- 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
Next morning he showed it to John S. Skinner and also to his wife’s brother-in-law, Judge Nicholson, free at last from the ordeal of Fort McHenry. One of them took or sent it to the offices of the Baltimore American and Commercial Daily Advertiser to be struck off as a handbill. Probably set by Samuel Sands, a fourteen-year-old printer’s devil, copies were soon circulating throughout the city. A brief introduction explained how it came to be written, and a guideline gave the tune as ” Anacreon in Heaven.” But it mentioned no author and carried no title except the modest heading “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Weeks would pass before it became known as “The StarSpangled Banner.”
The song caught Baltimore’s fancy right away. Key’s words somehow conveyed perfectly the strange combination of fear, defiance, suspense, relief, and sheer ecstasy that went into that desperate night. The Fort McHenry garrison adopted it every man received a copy—and the tavern crowds took it up. Resuming publication after a ten-day lapse, the Baltimore Patriot and Evening Advertiser ran it in full on September 20, proclaiming that it was “destined long to outlast the occasion and outlive the impulse which produced it.”
It quickly spread to other cities, too, as the whole nation rejoiced in the news from Baltimore. Within a month, papers in towns as far away as Savannah, Georgia, and Concord, New Hampshire, were running Key’s stirring lyrics. Everywhere they struck the right chord—the rare sense of exultation people felt about this totally unexpected victory.
For unexpected it was. As late as 7:15 A.M. on September 14 (fifteen minutes after Cochrane began his retreat), the vedettes at Elkton, Maryland, were warning the cities to the north that “the general opinion here is that Baltimore must fall.” In Philadelphia crowds filled the streets all day, despite the rain, waiting for news that never came. Communications were out; the stage not running; the outlook bleak. Coming so soon after Washington, the situation had all the earmarks of another disaster.
And now the impossible had happened. Joy and relief swept the country: at Norfolk the Constellation fired rousing salutes; at Salem, Massachusetts, the town cannon boomed out in celebration. “Never have we witnessed greater elevation of public spirits,” exclaimed the Salem Register . The triumph at Baltimore had erased all past impressions of the enemy’s irresistible strength. “Ten thousand victories cannot give them their former hopes, and the spell is lost forever.”
News of the British repulse at Baltimore caused a profound shock in London. Followed almost immediately by word of a disastrous defeat on Lake Champlam and the retreat of Sir George Prévost ‘s invasion force from Plattsburg, New York, it forced British leaders to begin a sober reassessment of the war.
Gone were the harsh terms previously demanded by the British peace negotiators dickering with an American delegation at Ghent in Belgium. Faced with a seemingly endless war while unrest mounted at home and in Europe, Downing Street steadily relaxed its demands. Since the American negotiators had also retreated from their main demand, an end to impressment, soon there was little left to argue about. On Christmas Eve the treaty was finally signed, calling for a virtual return to the status quo before the war. The document was immediately ratified in London and forwarded to Washington for similar action there.
Across the Atlantic no one knew of these events as Admiral Cochrane went ahead with his plans for New Orleans. Reinforced by new regiments from England, the expedition reached the Gulf Coast by midDecember, and on the twenty-third it arrived on the banks of the Mississippi, less than eight miles below the city. The Americans under Major General Andrew Jackson were initially taken by surprise but reacted violently and blunted the British thrust.
Twice in the next nine days the British tried and failed to break Jackson ‘s line; then a pause while they prepared a final all-out blow. Morale was helped by the arrival of a new military commander, Sir Edward Pakenham, sent out from England to replace the muchmourned General Ross. On January 8, 1815, all was set, and m the first light of day the British columns swept forward against the American defenses.
Andrew Jackson was ready. He had not been idle during the two weeks of preparation, and now a wall of earth, bristling with men and guns, barred the approach to New Orleans. The American line erupted in fire, shattering the advancing columns. Pakenham was killed; his second m command killed; a third general desperately wounded. By the time the attack was called off, the British had lost over two thousand men. In contrast, Jackson had only thirteen killed and thirty-nine wounded.
News of New Orleans reached Washington on February 4, and capping everyone’s joy, on the fourteenth the peace treaty arrived from London. Madison lost no time in ratifying it, and on February 17, 1815, the United States and Great Britain were again at peace.