- 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
General Winder knew it all too well. For a whole week he had seen his western command neglected or nibbled away. Now a new order came from Smith to send his cavalry to Colonel Nicholas Ruxton Moore, operating east of the town. Winder of course complied but sent at the same time a last, despairing note to headquarters: “This has finally robbed my command of its only means of availing itself of favorable opportunities of annoying the enemy. … In fine, I am now fairly destitute of every means by which I can render my command honorable to them or myself as essentially useful to the country, unless by mere accident.” A,
As usual, Sam Smith was too busv to answer, nor did anyone else have time to worry about the ruffled feelings of a forgotten general this hectic afternoon. Around 4 P.M. word spread that General Stricker, commanding the American forces on North Point, was beaten—was falling back—and the whole city plunged into a frantic, last-second rush of preparation. The Committee of Vigilance and Safety ordered all lights out tonight—no point in giving the British gunners a mark to shoot at. Nervous citizens reread the morning Telegraph ’s instructions on handling incendiaries. “Should Congreve rockets be thrown into the city,” the paper advised its apparently well-heeled readers, “we should recommend to every house-keeper to have a servant ready with buckets filled with water to extinguish the flames.”
At Fort McHenry, Major Armistead studied the ominous line of British ships lying just out of range. The gun ports were open; small craft were clustered along the sides. “From the number of barges and the known situation of the enemy,” he wrote Sam Smith at 4:30, “I have not a doubt but that an assault will be made this night upon the Fort.”
At the Lazaretto across the channel, Lieutenant Solomon Rutter worried about British trickery. To guard against a surprise blow, he and Armistead quickly worked out a set of challenges for the night. The password would be “William,” the answer “Eutaw.”
Such precautions were wise and necessary, but at a time like this a man could also use a little inspiration. The defenders of Fort McHenry got theirs from a huge American flag that flew from a pole just inside the parade ground. Measuring thirty by forty-two feet, it seemed to dominate not only the fort but the outlying strong points and even the defenses on Hampstead Hill. Needless to say, it could also be seen by the newly arrived visitors from Britain.
That was just the way Major Armistead wanted it. During the invasion scare in the summer of 1813 he had written Sam Smith, “We, Sir, are ready at Fort McHenry to defend Baltimore against invading by the enemy. That is to say, we are ready except that we have no suitable ensign to display over the Star Fort, and it is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.”
He had gotten his wish. Some time that summer a committee of high-ranking officers had called on Mary Young Pickersgill, a widow who normally specialized in making house flags for Baltimore’s far-flung merchant ships. They had explained their needs, and Mrs. Pickersgill had accepted the order.
Recruiting her thirteen-year-old daughter Caroline to help, she had spent the next several weeks cutting and measuring her bolts of cloth—fifteen white stars, each two feet from point to point, eight red stripes and seven white, each two feet broad. Altogether she had used some four hundred yards of bunting.
Then had come the job of piecing it together. Even the big upstairs bedroom in the Pickersgill house wasn’t large enough, so on an inspiration she had borrowed the use of the malthouse in Brown’s brewery. Here she and Caroline had continued working—often by candlelight—sewing and basting the colors together.
That August the flag had been delivered at a cost meticulously calculated by Mrs. Pickersgill of exactly 8405.90. For a year it hadn’t been needed, but on this hot, dangerous evening of September 12, 1814, it blazed in the sunset —not an icon of might and power, but rather an expression of earnest purpose, a mark of defiance flown by a small, young, and not always wise country about to take its stand against the strongest nation in the world.
The next morning, Major Armistead’s big flag was snapping in a damp, easterly breeze as the British bomb vessel Volcano weighed anchor at 5 A.M. and began edging toward Fort McHenry. Close behind came another “bomb,” the Meteor , and the rocket ship Erebus . Also tagging along was the Cockchafer , a pugnacious little schooner that always seemed in the middle of things. Later they were joined by three more bombs—the Terror , Devastation , and Aetna —while the frigates and sloops moved up to lend support.
At six thirty the Volcano came to, and Captain David Price fired a couple of shots to check the range. Not close enough. The bombs and rocket ship crept on- now less than two miles away—but even before they were in position to fire, the perky Cockchafer let loose a broadside at the star-shaped ramparts.