- Historic Sites
Humiliation and Triumph
The year was 1814, and within three weeks our “young and not always wise” nation suffered acute shame and astonishing victory
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
Colonel Arthur Brooke, the second-ranking officer in the army, assumed command. The two forces met at a narrow neck of land where General John Stricker, the American commander, had arranged his defense line. The battle raged for more than two hours, with the Americans pushed back but not routed. They finally regrouped and camped for the night back near Sam Smith’s earthworks. Brooke, inexperienced and uncertain, didn’l pursue but camped also. American casualties were 163 killed and wounded; the British had three hundred casualties. The attackers had advanced less than a mile along the route to Baltimore.
On the Patapsco, Admiral Cochrane was making greater progress in carrying out his part of the two-pronged advance. After landing the last of the troops and supplies at North Point, he shifted his flag to the Surprize and at 1:30 P.M. ordered the frigates and bomb vessels to head upstream for Baltimore. As yet he knew nothing of Ross’s death or the change in command, but he could plainly hear the gunfire ashore, and he struggled to get his ships in position to support the advancing army.
It was a backbreaking job. The Patapsco was not only shallow, but full of unexpected shoals, and the squadron had only two or three pilots who knew the water. The Seahorse went ahead to feel the way, but she ran aground almost immediately. For nearly four hours she was either stuck or warping slowly through the mud.
At three thirty the Surprise finally anchored at a point about five miles below Fort McHenry. Here she was joined by the Severn , flying Cockburn’s flag, and the other frigates and brigs. The five bomb vessels and the rocket ship Erebus continued creeping closer until they anchored only two and a half miles from the fort.
No one knew how the Americans might react, but Cochrane was taking no chances. He ordered every ship to ready grappling hooks in case the enemy tried fire vessels, as they had on the Potomac. Torpedoes were always a menace, although the Admiral considered them outlawed by the rules of war. He issued careful instructions on towing them clear of endangered craft. Sets of passwords and countersigns were distributed for use in the night.
Sweeping his glass along the shoreline, Cochrane discovered one defense measure he didn’t know how to counter. The Americans were busy sinking blockships across the mouth of the Northwest Branch. These would effectively keep him from storming the inner harbor, either to bombard the town or to carry off” the prize goods he thought about so much. There was no alternative but to capture Fort McHenry first.
Examining the earthworks on Hampstead Hill, Cochrane felt more encouraged. The defense line swarmed with people and ran right to the water’s edge, but it didn’t seem to extend very far back into the country. “I think it may be completely turned without the necessity of taking it in front,” he wrote that afternoon in a letter addressed to General Ross. He also took the opportunity to outline his own plans: “At daylight we shall place the Bombs and barges to bombard the fort. You will find them over upon the eastern shore, as the enemy have forts upon the western side which it is not necessary to encounter.”
At 7:30 P.M. the letter was returned unopened together with the shattering news that Ross was dead.
Cochrane immediately forwarded it to Colonel Brooke, adding some observations that he thought might be useful to the army’s new leader. His main concern was that Brooke might be too easy on Baltimore. Ross had been so soft at Washington - all that nonsense about respecting private property -that this new man must be set straight right away: It is proper for me to mention to you that a system of retaliation was to be proceeded upon in consequence of the barbarities committed in Canada—and if General Ross had seen the second letter from Sir George Prévost he would have destroyed Washington and Georgetown. …
So there would be no leniency this time. “I do not like to contemplate scenes of blood and destruction,” Cochrane’s flag captain, the normally placid Rear Admiral Edward Codrington, wrote to his wife that evening, “but my heart is deeply interested in the coercion of these Baltimore heroes, who are perhaps the most inveterate against us of all the Yankees, and 1 hope they will be chastized even until they excite my pity, by which time they will be sufficiently humbled.”
Baltimore sensed its crisis was at hand. Commodore Rodgers hoped sinking the blockships would tighten the barrier across the Northwest Branch. Until now the merchants of Baltimore had not taken kindly to this idea—they couldn’t see the logic of sinking their fortunes to save them—but today, with the British on the doorstep, the mood was different. Down went John Donnell’s handsome ship Chesapeake , John Craig’s brig Father and Son , Elie Clagett’s schooner Scudder —twenty-four vessels altogether. Ultimately, the barrier was extended across the Ferry Branch, too, although there was no time for that just now. As always, Sam Smith looked to the east; the west could take care of itself.