The "Rockets' Red Glare" in The Star Spangled Banner Refers Specifically to These Things

(Photo: Science Museum)

Two hundred years ago, the United States and Britain were locked in a savage struggle known as the War of 1812. After Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated in 1814, Britain sent much of its vast military capacity against the United States.

The Duke of Wellington declined the offer of command over the effort, but he did design the British grand strategy: tie down the American forces in the Chesapeake and New Orleans, then deliver the killing stroke down the Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor, thus occupying New York City and severing New England from the rest of the country.

In all three campaigns (as well as others) these technological wonder weapons frightened American soldiers who had never seen the like before. They were Congreve rockets, an amazing innovation in weapons technology devised by the brilliant British Army engineer William Congreve.

Congreve had served in the Anglo-Mysore War in India and had witnessed the Mysorean forces use rockets effectively against the British. In 1805, he built and demonstrated one of his own. It was an iron cased black powder rocket on a wooden guide pole. Later versions had incendiary, shrapnel and explosive warheads. British forces used them successfully throughout the Napoleonic Wars, then sent rocketry units to North America.

After burning Washington, D.C., the British fleet moved on to Baltimore. Ground forces attacked American fortifications around the city while the Royal Navy attempted to neutralize Fort McHenry, which blocked access to the city’s harbor.

Over the fort flew an enormous American flag that would become known as the Star-Spangled Banner. On the night of Sept. 13-14, the fleet pummeled Fort McHenry with cannon and Congreve’s wonder weapons. Francis Scott Key, an American prisoner on a British ship, watched the battle. He could see the flag only thanks to the light provided by the Congreve rockets. That’s why he wrote in what would become America’s national anthem:

And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;

The bombardment failed, despite William Congreve’s design efforts. But overall, the British were justifiably proud of the weapon’s war record.

Partial bibliography:
Guttman, Jon. "Congreve Rocket." Military History 25.4 (2008): 25. Biography Reference Bank. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.

Zabecki, David T. “Congreve Rockets.” Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997. 120-122. Google Books. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.

(Portrait of Sir William Congreve via the National Portrait Gallery.)

-via Kaching

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