O say can you see—what happened at Fort McHenry

Ft._Henry_bombardement_1814In the wake of Fort McHenry in Baltimore being closed due to the budget impasse, it seemed like a good time to read about what we couldn’t actually visit. 

Dawn broke gray and rainy on September 14, 1814. Francis Scott Key stood at the railing of the HMS Tonnant, looking out at the star-shaped fort across Baltimore harbor. The lawyer and sometime poet had been watching for most of the night as more than a thousand bombshells dropped on Fort McHenry.

Finally, he caught a glimpse of the flag in the morning light. The fact that it was still there meant the fort had not surrendered.

Fort McHenry had survived the night. The city of Baltimore had not fallen.

For Maryland, the War of 1812 — what some called the Second War of Independence — had been one military disaster after another. The Royal Navy raided up and down Chesapeake Bay, burning waterfront farms and  villages such as Georgetown and Frenchtown.

There were small victories, such as when the town of Elkton was spared because of a spirited defense. But a few days later, most of Havre de Grace was put to the torch.

Local defenders were no match for the Royal Navy sailors and Royal Marines who swarmed ashore. The raiders were well-trained and better-armed than the Americans, many of whom were local men who had put aside their farm chores to fight.

The worst disaster of all came in August 1814 when the British marched on Washington. The Redcoats swept aside an American army at the town of Bladensburg on Washington’s outskirts, where the Americans had taken a stand to defend the capital. Some Americans retreated so swiftly that the battle became known as “The Bladensburg Races.”

Unopposed, British forces marched into Washington. They plundered the White House, then set it on fire. The United States Capitol and Library of Congress were also burned. The flames on that summer night raged so high that the citizens of Baltimore saw them on the horizon.

Baltimore took it as a warning and worked to strengthen its defenses.

When the British attacked the city a few weeks later, they encountered a well-planned defense. The British attack was actually two-pronged, coming by land and sea. British forces were stopped at the battle of North Point in Baltimore when their commander, Sir Robert Ross, was killed and the invaders bogged down in the wet, humid weather.

Out on Baltimore harbor, the Royal Navy had to eliminate Fort McHenry or risk having its ships pounded to splinters when they tried to reach the city. The ships anchored out of reach of the fort’s guns and opened fire.

Helpless, the fort’s defenders ducked their heads as bombshells burst overhead and scattered shrapnel. The British ships also fired Congreve rockets — similar to over-sized bottle rockets — which smoked and sputtered across the sky before exploding with a ferocious bang.

Key was aboard one of those ships in the harbor. He had come as part of a delegation to secure the release of a Maryland doctor who, because of his Scottish birth, had been accused of treason. The British had agreed to let  the doctor go, but Key was ordered to stay as their “guest” so that he couldn’t warn the Americans of the attack plans. As the British opened fire, all Key could do was watch through the nighttime bombardment.

Now, as dawn broke hours later, there was the flag. The British ships gradually ceased fire. Baltimore was saved.

Still standing at the ship’s rail, Key scratched down a few notes about what he saw and what he felt at that moment.

“Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?”

The last line of Key’s poem — words that eventually became the national anthem — ends with a question mark. Key was asking himself that question by dawn’s early light. Nearly two centuries later, that same question is posed to Americans every time we sing the national anthem. It’s a question that was first asked on the morning of September 14 in Baltimore:

“Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

Key’s poem was set to music – the tune was borrowed from an old English drinking song – and the popularity of “The Star-Spangled Banner” continued to grow. However, it wouldn’t be until 1931 that Congress adopted the song as our national anthem.

That anthem tells the story of what happened nearly two centuries ago in Baltimore. This weekend, you can experience a bit of that history during the Defenders’ Day events at Fort McHenry. From the fort, if you look closely, you can even see where Key’s ship was anchored on that September morning.

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