- 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
Shortly after three the columns began moving—but not toward Hampstead Hill. To the general (but perhaps not universal) dismay of the troops, they were heading in the opposite direction. Away from the hill, away from Baltimore, away from the sound of the fight. As decided at the midnight council of war, Colonel Brooke was returning to North Point and the ships. The British forces were retreating, as one officer put it bitterly, “before a parcel of fellows who had scarcely even seen a gun fired in their lives … a parcel of tailors and shoemakers.”
In the Ferry Branch, Captain Napier was beginning to wonder. Admiral Cochrane’s orders said to keep firing until he saw the army was “seriously engaged,” then return to the Surprize . But it was now after 3 A.M. and still no gun flashes—no rumble of cannon—from the hills to the east.
Something must have gone wrong. In any case, he had done his part : surely by now he had diverted all the Americans who could be diverted. So far he had miraculously escaped getting hit, but to stay any longer was courting disaster for no conceivable purpose. Signal lights flickered; Napier’s boats swung around and began the long row home.
Passing Fort McHenry, they again hugged the far shore and almost slipped by unnoticed. But one of the officers chose this moment to fire a signal rocket to let the fleet know they were returning. The fort instantly responded with a hail of balls and grapeshot. Later, the British claimed only one boat was “slightly struck” and one man mortally wounded; the Americans, however, found the remains of at least two boats and the bodies of three seamen.
At 4 A.M. the boats were again alongside the Surprise , and the bombardment came to an end. Two or three of the vessels continued to take an occasional shot, but to all intents the fireworks were over, and the whole blazing, tumultuous night gave way to predawn quiet.
Francis Scott Key wondered what this sudden quiet meant as he stood with John S. Skinner and old Dr. Beanes on the deck of their flag-of-truce sloop. They were anchored with the transports some eight miles down the Patapsco—well out of the fight, yet near enough to follow most of the action. All day they had watched Fort McHenry’s flag with a glass and knew it was still holding out. During the night the bombs and rockets were proof in themselves that Armistead had not surrendered. But this eerie, unexpected silence, broken only by an occasional distant gun, gave no hint to the fate of the fort—or the city itself.
Key found himself torn with anxiety. It was the climax of the whole soul-searing experience he had been going through these past days. He loathed “this abominable war,” yet here he was in the middle of it. He saw himself as a gentleman who could be quite at ease with the polished English officers, but he found them to be, with few exceptions, “illiberal, ignorant and vulgar … filled with a spirit of malignity against everything American.” He detested the saber-rattling rowdiness of Baltimore- sometimes felt the place deserved any punishment it got—but now it was fighting for its life, and he knew where his heart really lay. He was first and last an American, and in these hours of suspense he fervently—desperately—prayed that the flag was still there.
The three Americans paced the deck, scarcely daring to think what daylight might bring. Again and again they pulled out their watches, trying to gauge when the dawn would come. Five o’clock, and the first light of day at last tinged the sky. Out came the spyglass, but it was still too dark to make anything out. At 5:50 it was officially sunrise, but there was no sun today. The rain clouds hung low, and patches of mist swirled across the water, still keeping the night’s secret intact.
But it was growing brighter all the time, and soon an easterly breeze sprang up, flecking the Patapsco and clearing the air. Once again Key raised his glass—and this time he saw it. Standing out against the dull gray of the clouds and hills was Major Armistead’s American flag.•
•Skeptics have wondered how much Key could really see from his position eight miles down the Patapsco. From comments in the logs of nearby British ships, it seems clear that with the help of a spyglass he could easily watch the fort under fire.
Oddly enough, three years of research have unearthed only one firsthand account that refers to the flag without apparent knowledge of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It is the article by “R. J. B.” (Midshipman Robert J. Barrett) of the British frigate Hebrus , appearing in the United Service Journal , April, 1841. Describing the squadron’s withdrawal from Fort McHenry, Barrett recalled, “As the last vessel spread her canvas to the wind, the Americans hoisted a most superb and splendid ensign on their battery. …”
This raises an intriguing possibility. At the time Major Armistead bought the big flag from Mary Pickersgill, he also bought a smaller “storm flag,” measuring seventeen by twenty-five feet, for $168.54. During the windy, rain-swept night of the bombardment, could he have substituted this storm flag and then, in the early morning, again hoisted his big flag in triumph as the British retired? Was it the storm flag, and not its famous counterpart, that Key actually saw?