200 Years Ago Today: The Battle of Baltimore and the Star-Spangled Banner

(Photo of fireworks over Ft. Henry by Rich Dennison/The Daily Record)

Today is the bicentennial of a seminal event in the formation of the American national identity. Two hundred years ago today, Americans at Baltimore halted a foreign invasion of their nation while standing beneath a flag that would become known as the Star-Spangled Banner.

This is my third post on the bicentennial of the War of 1812--a war that some historians refer to as America’s second war of independence. Although Britain did not want to completely conquer and rule its rebellious colonies once again, it hoped to reduce America into a shadow of its former self--one that could be more easily coerced and managed from across the Atlantic.

(The burned White House by George Munger, White House Historical Association)

The British grand strategy was to tie down America’s limited military resources on the Eastern seaboard and New Orleans while driving a decisive blow down the Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor. In August and September of 1814, the British acted on their plan. First, they burned down the capital city of the United States. Then they moved into Lake Champlain in the direction of New York City.

(Major General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, respectively)

In this post, we depart from the wilderness of northern New York and return to Chesapeake Bay. Major General Robert Ross, the British Army commander, and Admirals Cockburn and Cochrane, had torched Washington, D.C.--an act that both humiliated and enraged Americans. They had hoped that burning the capital would make the American people despair of the struggle and give up the fight.

They were wrong.

(Modern replicas of two War of 1812-era privateers, The Pride of Baltimore and the Lynx, photo by the US Navy)

So Cochrane, as the senior British officer in the theater, had to decide where to strike next. He seriously considered an invasion of Rhode Island. But nearby Baltimore, then one of the largest cities in America, was a more promising target. During the war, it was a major base of operations for American privateers. Approximately 500 captured British merchant vessels had been sailed into its harbor, which is why Cochrane’s subordinate, Admiral Cockburn, described Baltimore as a “nest of pirates.” Destroying Baltimore would do serious harm to the American economy as well as avenge what the British perceived as a grievous wrong perpetrated by the Americans. And after so easily destroying Washington, why not continue their campaign just a bit further north?

(Oliver Hazard Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie by William Henry Powell)

But Baltimore would prove to be tougher case. The city had a population of approximately 50,000 people, which was about 6 times that of Washington, D.C. It had larger resources to draw from than did the swampy capital. It also had a large cadre of competent military leaders who had worked at length to fortify the place. Among them was the famous Captain Oliver Hazard Perry, the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie. He was among many naval officers from around the country who, bottled up in port by the British blockade, used their knowledge of artillery to organize and operate the cannons arrayed around the city.

(US Senator and General Samuel Smith by Rembrandt Peale)

Thankfully, the overall commander of the defense of Baltimore was General Samuel Smith. Like General William Winder, whose incompetence led to the burning of Washington, General Smith was a politician--a United States Senator. But he also had seen extensive service during the Revolutionary War and had apparently learned from those experiences. Despite Winder's objections, the Baltimore command was given to Smith.

As the British burned Washington, General Smith worked at a rapid pace to turn Baltimore into a fortress. He recruited widely and, by the time of the battle, had 20,000 troops arranged around the city. Most of them were militia, but as the Duke of Wellington wrote, “Americans fight obstinately behind breast works.” As long as they were standing behind fortifications and need not march while under fire, militia bolstered by a few regulars and naval professionals might well be enough.

The geography of Baltimore offered the defenders substantial advantages. The best place to land troops was at the at the tip of Patapsco Neck, a peninsula with a deep anchorage at the end. On September 11, the British General Ross landed his 4,700 men, most of them regulars, at the end of the peninsula and marched them north. He was unconcerned about reports of vast numbers of Americans manning the works at Baltimore. Ross had, after all, swept such men aside outside of Washington. He was convinced that American militiamen, no matter the numbers, would break when shoved.

The next day, the American Brigadier General Stricker took 3,200 men and met Ross at at a narrow spot on the peninsula along North Point Road. It might have been an uneventful engagement except that one American sharpshooter dropped General Ross from his horse. Ross died shortly thereafter. His soldiers placed his body in a barrel of rum to preserve it while journeying back to Britain.

(The Ross Monument in Northern Ireland by The Man Who Captured Washington)

The death of General Ross was a major blow to British morale. His troops admired his aggression and courage. They would have followed him anywhere. Now he was dead and command on land fell to Colonel Arthur Brooke. Brooke was an experienced and capable soldier. But he was not Ross.

(Colonel Arthur Brooke, later Lieutenant General and Order of the Bath via National Museums Northern Ireland)

Brooke pressed on up the road. He encountered a major militia force of what he estimated to be 7,000 men. To frighten them, he fired Congreve rockets at the Americans. These terrifying wonder weapons were unlike anything the Americans had in their inventory.

In the past, Americans had always fled when they were hit with William Congreve’s terrifying invention. But that didn’t happen this time. The Americans held. Eventually, Brooke brought his entire force to bear against the Americans. General Stricker commanded an orderly retreat, which his militia conducted properly back into the defenses of Baltimore.

(Ft. McHenry by the National Park Service)

Brooke hoped to storm the defenses to the east of the city and march in while British naval artillery poured fire into the Americans from the harbor. For the British fleet to do so, it would have to get past Fort McHenry, a five-pointed star fort at the end of Whitestone Point. The British would also have to get around other forts that General Smith had built along the shores close to the city. These batteries were often manned by naval personnel who knew how to handle artillery. Additionally, Smith had made the passage into the harbor difficult by also sinking ships across the entrance, creating hazards for the deep-keeled Royal Navy vessels.

Admiral Cochrane realized that it would be necessary to, at minimum, knock out Ft. McHenry in order to enter the city. On September 13, he deployed the fleet’s rocket ships and bomb ships against it. The former does not refer to rocket-propelled ships, but sailing warships which fired Congreve rockets. Bomb ships are those equipped with long-range mortars rather than conventional cannons. They poured iron and fire into the defenders of Ft. McHenry.

(George Armistead via the Maryland Historical Society)

In command of that strongpoint was Maj. George Armistead. Only with great difficulty could Armistead’s guns reach the faraway British fleet. He could not hit the enemy effectively until they tried to enter the harbor.

(Bombardment of Ft. McHenry via Dr. frog)

But he could express his sentiments to the invaders. To do so, before the battle, he had commissioned the creation of an enormous American flag. He explained to General Smith that “It is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.” The result was a flag measuring 32 feet by 42 feet waving atop a flagpole 90 feet high.

The rockets and mortar shells hit the brick-walled fort all day and into the night. Maj. Armistead could do little but wait for the British to get closer. At one point during the bombardment, a shell smashed into the gunpowder magazine of the fort.

(Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte by Jacques-Louis David)

According to one legend, Napoleon Bonaparte once listened to one of his generals extolling the skills of a junior officer whom he thought should be promoted. Napoleon impatiently interrupted by asking, “Yes, yes, but is he lucky?” Much of good generalship, Napoleon thought, was sheer luck.

Major George Armistead was lucky.

The shell did not detonate inside the powder room. Otherwise, the fort would likely have exploded, permitting the British fleet to sail into the harbor and fire into the city at close range.

(The guns of the Ft. McHenry by Jim the Photographer)

In the middle of the night, the British suddenly stopped firing. The rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air were now gone, shrouding the city in darkness. Then the Americans manning a battery west of Ft. McHenry spotted British boats moving in the darkness. The British were attempting a landing under the cover of darkness. The Americans fired vigorously, driving them off.

Meanwhile, the British ground commander, Col. Brooke, was trying to find a way into Baltimore. Although his troops were skilled veterans and his opponents militia, he did not like the idea of storming a fortified enemy that outnumbered him 4 to 1. He tried to slip around to the Americans’ northern flank. General Smith noticed and redeployed his troops to counter the move. Col. Brooke then backtracked to the American center. Again, General Smith noticed and shifted his troops accordingly.

(The painting By Dawn's Early Light by Edward Moran, photo by Doug Coldwell)

When dawn broke the next morning, the enormous star-spangled banner still hung over Ft. Henry. It was a glorious sight to Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer who was onboard one of the British warships. He wrote:

O say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?

Ft. McHenry remained intact and ready to fight. The outnumbered British ground troops had not gotten any closer to taking Baltimore. It was time to leave.

The defeat tasted sour in Admiral Cochrane’s mouth. He decided to blame the dead General Ross for the outcome. He also moved the goal posts by arguing that his intention was mere a “demonstration” in front of Baltimore.

As a practical matter, the British government disagreed with him. Henry Goulburn, the leader of the British delegation to the peace negotiations at Ghent, wrote that “if we had either burnt Baltimore or held Plattsburg, I believe we could have had peace on our terms.” But they had done neither and would have to settle for a draw instead of a victory.

(A replica of the Star-Spangled Banner by the National Park Service)

In the popular American memory of the War of 1812, the defense of Fort McHenry is at the forefront. It was here that battle became poetry, poetry became song, and song became our formal statement of national identity. The Battle of Baltimore and its star-spangled banner tell us who we are as a people:

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto - “In God is our trust,”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.


Budiansky, Stephen. Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815. New York: Knopf, 2010.

Daughan, George C. 1812: The Navy's War. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

Fitz-Enz, David. The Final Invasion: Plattsburg, The War of 1812’s Most Decisive Battle. New York: Cooper Square, 2001.

Howard, Hugh. Mr. and Mrs. Madison's War: America's First Couple and the Second War of Independence. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2012.

Stagg, J.C.A. The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

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John, an excellent article. Not that I don't generally enjoy the stuff you post, but this is obviously in a whole different class. Looking forward to the battle of New Orleans!
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