- 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
At seven the Meteor opened up. Then one by one the other bombs and the Erebus joined in, while the Cockchafer continued banging away. The guns of the fort roared back, firing erratically but now within range. “The enemy shot falling short and over us,” coolly noted the keeper of the Meteor’s log.
At 8:40 a cannonball ripped through the mainsail of the Cockchafer, and Admiral Cochrane decided to play it a little safer. Shortly after nine he pulled the squadron back to a point slightly over two miles from the fort. This meant sacrificing the firepower of the frigates and the Erebus , but that was why he had brought the bombs along.
Compared to the stately frigates and ships of the line, these ungainly vessels weren’t much to look at—the Aetna , for instance, was a stubby 102 feet long. Nor was service in them fashionable. They fired shells that burst—a bit unsporting, that—and their operation was left largely to the Royal Marine Artillery, who didn’t seem to mind. Nevertheless, they were useful and in many ways remarkable ships. Armed principally with two guns—a ten- and a thirteen-inch mortar—they fired huge bombshells that weighed over two hundred pounds and carried up to 4,200 yards—well over two miles.
It took enormous force to do that, and this in turn put enormous strain on the ships every time the mortars were fired. A complicated system of beams and springs was designed to cushion the blow, but even so the jar was terrific. It rattled the crew’s teeth, shook loose anything not made fast, and sent the whole ship bucking and plunging like a frightened horse.
When the mortar was fired, that also lit a fuse in the bombshell itself. With luck, it exploded about the time it landed, scattering fragments far and wide. But not often. While every effort was made to cut the fuse to fit the distance, the shells were wildly erratic and quite likely to burst in midair.
At Baltimore, however, arithmetic was on Admiral Cochrane’s side. A well-handled bomb vessel could hurl forty-five to fifty shells an hour, and he had five of them. With all that firepower—and safe from the annoyance of any return fire—the fall of Fort McHenry seemed only a matter of time.
Major George Armistead tried to coax just a little more range out of his guns. He had already increased the elevation as much as he could, but that wasn’t enough. Now he loaded them with extra charges of powder—a dangerous experiment, since the barrels could only stand so much. Happily, they didn’t burst, but three of the guns gave a mighty kick that threw them off their carriages. That could be fixed; the big problem remained. Armistead had tried everything, and the guns of Fort McHenry still couldn’t reach the British fleet.
The best the fort could do was 1,800 yards with the twentyfour-pounders and 2,800 yards with the big French thirty-sixpounders. But since the British ships were over two miles out, he was just wasting his shots. At 10 A.M. Armistead grimly ordered his guns to cease fire, and the garrison settled down to a long, hard wait.
The gunners crouched by their parapets; the infantry huddled in a dry moat that ran around part of the fort. Trying to make himself small, Judge Nicholson felt that he and his Artillery Fencibles were all “like pigeons tied by the legs to be shot at.”
By 9:30 A.M. Admiral Cochrane was feeling discouraged, too. He was meant to be helping the army, yet this flashy bombardment had been going on for two hours, and nothing had been accomplished. The firing was too slow; the shells were too erratic; and above all, the fort was too strong. He now dashed off a pessimistic note to Admiral Cockburn, presumably attacking by land with the troops: My Dear Admiral —It is impossible for the ships to render you any assistance—the town is so far retired within the forts. It is for Colonel Brooke to consider under such circumstances whether he has force sufficient to defeat so large a number as it is said the enemy has collected, say 20,000 strong, or even a less number and to take the town. Without this can be done, it will be only throwing the men’s lives away and prevent us from going upon other services. At any rate a very considerable loss must ensue and as the enemy is daily gaining strength, his loss let it be ever so great cannot be equally felt. …
Thus by midmorning caution was again creeping over Admiral Cochrane. He had given up all idea of supporting Colonel Brooke. He wasn’t even sure the army should go through with its attack. But assuming the troops did take the city, the navy must continue battering at the fort, hoping ultimately to open a passage through which he could join Brooke, share the glory, and remove the riches of Baltimore. The five bombs pounded on—eleven … noon … i P.M. …
It was just about 2 P.M. when a British shell landed square on the southwest bastion of Fort McHenry and exploded with a blinding flash. For a brief second everything was lost in a ball of fire and smoke; then it cleared away, revealing a twentyfour-pounder dismounted and its crew sprawled at odd angles in the dirt.