Holliday Street. Soon renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as the years passed it was sometimes played in place of “Hail, Columbia” as the national anthem. During the Civil War and later, when the flag came to symbolize the mystic qualities of Union and national heritage, it attained even greater popularity. By the late 1880s and early 1890s, the army and navy had adopted it as the piece to be played during morning and evening flag ceremonies. In 1931 it was officially made the national anthem.

Replicas of the flags that inspired Key’s poem and the national anthem, the smaller, 17-by-25-foot storm flag and Mary Pickersgill’s larger 30-by-42-foot garrison flag, fly regularly over Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine. The original Pickersgill banner is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution.

Together with a stunning American victory at Plattsburgh (Lake Champlain) a few days earlier, the Battle of Baltimore caused American morale to soar and seriously weakened the British position in peace negotiations that ended with the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve, 1814. A day earlier, the same British force that had threatened Baltimore opened a series of battles around New Orleans in an attempt to take that city, fighting that culminated in a crushing defeat at the hands of Gen. Andrew Jackson on January 8, 1815. Six weeks later, the War of 1812 officially ended with President James Madison’s signing the Treaty of Ghent.