- 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
Capping the joy of the three Americans, at 7 A.M. the Surprise signalled the bombarding squadron to retire down the river, at eight the Erebus and the five bombs were under way, and at nine the supporting frigates followed. The attack on Fort McHenry was over.
The turbulent, fervent thoughts racing through Francis Scott Key’s mind began to take poetic shape. Using the back of a letter that happened to be in his pocket, he began to jot down lines and phrases and likely couplets …
Even on the fifteenth, when the enemy army was clearly re-embarking, Sam Smith remained cautious. He felt the move might be just preliminary to hitting Baltimore from another angle. That evening General Douglass’ brigade prepared to thwart an assault on the south side of the city, and Sam Smith warned Fort McHenry that he believed “an attack would be made in the course of the night on this post and on the city by way of the Ferry Branch.” It was a bad moment for Fort McHenry to face such a prospect. Exhausted by five days of superhuman effort, Major Armistead was delirious with fever, and his subordinates were fighting over seniority. A new British attack would catch the place torn with dissension. Sam Smith hurriedly put Commodore Rodgers in charge. A little unorthodox, perhaps, to have a naval officer run an army fort, but as with most of Sam Smith’s solutions, it worked.
On September 16 Cochrane’s ships still hovered off North Point, but they were anchored out in the Bay now. Slowly, imperceptibly, it finally dawned on Baltimore’s defenders that they had actually accomplished what they scarcely dared hope —they had turned back the British. At Fort McHenry the men found it hard to believe that only three days ago they were crouching behind the ramparts, praying for their lives and relying on such a dubious talisman as a rooster crowing on the rampart. But one man remembered and bought the rooster the pound cake he had promised.
On Hampstead Hill the troops were released from the earthworks and marched back to their regular quarters. Free from tension at last, the men exploded with a ribald joy that appalled Private John A. Dagg, a sometime clergyman from Virginia: “During the last few days every one had spoken softly and seriously, and no oaths had been heard, but this night our barracks were in an uproar with noise and profanity, giving painful proof of human depravity.”
The noise and foolishness soon gave way to a deeper, quieter gratitude. For Baltimore it had been a very near thing, and everyone sensed it. Gifts poured in for the comfort of the wounded —not just money and medical supplies, but small things, too, from people who had little else to give except their thanks: two large pots of preserves from Mrs. Samuel Harris, one jar of crab apples from Mrs. William Lorman.
For the heroes there were dress swords and testimonial dinners, and for a convalescent Major Armistead a fine silver punch bowl of the exact dimensions of a thirteen-inch British bombshell. But he won far more than that. His wife Louisa presented him with a baby girl. Professionally, Madison sent him a spot promotion, and even better, he had that dream of every soldier—a little military fame. “So you see, my dear wife,” he wrote Mrs. Armistead, “All is well, at least your husband has got a name and standing that nothing but divine providence could have given him, and I pray to my Heavenly Father that we may long live to enjoy.”
Baltimore was already celebrating when a small sloop arrived on the evening of September 16, inched past the blockships, and docked at Hughes’s Wharf bet ween eight and nine o’clock. Released at last by Admiral Cochrane, the flag-of-truce packet was back with John S. Skinner, Francis Scott Key, and their elderly charge, Dr. Beanes.
Bystanders eagerly pumped them for news. What would the British do next? Well, said Key, the officers spoke of going to Poplar Island for repairs, then Halifax. Was Ross really killed? Yes, said John Skinner, no doubt about it. But the main focus of attention was Skinner’s list of ninety-one prisoners held by the British fleet. All Baltimore was desperate for news of missing friends and relatives; now a great surge of relief swept the city.
Breaking away, the three new arrivals retired to the Indian Queen Hotel but Francis Scott Key could not sleep. Vivid thoughts of the scenes he had witnessed raced through his mind. He had tried to express his feelings—the thrill of seeing the flag at dawn—in a few lines scribbled down right after the attack. Later he had added more during the long wait and sail back to Baltimore. Now these lines had jelled into a song, and he simply had to get it down on paper.
From the start, he almost certainly thought of it as being sung to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a familiar drinking song of the period. The same melody had already been borrowed in 1798 by Robert Treat Paine for a patriotic air called “Adams and Liberty,” and Key himself had used it for an amateurish effort he composed in 1805 honoring the heroes of Tripoli.
Now it would do again, and he even went back, perhaps unconsciously, to some of the rhymes and images he had used nine years before. Taking a sheet of paper, he wrote it all out from beginning to end. Oddly enough, he gave it no title.