- 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
Several members of Judge Nicholson’s Fencibles rushed over —it was one of their guns—but they were too late to help Lieutenant Levi Claggett or Sergeant John Clemm, two of Baltimore’s prominent merchants who served in the company. As the dead and wounded were carried off Private Philip Cohen must have felt lucky indeed. He had been standing right next to Claggett when the shell landed, yet he escaped without a scratch.
So many of the garrison seemed to live charmed lives. Captain Henry Thompson dashed through a hail of shrapnel, carrying messages to and from Hampstead Hill. As Commodore Rodgers’ courier, Master’s Mate Robert Stockton was constantly exposed. And every man in the garrison must have had a horseshoe in his pocket in that terrifying moment when a shell finally did crash through the roof of the magazine. It didn’t go off, just lay there sputtering as some quick-witted hero doused the fuse in time.
This was too close a call for Major Armistead. He ordered the powder barrels cleared out and scattered under the rear walls of the fort. Better risk one or two than see the whole place go up.
Actually there was nothing else to do but trust in luck, and perhaps that was why the men took it as such a good omen when a rooster appeared from nowhere, mounted a parapet, and began to crow. The exhausted troops laughed and cheered, and one man called out that if he lived to see Baltimore again, he’d treat that bird to a pound cake.
Toward 3 P.M. Major Armistead suddenly noticed that three of the British bomb vessels had weighed anchor and, together with the rocket ship, were moving toward the fort again. Apparently Admiral Cochrane felt he had softened it up enough-that it could no longer hurt his ships even if they came within range. Now they were closing in for the kill.
That was all right with Armistead. For six hours he had sat taking his punishment, firing only occasionally to reassure Baltimore he was still holding out. But most of his guns were sound and his gunners thirsting for a chance to work off their frustrations. Now they stood at the embrasures, aching to go. The British ships glided closer—two miles, a mile and a half. Then with a roar that shook the whole harbor, Armistead let go with everything he had.
The Devastation shuddered as a cannonball plowed into her port bow, springing timbers and starting a leak. Another ripped through her main topsail. The Volcano took five straight hits- miraculously, none serious. A gunboat, observing fire three hundred yards ahead, caught a freak shot that cut a Royal Colonial Marine in half.
Admiral Cochrane quickly reversed himself. The fort wasn’t finished after all. In fact, despite all those bombshells, it seemed barely damaged. Signal flags fluttered from the Surprise , ordering the squadron to disengage and pull back again out of range.
By now the Admiral felt more frustrated than ever. This long-range shelling was getting him nowhere, but what else was thereto do? His frigate captains had an answer to that: they wanted to run the Hebrus , Severn , and Havannah right alongside the fort and blow the place out of the water. No, said Cochrane, that might cost too many men.
He was, in truth, the prisoner of his own policies. There was little point in taking Baltimore unless he could lay his hands on the immense wealth of the city, yet there was no way to do that without taking Fort McHenry, and no way to do that without risking high losses—the sort that might ruin his plans for the South and the even greater wealth of New Orleans.
By the same reasoning, Cochrane was more and more convinced lhat Brooke’s land attack was pointless, and when he got a letter from Brooke asking that a diversionary action be mounted lhat night on the Ferry Branch oj the I’atapsco—on the other side of Baltimore—he wrote back counselling against the whole scheme. Communications broke down at this point, and although Brooke decided to take the more experienced officer’s advice and abandon the whole offensive, no message to this effect got back to Cochrane. The Admiral, unable to tell what was happening on land, decided therefore thai he must stage the diversion as requested.
To lead the diversionary action Cochrane picked Captain Charles Napier of the frigate Euryalus , one of his most enterprising officers. Around midnight Napier was to take a picked force of seamen and marines in small boats, lead them quietly—with muffled oars—into the Ferry Branch, west of Fort McHenry. Continuing a mile or a mile and a half, they were then to anchor and wait. At i A.M. the bombs would open up again on Fort McHenry, and when signalled by skyrockets, Napier was to start firing, too. To make as much uproar as possible, he would use guns and rockets and mix in blank cartridges. It was all-important to put on a good show: “An attack is to be made upon their lines directly at two o’clock.”