- 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 9 P.M. the fire of the bomb vessels slackened, then ceased altogether. Cochrane’s hope was that the Americans would take this as the end of the day’s work. At ten the small boats of Napier’s squadron, loaded with men, came alongside the Surprize for final instructions. Morale was sky-high, but to add that extra ounce of fortitude a half ration of rum was passed out to the men.
Midnight, and they were on their way—twenty boats altogether, carrying perhaps three hundred men. It was raining hard now—a pitch-black night—and with the guns of the fort and the fleet both silent, there was absolutely nothing to guide lhem. The last eleven boats lost the others in the darkness, missed the turn west into the Ferry Branch, and continued rowing straight for Baltimore harbor. A less weary set of defenders might have seen them and caught them square between the guns of Fort McHenry and the Lazaretto. As it was, the lost boats managed to turn around and splash back to safety. Leaderless and confused, they returned to the Surprise .
Reduced to nine boats and 128 men, Captain Napier led the remainder of his flotilla into the Ferry Branch, unaware of the fiasco behind him. Sticking close to the far shore—oars muffled as directed he slipped safely past Fort McHenry. Now he was passing Fort Babcock and soon would be opposite Fort Covington—two outlying strong points on the Ferry Branch. Here he planned to drop his hook and wait.
At Fort Babcock, Sailing Master John A. Webster cocked a shrewd ear to the roar of the British bomb vessels as they opened up at i A.M. It struck him that they were firing harder than ever and that this might mean trouble for him. He changed the charges in all six of his guns, this time doubleshotting them with eighteen-pound balls and grapeshot. Finally satisfied, he wrapped himself in a blanket and, despite the rain, lay down on the breastwork for a nap.
He was dreaming of home when he suddenly jerked awake. He could hear the unmistakable sound of oars and sweeps. Ordering the men to their posts, Webster peered into the night, noticed an occasional dim light moving up the Ferry Branch about two hundred yards offshore. He quickly checked the priming and personally trained each of the guns, then gave the signal to open fire by shooting his pistol in the air. Just before 2 A.M. the battery thundered into action.
Five hundred yards upstream at Fort Covington, Lieutenant H. L. Newcomb also saw the lights and opened fire, some claimed even sooner than Webster. Then Captain Napier- realizing there was no longer any point in hiding- opened up, too. Fort McHenry joined in, and the British ships were firing their hardest. The fuses of their great two-hundred-pound bombshells traced fiery arcs across the sky, while flights of Congreve and signal rockets gave a weirdly festive look to this deadly serious night.
At Fort Babcock, Sailing Master Webster hammered away at the silhouettes of the British boats and felt sure he was getting some hits. But it was hard work manhandling these big eighteenpounders, and he dislocated his shoulder in the process. Needing more hands, he sent a young midshipman named Andrews to get back thirty men he had previously lent Lieutenant George Budd, a half mile to the rear.
Budd refused to release them. He needed every man, he explained, to cover Webster’s retreat when the British drove him from the shore. This gloomy appraisal was too much for young Andrews. Instead of reporting back to Webster, he galloped off to Baltimore, spreading the news that Fort Babcock was lost.
Baltimore was almost ready to believe him. Every building in town shook from the explosions. The rain-swept sky flickered and flared with the flash of bursting bombshells. To the spectators who crowded the city’s rooftops, it was hard to see how anyone could get through this “most awful spectacle.” And it might be only the start. For there was also the British army to consider, lurking, they believed, in the silent blackness beyond Hampstead Hill.
It was about 3 A.M. when the orders went out in the British camp to get everyone up. Lieutenant George Laval Chesterton, Royal Artillery, tried to uncurl from his square yard of floor in a crowded barn. His friend Captain Mitchell of the Marines had an easier time—he was quartered all alone in a pigsty.
Several hundred yards to the north, three other captains were called in from the best billet of all—Surrey, the fine country place of Colonel Joseph Sterett, currently with his regiment on Hampstead Hill. As they left one of them paused long enough to leave a waggish thank-you note on the dining-room sideboard : Captains Brown, Wilcox and McNamara of the 53rd Regiment, Royal Marines, have received everything they could desire at this house, notwithstanding it was received at the hands of the butler, and in the absence of the colonel.
Spirits were high as the men fell in. Off toward the harbor they could hear the guns of the naval bombardment; they could see the flashes and trails of fire. The fleet was doing its part; soon it would be their turn. They were greatly outnumbered - one look at the American campfires on Hampstead Hill told them that—but they had handled militia before; they would do it again tonight.