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War of 1812: Advances in the North & A Capital Burned



War of 1812: Advances in the North & A Capital Burned

Battle of Fort McHenry, September 13, 1814

Photograph Source: Public Domain

1813: Success on Lake Erie, Failure Elsewhere | War of 1812: 101 | 1815: New Orleans & Peace

By the Dawn's Early Light

Emboldened by their success against Washington, Cockburn next advocated for a strike against Baltimore. A pro-war city with a fine harbor, Baltimore had long served as a base for American privateers operating against British commerce. While Cochrane and Ross were less enthusiastic, Cockburn succeeded in convincing them to move up the bay. Unlike Washington, Baltimore was defended by Major George Armistead's garrison at Fort McHenry and around 9,000 militia who had been busy building an elaborate system of earthworks. These latter defensive endeavors were overseen Major General (and Senator) Samuel Smith of the Maryland militia. Arriving at the mouth of the Patapsco River, Ross and Cochrane planned a two-prong attack against the city with the former landing at North Point and advancing overland, while the navy attacked Fort McHenry and the harbor defenses by water.

Going ashore at North Point early on September 12, Ross began advancing towards the city with his men. Anticipating Ross' actions and needing more time to complete the city's defenses, Smith dispatched 3,200 men and six cannon under Brigadier General John Stricker to delay the British advance. Meeting in the Battle of North Point, American forces successfully delayed the British advance and killed Ross. With the general's death, command ashore passed to Colonel Arthur Brooke. The next day, Cochrane advanced the fleet up the river with the goal of attacking Fort McHenry. Ashore, Brooke pushed on to the city but was surprised to find substantial earthworks manned by 12,000 men. Under orders not to attack unless with a high chance of success, he halted to await the outcome of Cochrane's assault.

In the Patapsco, Cochrane was hampered by shallow waters which precluded sending forward his heaviest ships to strike at Fort McHenry. As a result, his attack force consisted of five bomb ketches, 10 smaller warships, and the rocket vessel HMS Erebus. By 6:30 AM they were in position and opened fire on Fort McHenry. Remaining out of range of Armistead's guns, the British ships struck the fort with heavy mortar shells (bombs) and Congreve rockets from Erebus. As the ships closed, they came under intense fire from Armistead's guns and were compelled to draw back to their original positions. In effort to break the stalemate, the British attempted to move around the fort after dark but were thwarted.

By dawn, the British had fired between 1,500 and 1,800 rounds at the fort with little impact. As the sun began to rise, Armistead ordered the fort's small storm flag lowered and replaced with the standard garrison flag measuring 42 feet by 30 feet. Sewn by local seamstress Mary Pickersgill, the flag was clearly visible to all of the ships in the river. The sight of the flag and the ineffectiveness of the 25-hour bombardment convinced Cochrane that the harbor could not be breached. Ashore, Brooke, with no support from the navy, decided against a costly attempt on the American lines and began retreating towards North Point where his troops re-embarked. The successful defense of the fort inspired Francis Scott Key, a witness to the fighting, to write "The Star-Spangled Banner." Withdrawing from Baltimore, Cochrane's fleet departed the Chesapeake and sailed south where it would play role in the war's final battle.

1813: Success on Lake Erie, Failure Elsewhere | War of 1812: 101 | 1815: New Orleans & Peace

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