Sunday, September 13, 2009
The Bombardment of Fort McHenry
One hundred and ninety-five years ago today, Fort McHenry was under intense bombardment from British ships off the coast of Maryland. The Royal Navy was hoping to reduce Ft McHenry as part of an overall land-sea invasion operation against Baltimore, which the British considered to be a "nest of pirates."
Detained by the British was an attorney named Francis Scott Key. Key, who had been negotiating with the British for the release of a friend, hopelessly watched the bombardment, fully understanding the stakes of the contest.
What if Fort McHenry Would've Fallen?
The British had already captured Washington, the nation's capital, and had burned its federal buildings to the ground. A devastating and humiliating blow to the Americans. Now, the British were following up their burning of Washington with an attack on Baltimore. Had they succeeded, it would've essentially gutted the eastern coast of the United States.
While it may be overstating things to suggest that the United States would've fallen back under British imperial control, it is certain that the loss of Baltimore (so close to the burning of Washington) would have all but guaranteed British victory in the War of 1812.
Had that occurred, several very unfortunate scenarios may have ensued, including the British refusal to return captured territory (which they eventually did under terms of the Treaty of Ghent), the possible secession of the New England states from the Union, and more. Th future of the United States would've been bleak.
On the morning of September 14, Francis Scott Key peered through the smoke and haze - and saw, with delight, what the British saw, with great disappointment. The American flag still flew over Ft McHenry!
The Royal Navy soon abandoned its efforts to reduce Ft McHenry. What's more, British land forces lost their lead general, Robert Ross, to a sniper's bullet and their invasion was stalled against American forces led by Generals Samuel Smith and John Stricker.
The British eventually withdrew their forces and decided on a more southern strategy, an attempt to take New Orleans and gain control of the vital Mississippi River. There, that would meet devastating defeat at the hands of Andrew Jackson.
Key's sighting of the American flag, and the ultimate defeat of Britain's attack on Baltimore, inspired him to write "The Defence of Fort McHenry," a poem later put to the music "To Anacreon in Heaven," a popular men's drinking song. America's national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," was born.