INDEPENDENCE DAY SPECIAL: The Battle of Baltimore: The Amazing Story that Inspired the 'Star-Spangled Banner'
By Cheryl Seal
Major George Armistead was just 33 years old when he took charge of Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812. Gentlemanly, self-effacing and deeply religious, he was an unlikely "warrior" to be selected for what was to prove to be a monumental task: the defense of the fort from the British. Ft. McHenry, which sat on a peninsula that projected into the mouth of the Patapsco River (a wide neck of water that leads into Baltimore Harbor) was was vulnerable to an assault from the sea on three sides. Baltimore had become infamous with the British for its ferocious defense against Britain during the Revolutionary War and for the toll the Baltimorean mariners had taken on British shipping since 1812 - 30% of all British merchant ships captured during the war. More than one British commander had expressed their intention to settle that score. In any case, the little fort was all that stood between Baltimore and a fleet of determined British warships. Preparations for the inevitable attack began in 1813, the year before the Battle of Baltimore (Sept. 14, 1814) actually occurred.
The Femme Fatale and the Famous Flag
Several of the "war councils" that were conducted in the months before the Battle of Batlimore took place in the dining room at the gracious antebellum mansion of William Patterson. Patterson was a wealthy, influential merchant (second wealthiest man in Maryland, in fact!) who owned a huge tract of land near the harbor (the remaining remnant of his pastures is still there in the form of Patterson Park). His daughter Elizabeth ("Betsy") was a famed beauty known for her daring - both in action and dress. After escorting her into a dinner party once, Thomas Jefferson had remarked that the young lady's entire filmy outfit would have fit nicely in his vest pocket. On another occasion, determined to attend a dance in Baltimore after being "grounded" at her parent's country estate near Annapolis, she sneaked out and rode a "borrowed" farm mule (her father had barred her from the horse stable) alone 20 miles to the city in sweltering heat. Some years before the Battle, Betsy married Napoleon I's youngest brother, Jerome, who was on an extended visit to the U.S. - Napoleon refused to acknowledge the marriage, however. Determined to work her charms on the elder Bonaparte in person to secure his blessing, Betsy once set sail from New Jersey - her ship had barely left port when it hit a storm and was grounded dangerously on rocks. Betsy, skirts soaked in the driving rain, was the first to dare the 15-foot leap from the deck down into a waiting life boat.
However, by 1813, Napoleon had succeeded in annulling the marriage and Betsy Bonaparte was back at home, bored stiff, by all accounts. Several sources say that it was she who, during one of her father's meetings with George Armistead and other officers around the big dining table, first proposed making a new flag for Ft McHenry - a flag big enough to serve as a defiant challenge to the British. Armistead apparently liked the idea and pumped up enough support from fellow officers to commission such a flag to be sewn. The plan was taken to a young widow, Mary Pickersgill, who had sewn several ships' flags in the past and undoubtedly was grateful for such a major commission. Armistead announded that he wanted "a flag so large that the British would have no difficulty seeing it from a distance..." The final dimensions were 42' by 30'.
Here's a clip from a Smithsonian online history site. "With the help of her 13-year-old daughter, Caroline, Mrs. Pickersgill spent several weeks measuring, cutting, and sewing the 15 stars and stripes. When the time came to sew the elements of the flag together, they realized that their house was not large enough. Mrs. Pickersgill thus asked the owner of nearby Claggett's brewery for permission to assemble the flag on the building's floor during evening hours. He agreed, and the women worked by candlelight to finish it. Once completed, the flag was delivered to the committee, and Mrs. Pickersgill was paid $405.90. In August 1813, it was presented to Major Armistead."
Baltimore Draws the Line
It was a year later, in August of 1814 that the British finally struck the Mid-Atlantic - and they struck hard. In a swift and relentless invasion that stunned Americans, Washington was seized and much of it burned, including the White House. Dolly Madison (as the legend goes) made it out with just a few items of clothing and the painting of George Washington stuffed under her arm. The supposed defenders of the city abandoned their positions and took off for the countryside. In short, it was a miserable rout.
But the prize the British really had their eye on was Baltimore. British Gen. Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane had every intention of leaving the city they sneeringly called "a nest of pirates" in rubble. But the Baltimoreans were made of sterner stuff than the Washingtonians (that's still true today!). As the Brits marched toward the city (40 miles from Washington), the city sprang into action. Defenses were hastily constructed, militias mobilized. With 47 British ships sailing right for the city, Armistead knew that Ft. McHenry would be the biggest key to the defenders' success or failure. And, if Baltimore fell - so would the nation.
By the end of the first week of September, it became clear that attack from the British by both land and sea was a certainty. Crack British soldiers were marching on the city overland from the northeast. American Brigadier Gen. John Stricker had laid a clever trap, however. Although reconnaissance teams and snipers were tracking the Brits every move, unseen, the Brits thought the Baltimoreans had retreated just as the Washingtonians had, and pushed far into the boggy, wooded area. Before they could near the city, however, Capt. Edward Aisquith's sharpshooters opened fire with such devastating precision that the Brits were convinced they were being attacked by a much larger force. General Ross himself led in reinforcements. It was just the mistake the defenders hoped for. One of the sharpshooters singled Ross out and fired a fatal shot. The British advance by land became a retreat.
Meanwhile, the entire British fleet was moving into position at the mouth of the Patapsco River, which leads to Baltimore Harbor. The men-o-war were equipped with vicious high-trajectory cannon that had a range far greater than that of the cannon at Ft. McHenry. Armistead was well aware that the Fort was in a precarious situation and that their defenses, both on the banks of the Patapsco and in the Fort might not be able to hold off an attack. On the morning of Sept. 13, the HMS Volcano moved into position and fired a distance-gauging round toward the Fort. This "state of the art" bomb ship was able to lob a 13-inch-diameter, 190-pound cast-iron bomb , designed to explode in air, a stunning two miles. The Fort's cannons, by contrast, were 24- to 36- pounders with less than half that range.
Upon witnessing the Volcano's display, the defenders made a swift, bold decision. Within just a couple of hours, several merchant ships in the Harbor were towed to the channel that lay between the Fort and the Harbor and hastily sunk in a line, thereby making it impossible for the British ships to pass, even if they overwhelmed the fort. There was no time to save anything on board any of the commandeered ships - but no complaints were made. Later, other Americans marveled at the unquestioning self-sacrifice of the citizens of Baltimore.
Meanwhile, the citizens were also feverishly throwing up barricades in key streets, digging breastworks at the city's edges, and burning a primary access way (called the Rope Walk). While many women had been sent out into the countryside for safety's sake, far more elected to stay and help defend the city - including Betsy. It is said she watched the rockets flying in the distance from the roof of her father's mansion. Once the battle was in full swing, eyewitnesses say that men, women and children took to the rooves of their houses to watch the awe-inspiring event, their fate hanging in the balance.
Armistead's wife Louisa, understandably, had been sent into the country: she was 9 months pregnant and the Fort was no place for a civilian at such a time - much less one about to go into labor. Ironically, the town where she was sent to stay was Gettysburg, PA. Her son, Louis Armistead was to later die on the battlefield of the same name.
The Rockets' Red Glare
All through the day of Sept. 13, the British war ships kept up a cannonade against the Fort. By afternoon, a rain storm came in. Two young defenders at Ft. McHenry were killed as visibility became almost nil. Armistead ordered the Fort's cannons to be stilled temporarily while the dead and wounded were taken away. The British imagined that the Americans had been thrown into confusion and arrogantly pulled closer. Just as they came into range of the Fort, Armistead lept to the parapet and ordered the battery to open fire with everything it had. The furious nonstop barrage of cannonfire that followed could be heard for miles, shaking the houses in Baltimore. Several British frigates were hit, forcing the ships to pull back. A cheer went up among the Ft. McHenry gunners and the fort's musicians, who are said to have played off and on throughout the battle, through cannonfire and thunderstorms, burst into a lively version of Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Though the Brits pulled back, the sustained bombardment of Fort McHenry kept up for a full 24 hours - a ferociously focused assault unprecedented in British Naval history. That the Fort was not destroyed and more of its defenders killed is in itself a miracle. It was fully in range of the high-trajectory exploding bombs, which rained deadly fragments down on the pentagon-shaped enclosure. There were no bomb-proof shelters and the only protection from the rain the men had was a single wool blanket each. Armistead did not sleep for some 72 hours straight and the strain was unbearable. Meanwhile, in Gettysburg, as the bombs exploded and the thunder and lightening flashed through the night, Louisa was in labor. By the next day, Armistead would not only have won the Battle, he would be the proud father of a baby girl.
At one point, a shell hit the fort's powder magazine - another miracle, in that it did not explode. When Armistead was told of this disaster waiting to happen, he closed up the magazine but did not let his men - helpless to do anything about it - know, lest they become fearful and demoralized. But all through the battle, that real and present danger had to have been hanging over his head like the "sword of Damocles." The weather, though a horrendous addition to an already nightmarish night, proved to be the Americans' friend. The torrential rain played a key role in derailing an effort by the British to slip soldiers past the fort in barges with muffled oars.
The Star-Spangled Banner
Before the Battle of Baltimore, Gen. Ross had taken six American civilians hostage to secure the release of a handful of British soldiers who had been made prisoners of war. One of the prisoners, Dr. William Beanes, had previously, in happier times, been Gen Ross's host. When the prisoner exchange was made, a rather spiteful Ross refused to release Beanes and had him held aboard the British flagship the HMS Tonnant. A young lawyer from Georgetown named Francis Scott Key, along with John S. Skinner, the United States Agent for Prisoner Exchange were invested with the duty of trying to obtain the good doctor's freedom. Armed with papers from the president, the two men sought an audience with Ross. Although the mission aboard the Tonnant was successful, Ross refused to allow the Americans to go to shore. So, on Sept. 9, Beanes, Skinner, and Key found themselves trapped aboard their own ship, surrounded by British warships preparing to attack their countrymen, helpless to do anything but watch.
After a relentless night of bombardment that lobbed some 1,500 bombs and rockets at Ft. McHenry without provoking a surrender, the Brits knew they were getting nowhere. At 7:30 AM on Sept 14, Vice Admiral Cochrane of the British Navy ordered the bombardment to cease. The final toll on the Americans was four killed and 24 wounded - an astoundingly low casualty toll, considering the fact that Armistead estimated about 400 of the monster bombs had actually hit ground in the fort, while hundreds others exploded overhead. By 9:00 AM, the last British ship had sailed out of the Patapsco River. When Armistead saw this, he ordered the smaller flag that had flown through the storm to be taken down and the huge new flag sewn by Mary Pickersgill to be raised. The men cheered and the little band of musicians once more played Yankee Doodle Dandy. Little did they know at that moment that they had not only won the battle - they had won the war. The Battle of Baltimore turned the war from a certain victory for England to her inevitable loss. It was the last official battle of the war.
Eight miles away, peering through a spyglass, Francis Scott Key, from the deck of the American truce ship, saw the flag. He described the moment later: "Through the clouds of the war the stars of that banner still shown in my view, and I saw the discomforted host of its assailments driven back in ignominy to their ships. Then, in that hour of deliverance and joyful triumph, my heart spoke: and "Does not such a country and such defenders of their country deserve a song?" was its question. "
Overcome by emotion, Key grabbed the only piece of paper available - a letter, and began to write the words to a poen. He finished it later that night in his room at the Indian Queen Hotel in Baltimore. Within the week, Key who remained anonymous at first, had copies made of the poem, which he called "The Defense of Fort McHenry" and gave one to every man who had been at the fort. Within a few weeks, papers throughout the country had picked it up and the title had been changed by some enterprising editor to "The Star-Spangled Banner."
As for Armistead, he was promoted to Lt. Colonel and remained as the Fort's Commander. However, his health was ruined by the colossal strain of the battle and he died just a little more than 3 years and six months later on April 25, 1818. Never before or since has the fate of the nation so directly and immediately fallen on the shoulders of one man. Yet Armistead was in danger of slipping into the background as more glamorous figures who had less directly to do with the outcome of the battle, such as Commodore Joshua Barney, were thrust into the limelight. Fearful that Armistead would be overlooked, Capt. Nicholson, an officer who served under the Major during the Fort's defense, wrote to Secretary of State James Monroe the week following the battle. I trust, wrote Nicholson
"that the noble commander Major Armistead will receive the thanks and rewards of his government...We were like pigeons tied by the legs to be shot at and you would have been delighted to have seen the conduct of Armistead. I entreat you not to let him be neglected."
But even after receiving a promotion from President James Madison, Armistead continued to play down his own new found status as hero. In a letter to Louisa, who was still recovering from childbirth, he wrote:
"The President promptly sent my promotion with a very handsome compliment. So you see, my dear wife, all is well, at least your husband has got a name and standing that nothing but divine providence could have given him."
Before he died, the huge flag was presented to Armistead. He is reported to have cut small souvenir piece from it and given them to veterans of the Fort McHenry defense as tokens of his appreciation. The flag stayed in the Armistead family until the early 1900s, when it was donated to the Smithsonian Institution.
Lt. Col George Armistead is buried in a modest grave in Old St. Paul's Episcopalian Cemetery in Baltimore. It is visited by just a handful of people every year. The headstone - a modest flat-lying 3' X 5' slab is now so weathered it is almost unreadable and for this reason is not even featured in the Old St. Paul website (see below). In the same cemetery lies Samuel Chase, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and one of the nation's first Supreme Court Justices. His headstone is also in need of restoration work The cemetery, btw, is also the first resting place of Francis Scott Key and home to the tomb of the Revolutionary War hero John Eager Howard.
TO SHOW YOUR SUPPORT:
To help with the preservation and maintenance of these important historic gravesites, you can send a donation to:
Old St. Paul's Parish Office
309 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21202
Please include note earmarking any donation for the cemetery preservation fund.
Read more about it...
Armistead bio, with reference to interrment at Old St. Paul's
Old St. Paul's Cemetery:
Battle of Baltimore:
The Dawn's Early Light by Walter Lord, ISBN 0-393-05452-7
The Battle for Baltimore 1814 by Joseph A. Whitehorne, ISBN 1-877853-23-2
The Rockets' Red Glare, The Maritime Defense of Baltimore in 1814 by Scott Sheads, ISBN 0-87033-363-1
Also, the historic tour of Ft. McHenry, which has been restored to an accurate model of what it was like in 1814, is packed with great details about the battle.