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(Enlarge) The British navy flotilla which bombarded Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 was anchored two miles from the fort.

British threaten Baltimore

When the British fleet approached Baltimore, the 3rd Brigade of the Maryland Militia marched out of town toward the peninsula of North Point. Brigadier General John Stricker commanded the brigade of 3,185 militia. The evening of Sept. 11, the brigade camped seven miles from Baltimore near the Methodist meeting house.

At dawn on Sept. 12, over 5,000 British soldiers and sailors landed at North Point to attack Baltimore. Their commander was Major Gen. Robert Ross.

When Stricker learned about the British landing, he arranged his brigade into three defense lines at the narrowest point between the Patapsco and Back Rivers. At noon, Stricker ordered light infantry and riflemen to reconnoiter the British advance. This small force met and skirmished with the British lead soldiers. Hearing the fire, the British general rode forward to investigate and was mortally wounded by American rifle fire. He died as he was carried to the rear.

"He was popular among the troops and I think that his getting injured so early in the fight could not have helped morale," Glenn Williams, historian for the Army Center of Military History, said. "Brooke, the colonel who assumed command, was more cautious."

Undaunted, the British light brigade and rocket batteries advanced and encountered the American brigade. Unable to hold his left flank against a British assault, the brigade fell back to the defenses of Baltimore City on Hampstead Hill, also known as Rodgers Bastion. By that time, American forces on Rodgers Bastion, had grown to over 10,000 men. Meanwhile, British warships sailed up the river and took position about two miles away from Fort McHenry.

About the war

The U.S. went to war against Britain in 1812 for a wide variety of reasons, and things kept going well for the British.

"You've got to remember that after the Revolutionary War, Congress just let the U.S. military dwindle away to almost nothing," said Vincent Vaise, park ranger at the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, said during a recent tour of the fort. "At one point there were just a couple hundred soldiers on active duty, and the Navy wasn't that much better ... the U.S. wasn't ready for the war, so we shouldn't be surprised that the British did well against us."

With the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the British were free to dedicate more ships and soldiers to the American conflict. Though the two countries were negotiating for peace at that time, the British planned another attack on the U.S. They thought it would improve their negotiating position for territorial claims in North America.

American President James Madison had several warnings from London that the British would attack Washington, D.C., or Baltimore, Md., or both.

Baltimore was an important target for the British because it was it was one of the Chesapeake Bay port towns that were launching American privateers. These privateers were privately owned armed ships which overpowered British merchant ships for profit.

"They were definitely a means of waging economic war against your enemy," Williams said.

The American privateers ranged the world in search of prey. They were a constant concern, so in 1813 the British sent a fleet to the Chesapeake Bay to keep the privateers bottled up. The American Navy had a small flotilla of ships, gun boats and gun barges which harassed the British fleet, but which was not strong enough to seriously challenge the British navy presence in the bay.

The British finally chased the American flotilla into the Patuxent River and the 400 sailors were forced to burn and sink their own vessels to keep them out of British hands. The British landed a combined force of 4,000 soldiers and 500 sailors and marines under Major Gen. Robert Ross in Maryland and they started to march on Washington, D.C.

On Aug. 24, the British force defeated an American army of almost 7,000 (300 regulars and 6,500 militia and 500 sailors and marines) at Bladensburg, Md. The retreat by the militia was so panicked that the battle became known as the Bladensburg Races.

The British army then moved on to Washington, D.C., where they set several American government buildings, to include the White House, on fire. After the battle, the British got back onto their ships and continued their blockade of the bay.

British fleet bombards Fort McHenry

British warships began bombarding Fort McHenry, a five- pointed, star-shaped brick and earthen fort in Baltimore harbor, at 6:30 a.m. on Sept. 13. The attacking ships included five bomb/mortar ships, one rocket vessel and several frigates and brigs. The fort's guns replied and the British Navy flotilla pulled back out of range of the fort's cannon. For most of the bombardment, only the fleet's mortars and rockets could reach the fort.

The British army started marching toward the American defenses. By noon, the British army came into sight of Baltimore (in present day, the Rodgers Bastion site is near the Pagoda in Patterson Park.)

At 1 p.m., the British tried to flank the American left again, but the move was countered, and the British returned to their former position east of Hampstead Hill.

"I think the British found the line was far more extensive and fortified and manned by more troops than they had anticipated," Williams said.

In the naval battle, the British fleet scored several hits with their long-range mortars on Fort McHenry. One mortar shell disabled a 24-pound cannon and killed Lt. Levi Claggett and Sergeant John Clemm of the Baltimore Fencibles at 2 p.m. Another mortar round broke through the roof of the fort's gunpowder storage building.

"Fortunately, that round was a dud and didn't go off," Vaise said.

Looking through their telescopes at Fort McHenry, the British saw lots of movement of people on the ramparts. They deduced that their mortar fire had severely damaged the fort or rattled the defenders. So the fleet ventured nearer to the fort to put more cannon and pressure on the defense. With the British ships now within range of the fort's guns, the American defenders fired all their cannons and scored several hits. The British fleet quickly withdrew to their previous spot two miles from the fort and continued their rocket and mortar bombardment.

The British commander, Col. Arthur Brooke, wanted a frontal assault at midnight upon the American left flank; however, for this, he needed the British fleet's cannon to fire at the flank of the American defense at Rodgers Bastion. Before the fleet could get there, the fleet had to beat and take Fort McHenry.

"The British fleet had to reduce Fort McHenry in order to outflank the main American defense on Rodgers Bastion," Williams said.

That evening, the British commander learned the channel to Fort McHenry was blocked by sunken vessels and extensive American shore batteries, so the navy could not directly sail to the fort and attack it. With their original plan foiled, the British sent an amphibious group in small boats up the Ferry Branch to the west of Fort McHenry. The group, mainly soldiers, was supposed to disembark and attack American shore batteries to create a diversion in hopes the Americans would leave their defense at Hampstead Hill to support the threat on Fort McHenry and the backdoor of their defenses.

"But the Army had a lot of strength on that side of the Bay," Williams said.

Cpt. John A. Webster, a Navy officer in charge of a six-gun battery between Forts Covington and Babcock west of Fort McHenry, wrote about the battle, "About midnight I could hear a splashing in the water. The attention of the others was aroused and we were convinced it was the noise of the muffled oars of the British barges. Very soon afterwards we could discern small gleaming lights in different places."

The tiny lights the Americans saw on the water were apparently lit punks, the smoldering sticks which would be used by sailors to spark their cannon, of the gunners in the British boats. The American's opened up with their cannon and rifles and pounded the British flotilla. They chased the British away.

Before your chest swells with pride over the brave Americans manning their guns against tyranny, wait. Not all the American defenders were of the "John Wayne" mold.

"When the British attacked up the Ferry Branch, two men were sent to Major Gen. Samuel Smith, the commander of the division defending Baltimore, to ask for reinforcements," Vaise said. "One of the men ran away and was never heard from again. The other got to the center of the town and yelled that the British had landed and the American defenders were running away. Needless to say, for the women and children who were in the town square wondering at all the noise of the battle, it wasn't what they wanted to hear. The report almost set off a panic in the town."

Hearing the gun fire, the British commander figured the flotilla found weak resistance, so he ordered units to probe the American defenses at Hampstead Hill. Fortunately, the position was too strong to directly assault, so the British held a council of war and decided to withdraw from the battle.

At 7 a.m., the British ceased fire on Fort McHenry and the ships rejoined the bulk of the fleet off North Point.

At 9 a.m., Sept. 14, 1814, the fort commander ordered that a huge U.S. flag be raised in triumph over the fort. When the huge star-spangled banner was raised and the fort's fifers and drummers played "Yankee Doodle." The citizens of Baltimore realized for the first time that the fort was safe. The U.S. had won the battle.

The cry of "Huzzah!" rang from the soldiers, sailors, militia men and civilians alike.

The next day, the British army boarded ships at North Point and left Baltimore. According to Webster's written memoirs, the bulk of the fleet and army was later ordered to leave Chesapeake Bay and took part in the ill-fated British assault on New Orleans.

This year's celebration of the event, known as Defenders' Day, will be held at Fort McHenry and the city of Baltimore Sept. 10 and 11. A complete list of events will be published in next week's Soundoff!

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