August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
The year was 1814, and within three weeks our “young and not always wise” nation suffered acute shame and astonishing victory
Caught in the crossfire of the Napoleonic conflict, America declared war on Great Britain in 1812 for what seemed to the government to be ample reason. The young Republic’s trade had been stifled, her seamen impressed, her ships seized by the Royal Navy. Western settlers feared British intrigue among the Indians. Canada, in contrast, loomed as an ever more inviting target for land-hungry “war hawks. ”
For two years the war sputtered along, mostly on the Canadian front, usually a bloody stalemate. Then, in the spring of 1814, came a dramatic development. Napoleon collapsed, freeing thousands of “Wellington’s Invincibles” for service elsewhere and allowing London for the first time to turn its full attention on the brash upstart across the Atlantic.
Good Britons relished the prospect. They felt they had been fighting for freedom—everybody’s freedom—only to be knifed in the back by their own ungrateful progeny. Now it was time to “chastise Jonathan. ”
Heavy reinforcements were soon on their way to Canada. At the same time, a separate expedition headed across the Atlantic to strike directly at America’s eastern seaboard. This consisted of some four thousand crack Peninsular veterans led by Major General Robert Ross and under the overall command of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, Commander in Chief of the North American Station. Cochrane planned to use the force, together with his Royal Marines and ships, first in operations along the Atlantic coast, later m an attack on New Orleans. Strategic considerations came first, of course, but prize money was never very far from the Admiral’s mind.
On August 16 the expedition swept through the Virginia Capes, up the Chesapeake Bay, and joined the squadron of Rear Admiral George Cockburn, a jaunty sea dog who knew the area well. Cockburn urged that they land at Benedict, a small Maryland town on the Patuxent River, attack Commodore Joshua Barney’s gunboat flotilla, which had been trapped forty miles upstream, and then, if all went well, strike a blow at Washington itself. At the same time Captain James Gordon would lead a small squadron up the Potomac to divert the Americans and cover the main force if anything went wrong.
Cochrane agreed, and on August ig the troops began landing at Benedict. On the twentieth they headed up the river, accompanied by the boats of the fleet. On the twenty-second they forced Barney to scuttle his flotilla. On the twenty-third they swung west for Bladensburg, just northeast of the District of Columbia line.
Meanwhile, the little new city of Washington desperately tried to organize some sort of resistance. There had been warnings all summer; a special military district had been set up under Brigadier General William H. Winder; and thousands of troops had been earmarked for the defense of the capital—but all this was misleading. Actually the troops were mostly raw militia, the requisitions largely just paper, the Secretary of War, John Armstrong, unbelievably complacent, and General Winder a hopeless incompetent. The sixty-three-year-old President, James Madison, had a brilliant mind but was far from a gifted war leader, and sometimes it seemed that the only person with real spirit was his indomitable wife Dolley.
No real resistance had yet developed when Washington learned on the morning of August 24 that the British were approaching Bladensburg, virtually at the gates of the city. The President, the Cabinet, General Winder, the District militia, Barney ‘s stranded flotilla men—some three thousand men altogether—raced to the little town. Here they joined another three thousand Maryland militia already on the scene. The combined force was still being deployed when the British appeared.
It was all over in a couple of hours. Sweeping forward, General Ross’s little army scattered one militia detachment after another. Only Barney’s men put up a good resistance, but in the end they, too, were overwhelmed, with the Commodore wounded and a prisoner. Washington lay open for the taking. … —W.L.
From a third-floor window in his handsome house on Capitol Hill, Dr. James Ewell studied the horizon, searching for some clue to the course of battle at Bladensburg. Occasionally he could see a puff of smoke, or hear the distant rumble of guns, but that was all. It was impossible to guess what was going on.
Gradually the smoke and rumble died away, and for a while there was just silence. Then for the first time the doctor noticed a cloud of dust over the outskirts of the city—a cloud that grew steadily thicker and nearer. Soon soldiers began running by at first in twos and threes, then in swarms. At one point Ewell caught a glimpse of Secretary of War John Armstrong himself, almost lost in the mob. A horseman rode by, shouting warnings of rape. The doctor’s daughters began screaming, and Mrs. Ewell sobbed over and over, “What shall we do? What shall we do?”
On the other side of the city Superintendent of Patents William Thornton and his wife also scanned the horizon from their house on F Street. They knew the troops were engaged, but they lived farther away than the Ewells and could hear nothing. At last they saw a man riding hard up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the President’s House-clearly a messenger bringing news of some sort.
At the President’s House a servant boy named Paul Jennings was busy getting dinner ready. Madison had indicated that most of the Cabinet and a few “military gentlemen” would be coming, so Jennings carefully set the table, brought up the ale, wine, and cider, and placed the bottles in coolers. He was just about finished when, around three o’clock, Madison’s freedman servant Jim Smith galloped up to the house, waving his hat and shouting, “Clear out, clear out! General Armstrong has ordered a retreat!”
Mrs. Madison had been waiting all day for some word from her husband. Twice, Washington’s Mayor James Blake turned up, urging her to leave, but she hung on, hoping for the best, spending much of her time at an upper window turning a spyglass in every direction. She saw little then, but Jim Smith’s spectacular arrival made everything all too clear. As if his excited cries weren’t enough, he brought a hastily pencilled note from Madison. It said the battle was lost … fly at once.
But above all, Dolley Madison was a woman of composure, and she wasn’t about to leave without attending to a few important details first. By now her sister and brother-in-law, ,Mr. and Mrs. Richard Cults, were on hand—also the New York banker Jacob Barker, Presidential aide Charles Carroll of Bellevue, and one or two other gallants—and she turned to them for help. Together they all went to work, trying to save what they could on the spur of the moment.
Somebody found a wagon, and they quickly loaded it with most of the silver, some papers, a few books, a small clock, the red velvet curtains from the drawing room. In minutes the load was on its way to the Bank of Maryland, safely beyond the city.
What took time was the full-length portrait of Washington, which was hanging on the west wall of the dining room. Attributed to Gilbert Stuart, it was the showpiece of the mansion. All agreed that it would be a crowning disgrace if it fell into British hands. Only the previous day the President had assured George Washington Custis that the painting would be taken care of in any emergency. Now the President’s wife considered it her special responsibility.
But nobody could get it down. The Madisons’ versatile French doorkeeper Jean Pierre Sioussa and the gardener Tom Magraw tugged and twisted, but it was screwed too tightly to the wall. Charles Carroll and Jacob Barker tried their hand but had no better luck.
Minutes ticked by, and Carroll grew impatient. Forget the picture, he scolded Mrs. Madison, she must leave right away. Otherwise she was bound to be trapped among the retreating troops already pouring by the house.
She wasn’t ready to give up yet. Magraw worked on, teetering at the top of a ladder, while Sioussa rushed off to get an axe. Finally they chopped the frame apart, took out the canvas, still on its stretcher, and laid it on the dining-room floor. By now Carroll was gone—off to rejoin the President—so Mrs. Madison turned to Barker and Robert G. L. de Peyster, another New Yorker standing by.
“Save that picture,” she said. “Save that picture if possible. If not possible, destroy it. Under no circumstances allow it to fall into the hands of the British.” At the same time she begged them to rescue the ornamental eagles in the drawing room and four remaining boxes of the President’s papers.
Now, at last, she felt free to go. Stuffing a few more pieces of silverware into her netted reticule, she hurried out the door and into a waiting carriage. Her personal maid Sukey jumped in beside her, and with coachman Joe Bolin at the reins, they rolled onto Pennsylvania Avenue and headed out of the city. About the same time, another carriage left with the Cuttses, and the President’s coachee brought up the rear. Madison always considered this a most unsatisfactory vehicle, but his butler John Freeman was only too glad to have it now. Piling in his family, he drove off with a feather bed lashed to the rear.
COPY RIGHT ©1972 BY WALTER LORD
While Dolley Madison galloped westward for safety, the President was caught in the maelstrom of defeat swirling back from Bladensburg. High and low—the statesmen, the generals, the soldiers and sailors, the “private gentlemen”— they all reeled back together. General William Henry Winder, military commander of the district, worked frantically to collect enough of his demoralized army to defend Washington. Finding no organized force waiting, or even in evidence, at the edge of the city, he gave the order to retreat again.
It was the third call for retreat in an hour, and the men were more discouraged than ever as they streamed down Maryland Avenue and spread out on the rough stubble of the Capitol grounds.
Secretary of State James Monroe and Secretary Armstrong, arriving separately, joined Winder; and while everyone watched and waited the three huddled over what to do next. Armstrong favored the idea of turning the Capitol into a citadel and holding out indefinitely. He liked those strong limestone walls; he didn’t mind the big windows or the fact that the place was really two separate buildings. At this stage in its construction, only the House and Senate wings were finished, connected by a vulnerable wooden passageway. To him it was safe enough, and he pointed out that the British didn’t have the artillery to conduct a serious siege.
Winder would have none of it. He had too small a force. The men were too exhausted. The Capitol was too isolated. He could be starved out in twenty-four hours. Even if he managed to hold the place, the British would be free to roam at will through the rest of Washington. His only hope was to retreat again, this time to the heights behind Georgetown. Here at last he’d be safe. Probably some of the Maryland militia routed at Bladensburg would come there, too, and he would have a real chance to collect and reorganize the shattered army.
Monroe backed him up. In fact, he added a point. During the retreat from Bladensburg the Secretary of State thought he had detected a powerful British column moving to the west. He feared that if the Americans delayed at the Capitol any longer, they might be driven into a cul-de-sac between the Eastern Branch and the Potomac.
Outvoted and half-convinced, Armstrong concurred.
So it was retreat again. And now the last semblance of discipline vanished. Many of the men had stood by this long only because they were from the District. Their sole purpose had been to save their homes and families. Falling back to Georgetown was no way to do that. A few raged —even wept—but most simply scattered to look after their own interests.
The rest streamed up Pennsylvania Avenue in no order whatsoever. Francis Scott Key, a Washington lawyer serving as a military aide, rode by—his horse steaming, his uniform soaked with sweat. Secretary Armstrong tried to dodge an angry citizen named Thomas Ewell, who rushed up shouting that Armstrong was to blame for everything. At Hughes’s grocery near Seventh Street the crowd swarmed around the pump. Some were content with the water; others preferred a barrel of whiskey thoughtfully provided by John P. Van Ness, formerly the commander of the District’s militia.
Suddenly a voice cried, “There goes the President!” It was true. Back from the shambles of Bladensburg, James Madison had transferred to a carriage and was now rolling through the crowd on Pennsylvania Avenue. Ultimately, he arrived at the President’s House around 4:30—about half an hour after his wife had left—accompanied by several aides who had been with him most of the day. Entering, they found Jacob Barker and Robert de Peyster collecting a few final valuables, and for more than an hour the group sat around exchanging experiences. It was an odd interlude, with the British just over the horizon and the city clearly doomed, and can best be explained by the sixty-three-year-old President’s desperate need for rest after his grim, long day in the saddle.
The conversation was appropriately serious. Madison was especially awed by the superb discipline of the British army. Like most Jeffersonians, he had relished the theory that the free democratic yeoman fighting for his home was always a match for the mere paid hireling of a foreign foe. Now he knew better. “I could never have believed,” he told Barker, “that so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force, if I had not witnessed the scenes of this day.”
In contrast with this quiet post-mortem, the scene outside was increasingly raucous. The collapse of all discipline, the knowledge that the city was lost, and perhaps a little of John P. Van Ness’s whiskey did their work. The fleeing soldiers and civilians began rummaging through the government offices, taking what they wanted. At the President’s House the guards stationed at the door had long since run off, and stragglers roamed at will through the mansion. Someone even stole a pair of pistols that the weary President had taken from their holsters and left on a front-hall table.
Clearly it was time to go. The plan had been for the Madisons to join forces with Secretary of the Navy William Jones and his family at Bellevue, the Carroll house, but now that was out. It would be simpler and safer to meet at Foxhall’s foundry by the river, and an aide was sent ahead to alert everyone. But no sooner had he gone than this plan was changed, too; probably it was felt that the sooner the President got across the river, the safer he would be. Finally, Madison and his party rode across the meadow behind the President’s House and down to the river. Here, at Mason’s Ferry, they took a boat over to Analostan Island and then went by the causeway to the Virginia shore.
Barker and de Peyster remained at the mansion, continuing their last-minute effort to save a few more things. At one point a group of exhausted soldiers stopped by, and they took time out to break open some of the President’s brandy. The big portrait of George Washington still lay attached to its stretcher on the dining-room floor.
The time had now come to do something about it. Dolley Madison had said not to roll it up, and they would follow her instructions. Recruiting two blacks, the four of them carefully lifted the whole framework, carried it through the front door, and loaded it on a cart that had miraculously been found. Tossing in some large silver urns and a few other odds and ends, they set off up Pennsylvania Avenue in the midst of the fleeing crowd.
In the President’s House Sioussa went about the last duties of a good doorkeeper. He carefully hid some gold and silver Algerian pistols that looked as though they might make good loot. Next, he put out buckets of water and some bottles of wine for any more thirsty soldiers who might happen by. Then he picked up the mansion’s pet macaw—a great favorite of Dolley Madison’s—and took it a few blocks to Colonel John Tayloe’s Octagon House.
Now back to the President’s House for a final look around. Everything seemed in order, so he carefully closed all the windows and doors. Then he departed for the last time, leaving the front-door key at the house of the Russian Minister, Daschkoff, who had wisely gone to Philadelphia.
Some two hundred fifty to three hundred of Joshua Barney’s men were still at the Capitol, without orders. Winder never considered them part of his own command, as they were really naval personnel; and with the Commodore wounded and a prisoner, there was really nobody to tell them what to do. While the men lay exhausted in the square Captain Bacon of the Marines and Captain Gohegan of the flotilla wrangled over who had command.
Captain Thomas Tingey at the Navy Yard was another officer whom Winder left in the dark. Here it was not a question of command—Tingey clearly came under naval authority; but close coordination was all-important so that he would know if and when to carry out his careful plans for demolishing the installation. The General never sent a word.
Secretary Armstrong learned of the lapse just before setting out himself for Frederick, Maryland, where the government was supposed to reconvene once the British had taken the city. There wasn’t time to do much, but he did send Major John Bell to Tingey with a verbal message that was crystal clear in its brevity: “The Navy Yard cannot be covered.”
This announcement was punctuated a few moments later by a loud explosion. Captain John O. Creighton had blown up the main bridge over the Eastern Branch. Then a great cloud of smoke rose as the wreckage began burning.
Tingey quickly warned the families still living in the neighborhood that the Navy Yard would go next, the fires might spread, better save what they could.
Quiet slowly settled over the city. Here and there a few people still scurried about on last-minute missions. The mood was sombre at Francis Scott Key’s house on Bridge Street in Georgetown. Key had arrived home exhausted and was now begging his wife and children to leave. He himself felt duty bound to stay, but it was no place for them. Polly Key would have none of it. The most Key could do was pack their things. Then he bolted all the windows and the family sat in the stifling heat, half expecting the British to come any minute.
Where were they anyhow? At the time the battle ended, there wasn’t a fleeing American who didn’t feel that some redcoat was personally following him. Yet four hours had passed, and not an enemy soldier in sight. In the silence of the August twilight the jitters steadily grew. Mrs. William Thornton, riding north out of Georgetown, was warned to turn back—the British were purposely herding the American Army that way and planned to fall on them. A delegation of leading Georgetown citizens headed out to obtain the best terms possible but could find no one to surrender to.
Another rumor had the British approaching by the race track, out Fourteenth Street, but there was no one there either. According to a third story, they were down by the Marine barracks on the other side of town—“the whistling of the balls had been distinctly heard”—but again, there was nothing to it. Late in the afternoon still another account put them at the Capitol, in full force. A young officer arrived at the Navy Yard saying it was true. If so, this was getting dangerously close, and Captain Tingey made ready to light his fuses.
His chief clerk, Mordecai Booth, exploded in indignation, using language quite out of character for this faithful but docile underling. He had just been to the Capitol on a reconnaissance of his own, and he knew the British weren’t there. It would be a crime to destroy the Yard on such false information. In fact he felt it would be a crime to destroy it anyhow; it could so easily be defended by recruiting some of Barney’s now leaderless men and using the numerous guns on hand.
Booth offered to ride out and find where the British really were if only Tingey would hold off his demolitions a little longer. Very well, said the captain, adding that the intelligence had better be good, his whole career was resting on it.
Booth quickly rode to the turnpike gate and studied the rolling country in the direction of Bladensburg. Nothing in sight. Then a lone horseman suddenly came in view, racing down the turnpike toward him. It was a Georgetown butcher named Thomas Miller. He had been looking for the British, too, had found exactly where they were, and would be happy to show them to Booth. The two rode to the top of a nearby hill, and Miller pointed out a long column of troops slowly advancing toward them. They wore the dark blue of British seamen, but Booth knew nothing about that. Like most Americans, he assumed every hostile Englishman was invariably dressed in red, and he now argued that these must be a Georgetown rifle company still in the field. A shot whizzed by his ears, ending the discussion.
Galloping back to the Navy Yard, he informed Captain Tingey. Momentarily, at least, the news took a little pressure off the captain: the British were not as close as he had feared. Perhaps he could still save the Yard if only he knew where the American troops were. Except for Armstrong’s terse warning, nobody had told him anything.
Once again Booth rode out, this time to the President’s House. He supposed that Madison was still there, and if anybody knew where the Army was, it ought to be the nation’s Commander in Chief. Arriving at the mansion, he found only an agitated cavalry colonel standing by the steps. In the gathering dark the officer assumed Booth was the advance guard of the enemy and pulled his pistol. It was all Booth could do to persuade him they were both on the same side.
To Booth, that dark empty house, standing alone in the dusk, said far more than a bundle of intelligence reports. For the first time he fully realized that the capital of his country had been completely abandoned.
By the time he reached Capitol Hill again, several stray horsemen had joined up. These included a trooper named Walter Cox and Navy Captain John O. Creighton, who had also been sent out by Tingey to gather information. It was now quite dark, and as the party approached Long’s Hotel on A Street, N.E., Cox leaned far forward in his saddle. He was clearly trying to make something out. Only cows, Booth remarked. Yes, Cox replied, he saw the cows, but he also saw men … right there, rising out of that hollow.
They were there all right. Within forty yards. The little group wheeled and scattered wildly for safety. Booth and Creighton dashed for the Navy Yard to warn Captain Tingey.
Lieutenant James Scott decided that all resistance was over as he rode through the gathering darkness with the British advance guard, led by Major General Robert Ross himself. Leaving Bladensburg at twilight after a three-hour rest, they found the Americans had disappeared completely.
And now Washington lay at their feet, the climax of the week’s campaign. It was a soldier’s dream of triumph—the capture of the enemy capital—yet there was no trace of martial glory: no bands, no banners, no grand entrance, no conquered boulevards lined with a sullen, beaten populace. The city lay dark and empty, its sprinkling of houses and buildings looking (in the words of a contemporary visitor) “as if some giant had scattered a box of child’s toys upon the ground.”
Only the 3rd Brigade was making the march. Consisting of the seamen, marines, and most of the 2ist Foot—some 1,460 men altogether—they had seen little action and were fresh and rested. The other brigades would follow along later, after reorganization. Entering the city, most of the troops halted just inside the turnpike gate, while Ross, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, and a small advance guard continued forward. Moving down Maryland Avenue, they headed directly for the Capitol.
At some point the two commanders had decided to lay the city under contribution as the price of sparing it, and now a drum rolled loud and long, sounding the call for a parley. If any American heard, he either didn’t understand this military refinement or chose to ignore it, for there was no answer whatsoever.
The little British party rode on, halting at a point perhaps two hundred yards short of the Capitol. Directly to their right stood the large brick house owned by Robert Sewall. Other buildings loomed in the darkness. Not a light or a sound came from any of them.
The Admiral and the General conferred, wondering what to do next. A few more seconds, then a volley of musket fire shattered the night. Four men were hit—one killed—and Ross’s horse was shot from under him. It was hard to see where the firing came from but certainly from Robert Sewall’s house and possibly other buildings, too.
Splinters flew as Lieutenant Scott led the party that broke through Sewall’s front door. But it took several minutes, and by the time the men got in, the house was completely empty. No one ever knew who fired the shots. Later, most accounts attributed it to a few diehards led by a local barber named Dixon, but it seems more likely that some of Barney’s flotilla men were responsible. They never considered themselves bound by Winder’s orders to retreat, and many of them were on the Capitol grounds long after the army had gone.
Whoever they were, British reaction was swift. Cockburn raced back to the turnpike gate to get the light companies of the 2ist Foot, and Michael Shiner—a local black, hence according to British policy left alone watched with fascination as the troops fired their Congreve rockets into the house. Beams and rafters went flying in all directions.
But no one looked at the blaze for long. Already the glare of a far bigger fire was creeping across the sky to the south. Soon billows of flame and smoke were gushing upward. Deep explosions shook the ground, and embers shot like comets through the blackness of the night.
Captain Tingey was burning his Navy Yard. For the colorful, headstrong commandant, it was a bitter moment indeed. Head of the yard since its founding in 1800, he had made it the finest in the country. By now he regarded it as practically his own- so much so that he had even included the Commandant’s House in his will.
Yet orders were orders, and it had to go. Alerted by Mordecai Booth and Captain Creighton that the enemy were deep in the city, he finally gave the signal at 8:20 P.M. The matches were struck and the powder trains lit, leading to the storehouses and the sail loft. Kindled by the carpet of chips and pitch that covered the ground, the flames raced along, leaping from building to building—the sawmill, the rigging loft, the paint shops, the timber shed. Along with the rest went the new frigate Columbia , almost ready for launching, and the sloop of war Argus , completely finished.
Grimly satisfied that his duty was done, Captain Tingey stepped into his gig and rowed for Alexandria.
The brilliant glare from the Navy Yard made the job easier for General Ross’s men on Capitol Hill. As one group burned Sewall’s house others turned their attention to the rest of the nearby buildings. A stern-looking officer rode up to Andrew Hunter’s door and began interrogating Mrs. Hunter. Where was her husband? Not at home. When did he leave? In the morning. Why? To take the children from this “horrid scene.” When would he be back? She didn’t know. Desperately, she invited him to go to the sideboard and help himself, then gingerly asked a question of her own: Did the British plan to burn the city generally, or only the public buildings? The ofliccr said that all depended: where no resistance was made, private property would be safe, especially if everyone remained at home. But wherever there was resistance, or arms found, that place would be burned.
Outside, that policy was once again being demonstrated. Searching Tomlinson’s Hotel, across from the Senate wing of the Capitol, Ross’s men found guns and ammunition. It was instantly set on fire.
Now for the Capitol itself. The 3rd Brigade was quickly deployed in the square facing the building. A sharp command, and they fired a volley into the windows of the eastern façade. The practical purpose was, of course, to discourage any further sharpshooting, but it all seemed symbolic as well. It served as a formal announcement that this citadel of republicanism was being officially possessed in the name of His Majesty the King.
Stepping forward, Lieutenant de Lacy Evans led a party that quickly broke down the doors, and for the next hour the troops turned sightseers, roaming through the empty halls and chambers. Admiral Cockburn took a small bound copy of a Treasury report, which he kept as a souvenir. Someone with more extravagant tastes cut out the portraits of Louis xvi and Marie Antoinette hanging in the room adjoining the Senate chamber.
Lieutenant Scott took nothing, but he, too, was among the sightseers, staring with awe at Benjamin Latrobe’s handsome Corinthian columns in the Hall of Representatives. It all seemed so much more grandiose than the cramped quarters of the House of Commons back home. He rather suspected that this nation which boasted so loudly of its republican simplicity was actually “somewhat infected with an unseemly bias for monarchial splendour.”
The prospect of destroying this ambitious building raised no qualms—the British leaders in America were committed to the destruction or ransom of public property -but it did raise a question of method. The Capitol was so well built it seemed to defy burning. At first Ross and Cockburn were inclined to blow the place up, but word spread to the few remaining citizens in the neighborhood. They bitterly protested that the explosion would wreck their homes, too, and they had done nothing to oppose the British. The General relented; he would rely on the torch.
Naval Lieutenant George Pratt was put in charge. He was considered an expert at this sort of business, but at first things went rather slowly. In the House wing, three-man teams tackled each room on the lower floor. The first chopped the woodwork into kindling; the second sprinkled a bucket of rocket powder about; and the third applied the torch. This started a number of local fires, but nothing spectacular.
Upstairs, Pratt was having little better luck with the House chamber. At first his men fired rockets into the roof, but nothing happened. It turned out to be covered with sheet iron. Finally they piled the mahogany chairs, desks, and tables high in the center of the room, added some of the rocket powder, and fired more rockets directly into the pile. Similar measures were taken with the Senate wing, and Lieutenant Pratt’s efforts were at last rewarded.
Within minutes both wings were ablaze. The limestone outerwalls might only crumble and crack, but there was more than enough to burn inside: the red morocco chairs of the Senate, the secret journals of the House -so carefully locked in a special drawer —the law library of Elias Bardinot Caldwell, clerk of the Supreme Court, the baize curtains of the House, the 740 books purchased in Europe in 1802 as a nucleus for the Library of Congress, the handsome gilt eagle surmounting the clock above the Speaker’s chair, and the clock itself, whose hands pointed to 10 P.M. as the fire began.
Flames surged through the doors and windows, up through the roof, and fanned out into the night. The Navy Yard might make a better pyrotechnic display, but this was far more disastrous. The southwesterly breeze caught the sparks and carried them toward the streets to the north and east. Four more buildings were soon blazing, among them two houses built by George Washington on North Capitol Street.
To the British ist and 2nd brigades, now approaching the city, the glare from the fires was so bright the men could easily recognize each other’s faces. “Except for the burning of San Sebastian,” Lieutenant George Robert Gleig later wrote, “I do not recollect to have witnessed, at any period of my life, a scene more striking or more sublime.”
Dr. James Ewell, who had taken his family to the house of a Mrs. Orr, several blocks from his own house, heard a noise like thunder as the fire burst through the roof of the Capitol, then was even more startled by a tremendous pounding on the Orr front door. Five or six British soldiers tramped in, but to Mrs. Ewell’s relief it was not rape they were after—only a little food. Their hosts instantly produced a cold ham, bread and butter, wine anything that might keep them satisfied.
Then a new cause for alarm. Glancing outside, Ewell saw every room of his own house lit up with flames. He dashed to the scene, hoping to save his medical library, and happily discovered that it was just the glass in his windows reflecting the fire at the Capitol.
But the house had been plundered, and as Ewell contemplated the shambles the Reverend Alexander McCormack, rector of nearby Christ Church, came up and offered to take him to General Ross and Admiral Cockburn. Perhaps they could help, the minister suggested; he had met them and they were “perfect gentlemen.”
Walking down the street a few steps, they approached an officer heavy with braid and lace. Putting on his best church manners, McCormack performed the honors, introducing Ewell to “General Ross.”
“My name is Cockburn, sir,” came the answer in the quick, high-pitched voice of the Admiral.
That straightened out, Ewell explained his troubles, saying he thought private property was safe; yet his was stolen, even though left in the care of servants.
“Well, sir,” said the Admiral, “let me tell you it was very ill confidence to repose your property in the care of servants.”
With this brief lecture on the dangers of the servant class, the Admiral seemed inclined to let the matter drop, but at this point Ross came up and was far more sympathetic. If Ewell would point out the house, he’d post a sentry there.
To the General’s amiable embarrassment, it turned out to be the very house he had picked for his headquarters. Ross gallantly declared he “could never think of trespassing on the re- pose of a private family.” He would order his things out at once.
Ewell was no fool. Realizing that his best bet was to keep the General there, he begged him to stay. Ross finally consented - any small room would do—but the doctor gave him his own bedroom, the one with the good mattress.
The General wasn’t ready for bed just yet. Parting with Dr. Ewell, he and Cockburn gathered together a small force of perhaps 150 picked men, and with each commanding a separate detachment, they started up Pennsylvania Avenue about 10:30 P.M. A single officer on foot led the way. Behind, the men marched two abreast, swiftly but silently. When somebody started talking, the officer broke in sharply: “Silence! If any man speaks in the ranks, I’ll put him to death!”
Here and there along the avenue the bolder citizens peeked from open windows. As William P. Gardner watched them pass his place, four officers on horseback rode up and politely said good-evening.
Then one of them, Admiral Cockburn, asked pleasantly, “Where is your President, Mr. Madison?”
Gardner said he didn’t know, but supposed he was by now far away. After a few minutes more of casual conversation, the officers excused themselves, explaining they were on their way to “pay a visit” to the President’s House, which they understood was a little way ahead.
Soon they were at the Fifteenth Street “bend,” where the avenue was interrupted by the grounds of the executive mansion. Here the force halted while arrangements were made at a boarding house kept by Mrs. Barbara Suter for a late supper for General Ross and his staff. Then on again, up Fifteenth Street, while the dismayed Mrs. Suter set about killing chickens and warming bread.
Now another stop, this time near the Treasury pump. While the troops crowded around, ignoring officers’ warnings of poisoned water, Admiral Cockburn sent a thoughtful message ahead. Not knowing Dolley Madison’s movements, he offered her an escort to any place of safety she might choose. But she was gone, of course, and there was no need for further amenities. The force moved on to the President’s House.
Nothing startled them like the dining room. There the table was perfectly set for forty people. The servant boy Paul Jennings had done his work well—the wine stood in the coolers, packed in ice. Sampling cold cuts and what Captain Harry Smith termed “super-excellent Madeira,” the unexpected guests hugely enjoyed themselves. The crystal goblets were raised in a joyous toast to “the health of the Prince Regent and success to His Majesty’s arms by sea and land.”
Cockburn had a special joke. Somewhere along the way he had corralled the Washington book dealer Roger Chew Weightman—probably impressed as a guide. Now the Admiral plopped the miserable Mr. Weightman down in a chair and told him to drink to “Jemmy,” as Cockburn almost invariably called the President.
That over, the Admiral expansively told his victim to help himself to a souvenir. Weightman suggested something valuable, but Cockburn said no, the expensive things must feed the flames, and handed him instead a few odds and ends off a mantelpiece. The Admiral himself chose an old hat of the President’s and a cushion off Mrs. Madison’s chair—joking that the latter would remind him of her seat, or so a letter written three days later delicately implied.
By now, others, too, had joined the souvenir hunt. Ranging from Madison’s medicine chest to a pair of rhinestone shoe buckles, the variety was endless. Captain Harry Smith was more practical: he went upstairs and, taking off his grimy, sweat-stained shirt, helped himself to the Presidential best. Downstairs, a soldier swept the plates and silver into a tablecloth and made off with the evening’s best haul. Outside, the guards—unable to join the fun—amused themselves by hacking up an abandoned carriage.
The job of starting the fire was turned over to the efficient Lieutenant Pratt. His sailors quickly got torches from Nordin’s beer house opposite the Treasury, and once again the familiar scene unfolded. The huge dining-room sideboard, the red velvet cushions of the Oval Room, the pianoforte from Andrew Hazlehurst, the President’s half-filled portmanteau, the twentyeight-dollar guitar—all of it went up in one roaring bonfire.
As the flames soared skyward the force turned its attention to the long brick Treasury building just to the east. The men had high hopes here, taking the name literally, and felt almost cheated when they found no money at all. But there were plenty of old records to burn—some going back to the Revolution- and the building was soon blazing nicely.
Now at last the night’s work was done. General Ross and his staff retired to Mrs. Suter’s for their prearranged dinner and were soon joined by Admiral Cockburn.
Following the meal, Admiral Cockburn was heading back down Pennsylvania Avenue when he had an afterthought. Hailing a man standing outside McKeowin’s Hotel, the Admiral asked where he could find the offices of the National Intelligencer . The editor, Joseph Gales, Jr., whom he liked to call Dear Josey, had been very tough on him, and now there was a score to settle.
The man hailed was Chester Bailey, the contractor who ran the New York-Philadelphia mail stage. Pleading that he was a stranger in town, he said he had no idea where the paper’s offices were. Actually, he knew perfectly well that they were right across the street.
Cockburn turned to two other bystanders, who also equivocated. Whatever else he might be, the Admiral was no fool, and he made it clearly understood that he wanted no more of this nonsense.
The bystanders got the point, and showed him the building themselves. A soldier then broke into the office and emerged with the last issue of the paper, assuring its readers that the city was safe. General Ross attempted to keep it as a souvenir but couldn’t fit it into his pocket. “Damn it,” he said, allowing himself a rare vulgarity, “my pocket is full of old Madison’s love letters; I have no room for this trash.”
Cockburn now ordered the building burned, but at this point he was confronted by two ladies who lived in the block. They begged him to hold off, or their houses would go, too. The Ad- mirai listened carefully, and finally agreed not to burn the place down. Instead, he would wreck it in the morning. “Be tranquil, ladies,” he added cheerfully, “you shall be as safely protected under my administration as under that of Mr. Madison.” He then bade everybody a polite good-night and headed back to Capitol Hill.
A single sentry was left on guard at the newspaper offices. This lone soldier was the total British occupation force in central Washington that night. The rest of the men of the 3rd Brigade bivouacked on Capitol Hill, while the 2,300 of the ist and 2nd brigades remained at the edge of the city, watching the flames from the heights just inside the tollgate.
For the capital’s scattered population it was a night of sheer terror. The fire dominated everything. It glowed brightly at Baltimore forty miles away, where the citizens gazed in alarm from the rooftops. It hovered over General Winder at Tenleytown, three miles north of Georgetown, as he tried in vain to regroup his shattered army. It rose and fell across the horizon, spurring on Secretaries Armstrong and Campbell as they hurried toward Frederick, Maryland, where the government was to reconvene.
Typical of this chaotic night, none of the other administration leaders was going there. At the moment, they were hopelessly scattered about the Virginia countryside. James Madison, Attorney General Richard Rush, and the rest of the Presidential party rode to Salona, the estate of the Reverend John Maffitt, where Madison now expected to meet his wife. Secretary Monroe went to Wiley’s Tavern, near Great Falls. Secretary Jones was with his family and Dolley Madison’s entourage, struggling through the clogged roads toward the Salona rendezvous. They finally decided they would never make it and spent the night at Rokeby, the home of Mrs. Madison’s friend Mathilda Lee Love. Here, the First Lady sat silently by an open window where she, too, watched the great angry scar in the sky.
Relief finally came from the heavens. Toward dawn one of Washington’s patented thunderstorms rumbled in, wetting down the fires and ending the danger that the flames might spread to the whole city.
During the lone nierht of burnina; no one had gotten to the rather pedestrian brick building that housed the State, War, and Navy departments just west of the executive mansion. The next morning, August 25, a fresh contingent of the British ist Brigade, followed by some thirty blacks carrying powder and rockets, was assigned to remedy the omission.
As they reached the scene a lone horseman darted out from nowhere. It was John Lewis, erratic grandnephew of the sainted Washington. Long ago, Lewis had run away to sea, suffered impressment by the Royal Navy, and escaped, and ever since he had been burning with vengeance. At last the moment had come. Possibly fortified by a dram or two, he charged the head of the column in a wild, one-man confrontation. He fired his pistol, hit no one, caught a blast of return fire, and fell from his horse mortally wounded.
Now the work could proceed. The Americans had moved most of the current records, but there was still plenty of fuel. Fed by such varied kindling as Secretary Jones’s furniture and undistributed copies of the Army’s System of Drum-Beating , the fire quickly mushroomed through the building.
That finished, the detachment headed back east along F Street. Next on their schedule was a visit to the Patent Office and Post Office, which shared an empty hotel building at Eighth Street. Here they had an unexpected encounter with Dr. William Thornton, the Superintendent of Patents.
Dr. Thornton was one of those universal men, essentially eighteenth century, who aspired to be an expert on everything. Born in the Virgin Islands, he took his medical degree at Aberdeen University, drifted to America, and within a couple of years had submitted the winning design for the U.S. Capitol. Characteristically, he had no architectural training whatsoever. He was obviously Jefferson’s kind of man and in 1802 was put in charge of patents. He never took his administrative duties seriously; rather, he used his time to pursue his own catholic interests.
At the moment, he was working on a new kind of violin, which he kept in his room at the Patent Office. He had left it there in his flight the previous evening, but at daylight, when he heard that the British hadn’t touched the Patent Office yet, he rushed to the city. He wasjust in time; the British troops had arrived and were preparing to burn the building. A Major Waters, who seemed to be in charge, told him to go ahead - save the violin and any other private property.
This gave the doctor an inspiration. Turning to Waters, he announced that practically everything in the building was private property. Clearly the course to follow was to take out the few items of public property, burn them in the street, and leave the building alone. Otherwise he could never get out the hundreds of inventors’ models that filled the place. Hitting his stride, Thornton dramatically warned that “to burn what would be useful to all mankind would be as barbarous as to burn the Alexandria Library, for which the Turks have been condemned by all enlightened nations.”
Thoroughly shaken, Waters said they’d better see his superior, Major Timothy Jones. The major, it turned out, was at the offices of the National Intelligencer , carrying out Admiral Cockburn’s instructions to wreck the place. When reached, he cheerfully accepted Dr. Thornton’s arguments, and the Patent Office was saved.
The National Intelligencer was another matter. Cockburn himself was on hand to make sure that place was destroyed. He even helped carry out Gales’s reference library, which was burned in back of the building. Then he watched with approval as Jones’s men smashed the presses and hurled the type out the windows. “Be sure that all the c’s are destroyed,” the Admiral joked, “so the rascals can’t abuse my name any more.”
Gales’s home might have gone next but for a quick-witted housekeeper. She closed the shutters and chalked on the front door “For Rent.” Cockburn would have appreciated that. Along with his toughness, he had a sort of zestful joy for combat that allowed plenty of room for tricks, recklessness, improvisation - almost anything except stodginess. Today he was understandably pleased with himself.
As he happily supervised the destruction of the newspaper office he asked a wide-eyed young lady standing at her door, “Were you not prepared to see a savage, a ferocious creature, such as Josey represented me? But you see I am quite harmless; don’t be afraid, I will take better care of you than Jemmy did !”
In contrast with Cockburn, General Ross seemed strangely subdued. He never returned to the center of town but spent most of his time either at the camp or at the Ewell house on Capitol Hill, commiserating with the doctor on the hardships of war. Yes, he was sorry he had burned the Library of Congress; no, he would never have burned the President’s House had Mrs. Madison been there.
Neither of these officers, however, tolerated lootina;. Both Ross and Cockburn knew how easy it was for an army to get out of hand in an occupied town. At least seven men were flogged —some for trivial offenses. They took their punishment with the stoicism of Napoleonic veterans, although one man was heard to complain that it was “damn hard, after being in the service eighteen years, that I should be flogged for taking a damn Yankee goose.”
In the many encounters between victors and vanquished, the one that both sides thought about most often never came to pass. This was, of course, the union between the black man and the English liberator. The white citizens of Washington had long dreaded the possibility of a slave uprising. Sir Alexander Cochrane, for his part, had long relished the idea of “thousands” of blacks flocking to his colors. Now here the British were, right in the American capital, and nobody came.
The answer went deeper than anyone cared to penetrate: the blacks trusted neither side. There were individual exceptions, of course, but the vast majority wanted no part of it. Now that the British were here, the inclination was to hide rather than rejoice.
And so the hours of tension passed while the work of destruction went on. Lieutenant James Scott led a party of seamen to one of the city’s three ropewalks, spread the hemp along the center of the building, poured tar on top, and lit the mixture. The other ropewalks were treated the same way, and in less than half an hour all three were in flames. In a panic the militia on the Virginia side of the Potomac feared a British attack was coming and lit their end of the bridge across the river. Seeing the smoke and commotion and deciding it must mean an American attack, the guard at the British end did the same.
The shimmering August heat grew worse, and great thunderheads were piling up in the northwest when one more British detachment left Capitol Hill around 2 P.M. Consisting of four officers and two hundred men, it marched down Delaware Avenue to Greenleaf’s Point, where the Eastern Branch flowed into the Potomac. The Americans had destroyed the fort there, but the magazine remained, and the detachment had orders to get rid of its 150 barrels of powder.
A deep well on the point seemed ideal for the purpose, and the troops began rolling the barrels to the edge and dropping them in. Unknown to everyone, there was not enough water to cover the powder, and the contents of the barrels (plus some of the barrels themselves) soon rose high above the surface.
No one ever knew just how it happened. Some said a soldier accidentally tossed a lighted brand down the well; some said he did it on purpose as the safest way to extinguish it; some said he threw a cigar; some said nobody threw anything: it was the barrels, tumbling down the shaft, that struck sparks off the stone siding. Whatever the cause, the result was the same an earsplitting explosion that blew well, powder, dirt, buildings, and human beings into a huge, jumbled, mangled mass.
It was worse than any single moment at Bladensburg. Some of the men were blown to pieces, and no one knew exactly how many were killed. Estimates ran from twelve to thirty. The forty-four badly injured were carried back to Capitol Hill, where Ross established a makeshift hospital.
Calm slowly returned to the city, but not the hot, still calm of before. Black clouds to the northwest were rolling closer, muttering with thunder, and flashes of lightning blinked across the sky. It grew steadily darker. A sudden breeze kicked up the dust on Pennsylvania Avenue, and large drops of rain began to fall. Old Washingtonians knew they were in for a really big storm.
But nobody could remember anything like this one—the crashing thunder, the blinding rain, that howling, lashing wind. It plucked Lieutenant Gleig right off his horse. It picked up two British three-pounders as though they were toys. It ripped the roof off the Patent Office, just saved by Dr. Thornton.
Cockburn sat out the storm in the Ewells’ dining room, amiably chatting with the doctor. Suddenly, the front door flew open and in stamped four men with a dripping white flag. Led by the Reverend James Muir, they were a “peace” delegation of three clergymen from Alexandria, Virginia. They had battled their way through the storm to explain that their city was completely defenseless —what surrender terms could they expect? It all seemed so anticipatory. Cockburn asked whether Captain James Gordon’s squadron was in sight yet, coming up the Potomac. No, it turned out, no one was near; they just wanted to know the terms when their time came.
For once in his life the Admiral was nonplussed. He wasn’t used to these people who surrendered without even an enemy in sight. Improvising as best he could, he said that if there was ab- solutely no resistance, their persons and property would be safe, that the British would take but pay for whatever they needed. With that, he ran out of ideas, and the delegation politely bowed themselves out of the room and back into the storm.
Nor was Alexandria the only place attempting to surrender. The people of Georgetown had been trying for two days. During the evening of the twenty-fourth, Mayor John Peter led a delegation of leading citizens in the first attempt to negotiate terms. They apparently never made contact they were on the wrong road but the same group was at it again bright and early on the twenty-fifth. This time they reached Ross and offered to give up the town if only the British would spare their houses.
The General turned out to be a surprisingly good bluller. He let them believe he was interested, but actually he had no intention of going farther west. There were rumors that the American Army had rallied on the heights above Georgetown, and he certainly didn’t want to get trapped.
In fact, General Ross was determined to head back to the fleet right away. The explosion at Grcenleaf’s Point had wiped out some of his best men; the storm had torn his organi/ation to shreds. Now there were reports of American reinforcements coming on, twelve thousand men massed for a great counterattack. His pickets said they could even sec weapons glittering on the heights above the Potomac. As for himself, he had already accomplished more than he ever hoped. More than he dreamed. Why stretch his luck?
As evening approached, staff officers quietly alerted the various unit commanders to be ready to fall back after dark. Secrecy was all-important. Not a word to the men or the people of the town. Where the sudden bustle of activity required some explanation, the inhabitants were fed vague, misleading rumors: there were hints of a move on Annapolis, on Georgetown.
The forty-four badly injured at Greenleaf’s Point couldn’t be moved, and nothing was more upsetting to General Ross. Dr. Ewell assured Ross that Americans were a humane people —“of the same origin as yourself” and that he personally would look after the men left behind.
At dusk the campfires blazed brightly on Capitol Hill and at the larger encampment on the edge of the city. Occasional figures, silhouetted or caught in the flickering light, hovered about doing ordinary chores. It was, of course, the oldest of ruses de guerre . While a handful of men played out a charade, the great mass of the army stole away in the night. Falling in at 8 P.M. , the 3rd Brigade led the way, then the 2nd, then the ist, silently marching out Maryland Avenue, the exact way they had entered twenty-four hours ago.
For five days, town by town, they retraced their steps to the fleet. Not a shot was fired at them all the way; not a bridge destroyed nor a tree chopped down to check their progress. They had seen few enemy troops on the way in; they saw none on the way out.
In a few incredible days the British force had marched fifty miles into the enemy’s country, captured his capital, burned the public buildings, and gotten back safely to their ships.
Among the retiring British troops, there were a Jew stragglers who stayed behind in the Maryland countryside to loot. A group of Americans, largely led by Dr. William Beanes, the elderly patriarch of Upper Marlboro whose house had served as Ross ‘s headquarters on his way to Washington, captured and jailed some oj these stragglers. One man escaped and brought word to the fleet. General Ross, furious at what he considered a breach of faith on his former host’s part, sent back a force to arrest Beanes and his police party. The other Americans were soon released, but Beanes was thrown in the brig of the flagship Tonnant.
No one knew what the British planned to do next. Alexandria rushed to surrender to Captain Gordon when his squadron, still sailing up the Potomac toward Washington, came into sight. Americans were shamed, angry, and bitter as the news of the burning of the capital spread. Every city in the area feared that its turn was next.
Meanwhile, the British, regrouping their forces andwaiting for Gordon to return, mere making plans. Hatred of Baltimore, that “nest of pirates, ” was strong, and Cockburn wanted to attack that city immediately. Cochrane and Ross, however, were more cautious. They finally decided to regroup, rest the force at Rhode Island, and return to Baltimore in October. Knowing none of this, the cities along the seaboard continued their frantic preparations.
Boasting a population of over forty-five thousand, Baltimore was the third-biggest city in the Union—a target of obvious importance. Its bulging warehouses and crowded waterfront invited the closest attention of the prize-conscious British leaders. Its record of harassing the enemy was unparalleled—over five hundred British ships captured or sent to the bottom by Baltimore privateers.
And it had a reputation to go with its record. No city had done more to fan the war fever. In one anti-Federalist riot a crowd even killed a distinguished Revolutionary leader and maimed the venerated Richard Henry Lee, seemingly just because they wanted peace. “Mobtown” was the gentlest epithet applied by the British press.
Yet at the moment, brawling, bellicose Baltimore was anything but warlike. As the shattered remnants of Brigadier General Tobias Stansbury’s and Colonel Joseph Sterett’s militia tumbled in from Bladensburg, a wave of defeatism swept the city. “You may be sure this is the most awful moment of my life,” one of the stunned inhabitants, David Winchester, wrote a relative in Tennessee. “Not because, if the place is defended, I shall put my life at hazard in common with my fellow citizens, but because I am positively sure we shall not succeed.”
Few even contemplated a defense. “I think the only way to save the town and state will be to capitulate,” wrote Private Henry Fulford, back home from his harrowing day at Bladensburg. “We shall have to receive the British without opposition and make the best terms we can,” echoed a local shipowner in a letter to New York. He added that he had to close now; he was off to scuttle his own vessel in the harbor.
Baltimore’s postmaster hastily made plans to shift the mails out of town. The banks began moving their specie to York, Pennsylvania. Many members of the Committee of Vigilance and Safety—just formed to organize the city’s defense seemed more interested in arranging capitulation than resistance. One of the committee’s most prominent members, John Eager Howard, desperately tried to stem the tide. Pointing out that he had four sons in the field and as much property as anyone, he said he would rather see his sons killed and his property in ashes than surrender and disgrace the country.
On August 25, Brigadier General John Stricker, commanding Baltimore’s militia, stalked into the council chamber where the Committee of Vigilance and Safety was meeting. With him came Captain Oliver Hazard Perry, in town to take over the new frigate Java ; Captain Robert T. Spence, another senior Naval officer; and Major George Armistead, commanding the regulars at Fort McHenry, which guarded the entrance to Baltimore’s harbor.
Together they called for all-out resistance. Burying the usual service rivalries, they also urged that a single overall commander be appointed for the city’s defenses. The man they wanted was Major General Samuel Smith, commanding the 3rd Division of Maryland militia, the main body of troops in the area. The committee agreed, and Smith accepted the appointment subject to one condition: he wanted Governor Levin Winder’s sanction, including whatever extended powers might be necessary to do the job.
That condition told a lot about Sam Smith, as he was universally known. After twenty years in Congress —first as representative, now as senator—he knew all the pressure points of the body politic. Military authority from some citizens’ committee didn’t mean much, but from the governor himself that was different. Especially if, as here, the governor also-happened to be the uncle of Brigadier General Winder, the Regular Army officer commanding the District. A clash of authority seemed likely, and Smith wanted to cover himself.
This kind of shrewdness, coupled with hard-driving ambition, sound judgment, and a freewheeling style, had carried Sam Smith a long way. Born in Pennsylvania, he grew up in Baltimore, the strong-willed son of a wealthy merchant. In the Revolution he organized a company, joined George Washington, and shared the trials of Long Island, White Plains, Brandywine, Monmouth. For the defense of Fort MifBin he got a sword and a vote of thanks from Congress. Yet even in those dark days he still had a streak of personal ambition that set him aside from the rest of that band of heroes. He somehow got back to Baltimore every winter for recruiting and business, and long before the war was over he resigned his commission and went home to make money.
He prospered mightily —in iron, shipping, banking, land, everything he touched—and was soon in politics, too. Elected to Congress in 1792, he was not so much a legislator as a manipulator.
Now, at sixty-two, he was as shrewd, tough, and ambitious as ever. Maybe not the ideal man for the long winter at Valley Forge, but for the short haul no one had more drive or commanded more respect. Significantly, three of the leaders who proposed him were regulars, who traditionally hated to serve under a militia officer. This time they had no qualms, for here was a man who could get things done.
So an express galloped off to Annapolis, and by the twentysixth he was back with the governor’s blessing. It proved a masterpiece of evasion, for, apart from avuncular considerations, Levin Winder was faced with a most delicate problem. Normally, General Winder, a regular, outranked Smith, a militia officer. But if called into federal service, Smith, a major general, outranked Winder, a brigadier. The hitch was that nobody had called Smith into federal service. Under the Presidential order of last July, General Winder had the authority but never exercised it. On the other hand, Governor Winder had no authority in such matters at all. The governor solved the problem by simply implying that Smith had been called into federal service: “By the requisition of the President of the United States of the 4th of July last, one Major General is required of this state. In conformity to which, you have been selected.”
That was good enough for Sam Smith. “The endorsed copy of a letter from His Excellency Governor Winder was received by me this day, and I have in consequence assumed the command agreeably to my rank,” he quickly wrote General Winder, who was hurrying toward Baltimore to organize the city’s defense himself. And if that didn’t get across the point, the rest of Smith’s message showed the tone of command already creeping into his pen: “Do me the favor to send me information by the dragoon of your situation, the number of troops with you. We want the tents and equipage of Stansbury’s Brigade. …”
General Winder was thunderstruck. Arriving in Baltimore at 3 A.M. on the twenty-seventh, he rested a few sleepless hours, then went to see Smith. It was a stormy session: Winder protesting that he still had command, that the governor had no power to name anybody; Smith insisting he was now in charge and expected to give the orders. In the end Winder got nowhere, but whatever his merits as a general, he was too decent a man—too good a patriot—to sulk or walk out. Swallowing his pride, he said he’d do whatever Smith asked until the issue could be settled by Washington.
“General Winder has in a manner much to his honor I conceive, consented to waive his prétentions to rank for the present,” Commodore John Rodgers wrote approvingly to Secretary of the Navy Jones later that day. Rodgers had been present during the whole confrontation, and as a regular himself he agreed with Winder’s legal position. But he had been in Baltimore since the night of the twenty-fifth, had seen the panic firsthand, and knew how desperately a strong leader was needed. Somehow he managed to give his sympathy to Winder and his support to Smith without alienating either of those sensitive warriors.
He himself was a tower of strength these trying days. As senior officer of the U.S. Navy, his presence alone gave new heart to Baltimore, while his three hundred seamen from Philadelphia were the first tangible evidence that help was on the way. By combining them with the five hundred flotilla men in town- plus Captain David Porter’s force, soon down from New York Rodgers put together a makeshift “brigade,” which he made as conspicuous as possible.
But there was so much to be done. The best of the Maryland militia had been at Bladensburg, and on the twenty-seventh they were still hopelessly scattered. When Sam Smith issued a call to Stansbury’s men to report, only six hundred of the approximately 2,200 who had served at Bladensburg showed up. His somewhat imperious order telling Winder to bring on Stansbury’s tents and equipage was ludicrous—everything was still lost in Virginia. Even Sterett’s elite 5th Regiment seemed to have vanished. Want ads blossomed in the Patriot and Evening Advertiser pleading for William Pinkney’s Riflemen and the American Artilleryists routed at Bladensburg to reassemble. An even more revealing ad summoned to the courthouse “elderly men, who are able to carry a firelock, and willing to render a last service to their country.”
It was a situation made for Sam Smith, and every Baltimorean soon knew it. On the twenty-seventh the citizens were told to collect all the wheelbarrows, pickaxes, and shovels they could find. On the twenty-eighth they started digging. A line of fortifications gradually took shape along the eastern edge of the city—the side most exposed to a British landing.
Smith seemed everywhere, and into everything at once. He quickly proved a dynamo of energy and a volcano of temper. On August 29 the Pennsylvania and Virginia militia began coming in; he wanted no more “Bladensburg Races” and drilled them mercilessly from reveille to 7 P.M. On August 30 Commodore Rodgers and the Naval contingent left briefly on a futile attempt to stop the British squadron on the Potomac; Smith fumed and stormed, urged Rodgers to come back “immy.” On August 31 Quartermaster Paul Bentalou announced he had no money and could get none from the War Department. Smith charged over to the Committee of Vigilance and Safety and engineered an immediate loan of a hundred thousand dollars from the Baltimore banks.
That same day he scored an especially characteristic stroke when the War Department ordered five i8-pounders at Fort McHenry to be transferred to Washington. “The guns belong to the u.s.,” he wrote the Committee of Vigilance and Safety, “but the carriages are the property of the City. I have therefore not conceived myself at liberty to deliver them without the consent of your Committee. I consider these guns as indispensable. …” The committee took the cue and told the War Department that it could have the guns but not the carriages. That way, they were of very little use to anybody, and Washington quietly capitulated.
On September 1 the units crowding into town began battling over the few available wagons—Smith intervened and divided them up: one wagon for every one hundred men. Arbitrary, but it worked. On September 2 the troops were running out of bread because all the bakers were drilling. Again Smith stepped in, released the bakers from service, told the contractors to hire them and start making biscuits. On September 3 military traffic ground to a halt; the streets were clogged with caissons, carts, wagons of every sort. Once again Smith exploded into action, ordering a bridge of scows across the inner harbor. It looked a little visionary, but in two days thirty scows were in place and the bridge operating.
Sam Smith was not a man to delegate authority, and his headaches came in all sizes. One minute he was straightening out the different countersigns used by the sentries, the next he was trying to dispose of forty head of surplus cattle brought along by a Virginia brigade.
In the hubbub around headquarters it sometimes seemed as if nothing got done, but actually a great transformation was taking place. A week ago Hampstead Hill was a placid green rise to the east of town; now the dirt was flying. “They are throwing up entrenchments all around the city,” an unidentified young lady wrote her brother in New York, who passed her letter on to the Evening Post . “White and black are all at work together. You’ll see a master and his slave digging side by side. There is no distinction whatsoever
The citizens worked in relays, depending on the ward where they lived. They reported at 6 A.M. and toiled till dark. Everybody joined in. When twelve-year-old Sam W. Smith, the General’s nephew, disappeared from home, the family knew just
where to find him - out on Hampstead Hill, digging away with the rest.
A less visible but equally important change was the sudden flow of money for defense. A week ago the talk was of paying ransom; now it was of buying guns, tents, provisions, forage. Washington had said it had no cash; very well, the Baltimoreans declared, they would finance their own needs. With just a little prodding from Sam Smith, the local banks ultimately advanced $663,000 for the cause. Less spectacular, but more poignant, were the hundreds of donations showered on the town by its loyal citizens. And where cash was impractical, the people came through with goods and services. The variety was a nightmare to the city comptroller: Luke and William Enson, three thousand bricks; Dr. Henry Karl, two bundles of lint; C. White & Sons, five barrels of whiskey; “A Citizen,” three tons of hay.
But the biggest change of all was the mass of volunteers pouring in from every direction. A week ago Baltimore lay wide open; now troops - from Maryland, from Virginia, from Pennsylvania seemed to fill every inch of space. By September 4 Quartermaster Bentalou estimated there were fifteen thousand men on hand. That day General Thomas Forman, the commander of Maryland’s ist Brigade, enthusiastically wrote his wife, “We have assembled seven generals: Smith, Winder, Stricker, and Stansbury of Baltimore; Douglass and Singleton of Virginia; and your humble servant. This morning all the general officers with their aides and brigade majors assembled at 6 o’clock to view the grounds and country surrounding Baltimore. The parade was splendid and interesting. …”
All seemed in perfect harmony as this array of braid and cocked hats swung by the serried ranks, but beneath the surface General Winder still seethed at the thought of being just one of seven. He had been appointed by the President of the United States in person to command the i oth Military District —which certainly included Baltimore—yet this fractious militia officer had brazenly seized control, and apparently nothing could be done about it. And worse was to follow. When Winder got his formal assignment from Smith on September 5, he found his job was to defend the Ferry Branch of the Patapsco. This backwater was the western anchor of the city’s defense line, yet it was to the east that Baltimore’s fate would most likely be decided. Clearly he was on the shelf.
“After the candour which I have uniformly evinced toward you,” the General wrote Smith on the sixth, “I cannot for a moment suppose that in the assignment of my command and station any other motive than that of a just regard to my rank and other circumstances influenced you, and yet I cannot but believe that in a review of the arrangement you have made you will be satisfied that it is unjust as relates to my rank and situation and in derogation from the ordinary principles of military service.”
Smith never even answered. Tact was not one of his high points. In fact, while Winder was pouring out his heart Smith was absorbed in his fortifications.
But what, during these frenzied days, was the enemy doing? Along with his other precautions, Sam Smith had stationed lookouts along the Chesapeake, but they had little to report. From the Goodwin house near the tip of North Point, day after day Major Josiah Green sent back a laconic “There is nothing of the enemy below.” From the dome of the State House at Annapolis, Major William Barney (the Commodore’s son) could only say, “There is nothing in sight.” Occasionally Governor Winder himself would clamber up the creaking ladder and take a turn with the glass. But the eyes of the statesman were no sharper than any others in catching a sign of the next British move.
While Sam Smith wan goading Baltimore into preparedness, Dr. Beams ‘s friends were working on a plan to win his release. Francis Scott hey got President Madison’s permission to sail out to the British fleet under a flag oj truce to plead for the distinguished doctor’s freedom. With him went John S. Skinner, the American prisoner-of-mar exchange agent, who had dealt with the British before. Wisely, they look also a packet of letters from the British wounded being cared for in Washington, attesting to the humane treatment they were receiving. When Key and Skinner finally reached Ross aboard the Tonnant on September 7, these letters proved more important than any legal arguments. Ross agreed to release Dr. Beanes.
That same day, however, the British plans had changed—probably because of intelligence just received—and the decision had been made to attack Baltimore as soon as Captain Gordon returned. Under the circumstances Dr. Beanes and his rescuers were to be, detained, and they were transferred to the frigate Surprize.
On September 9, Gordon having successfully descended the Potornac, the reassembledfleet was on its way. On the tenth, as the ships swept up the Chesapeake, Annapolis made panicky plans to surrender. But the fleet sailed right past the town. By evening a final message went out from Annapolis to Baltimore: fifty ships were heading north, up Chesapeake Bay, under a full press of canvas..
By September 10 Baltimore was ready. Sam Smith had 16,39! men packed into a network of land and water defenses covering the eastern and southern approaches to the city. From the Bel Air Road northeast of town a line of earthworks curved south past the hospital, along the brow of Hampstead Hill, and down to the Sugar House at the edge of the harbor. Overall, the line boasted sixty-two guns supported by over ten thousand troops. Most of them were militia.
At the harbor Sam Smith’s problem was complicated by the nature of local geography. Lying twelve miles up the Patapsco River from Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore could be easily reached by the lighter British warships. Approaching the city, moreover, the river split at Whetstone Point into two branches, and both had to be considered in planning defense. The right-hand fork, coming in from the Bay, was called the Northwest Branch, and it led straight to the main waterfront. The other fork—the Ferry Branch—curved off to the west, but at Ridgely’s Cove it still came within a mile of the town.
Sam Smith began by sealing off the Northwest Branch at its mouth. There was already a boom here, running from a projection called the Lazaretto to Whetstone Point, but it looked flimsy, so Smith backed it up with a line of barges bristling with cannon. At the Lazaretto itself he added a three-gun batterv manned by some of Barney’s flotilla men.
At Whetstone Point, the other anchor of the barrier, Smith could count on the only permanent fixture in the whole defense system picturesque, star-shaped Fort McHenry. Begun during the Revolution and improved from time to time, it was there to defend both the Northwest Branch to the east and the Ferry Branch to the west. Its red brick masonry had a sturdy, spunky look that endeared itself to Baltimoreans, but how good it really was nobody knew.
Sam Smith was taking no chances. Starting even before the present emergency, he had wangled, argued, begged, threat- ened, used all his driving energy to strengthen the place. He had installed fifteen 36-pounders from the Eole , a French warship stranded in the harbor, built a furnace for heating shot, and added new outworks at the edge of the river. Now he extended the parapet and the harbor boom around the tip of Whetstone Point and beefed up Major Armistead’s 25o-man garrison with hundreds of regulars, flotilla men, Sea Fencibles, militiamen, and Judge Joseph H. Nicholson’s Artillery Fencibles, a company of gentlemen volunteers who had their own hot coffee especially brought out from the city every morning. By September 10 at least fifty-seven guns and about a thousand men were crammed into the little fort.
Sam Smith’s labors went on—so effectively that Baltimore’s problem swung from a lack of preparation to a surfeit of confidence. The 3rd Brigade dispensed with its morning drills. General Forman expected his brigade would be discharged by September 13 or 14 “then home with all speed to see my darling wife.”
Even stern, conscientious Commodore Rodgers was not immune. Writing a friend in Philadelphia on the ninth, he observed that Baltimore “now has nothing to fear even should the enemy make his appearance tomorrow. It is understood, however, that he has descended the Bay, and whatever might have been his intentions, that he will not now attempt an attack on this place. … I hope to leave here in two or three days for Philadelphia, as I begin to feel tired of playing the soldier.”
Perhaps too many others felt the same way—explaining the lack of excitement Saturday night, September 10, when reports of ship sightings began arriving from Annapolis. General Winder sent a hurry call for cartridge boxes. Judge Nicholson’s Fencibles, in town for the weekend, hastily reassembled to march back to Fort McHenry. But on the whole, Baltimore spent a quiet, uneventful Saturday night.
Sunday the eleventh began quietly, too. While Sam Smith and Commodore Rodgers huddled over a scheme to sink blockships in the Northwest Branch, most of Baltimore went to church as usual. At the Wilkes Street Methodist Church, some soldiers stacked their arms outside the door and joined the congregation.
Suddenly, toward 1:30 P.M. , the quiet of the Sabbath was shattered by the sound of three shots fired from cannon on the courthouse green. As the Wilkes Street Methodists buzzed with excitement and the troops scrambled for the door, the minister quickly closed his Bible. “My brethren and friends,” he announced, “the alarm guns have just fired. The British are approaching and commending you to God and the word of His Grace, I pronounce the benediction, and may the God of battles accompany you.”
At the Light Street Methodist Church, the Reverend John Gruber was even more to the point: “May the Lord bless King George, convert him, and take him to heaven, as we want no more of him.”
Outside, it was bedlam. Troops were racing to their positions; wagons bulging with women, children, and furniture rattled north on Charles Street, heading out of town. Breasting the stream of refugees, Private Mendes I. Cohen, an eighteenyear-old recruit, hurried to get back to his post at Fort McHenry. Late as he was, he couldn’t help pausing at the observation station on Federal Hill. In the shimmering haze twelve miles down the Patapsco, he could make out the whole British fleet standing into North Point.
This was just the way Sam Smith thought it would be. He was always sure the biggest danger lay to the east, in a British landing on the jagged peninsula that jutted into the Bay between the Patapsco and Back rivers, ending at North Point. Now he ordered Brigadier General John Stricker to take his City Brigade, totalling some 3,200 men, and head for North Point at once.
Stricker was the natural choice for this assignment. A Revolutionary War veteran slightly younger than Smith, he had occasionally served under the commanding general in militia operations and seemed to be one of the few officers who could get along with the old man. His City Brigade was also well chosen. These troops came from Baltimore, were highly motivated, and included most of the 5th Regiment and Pinkncy’s Riflemen, who were all veterans of Bladensburg. While this was not entirely a recommendation, nevertheless there was something to be said for experience, and the 5th had at least made a brief stand.
At 3 P.M. they fell in and headed east on Baltimore Street. Led by fife and drum, they presented the usual mixture of dashing uniforms and civilian dress. They ranged from military dandies like Captain Aaron Levering’s Independent Blues, with their stylish red cuffs and white crossbelts, to rank amateurs like Private John Smith of the Union Volunteers. He soon lost his knapsack containing a “swan’s down vest, a pair of nankeen pantaloons, a linen shirt, and striped cravat.” Tramping down Baltimore Street, they presented less a picture of martial splendor than of earnest endeavor. Yet there was something poignant about them, too, and as they passed the house of the Reverend John Glendy he blessed them and prayed for their safety and success.
Unlike Saturday, Sunday was a restless night at Baltimore. By sunset the lookouts on Federal Hill had counted forty-seven to fifty British sail, including ten transports “all within the bar.” At the Lazaretto, Lieutenant Solomon Ruttcr went over the night signals he had just worked out with Major Armistead across the barricaded river at Fort McHcnry: “Enemy in sight or approaching one gun, one false lire, one blue light, repeated until answered.”
Armistead himself was worn to the bone. Professionally, there was the loneliness of command—he and apparently he alone knew that Fort McHenry’s magazine was not bombproof. Personally, there was an aching concern for his wife Louisa. He had sent her off to safety at Gettysburg, but she was expecting a baby and he continued to worry. Friday night he dreamed she had presented him with a son; tonight there was no time to dream, or even to sleep. .
Twelve miles east of Fort McHcnry on the sloop Fairy , Gen- eral Ross and Admiral Cockburn were putting the final touches on their landing plan. Cockburn had wanted to lead the barges and cutters up the Patapsco and storm Fort McHenry, but he had been overruled in favor of a two-pronged attack. Now the troops would go ashore at North Point and advance up the peninsula to assail Baltimore by land, while the bomb vessels, a rocket ship, and the frigates would advance up the river to strike the city by water.
Once taken, there would be no mercy. A new letter had arrived from the British governor in Canada, Sir George Prévost, telling of fresh atrocities by the Americans, and Admiral Cochrane was determined to retaliate on Baltimore. As he always said, you had to treat these people like spaniels. The troops were appropriately equipped for serious business. The ammunition allotment was increased from sixty to eighty rounds per man, and all frills were to be left behind. Lieutenant Gleig of His Majesty’s 85th Foot always the officer and gentleman- resigned himself to sharing a hairbrush with another man.
Quite aware of these harsh plans, John Skinner and Francis Scott Key waited out the night back on their own flag-of-truce boat. They had been transferred to her during the day—either because, as Key later recalled, Cochrane needed the Surprise himself as a shallow-draft flagship or because, as Skinner told it, he had demanded that they suffer through the attack at least on a vessel flying their own colors. In any event, they weren’t yet free to leave. When Skinner had broached this possibility during the afternoon, Cochrane had simply smiled and said, “Ah, Mr. Skinner, after discussing so freely our preparation and plans, you could hardly expect us to let you go on shore in advance of us.”
They had, nevertheless, persuaded General Ross to release Dr. Beanes from confinement. The old gentleman immediately joined them, and now the three Americans wondered and waited together—still the unwilling guests of this hostile armada lying quietly under the stars.
At 2 A.M. on the twelfth the silent ships came suddenly to life. A gun brig moved close inshore, prepared to rake the beach if any Americans appeared. Barges and cutters swarmed around the transports, taking off the troops. At 3 A.M. the whole collection of small craft began moving toward the shore. By six thirty the columns were formed, ready for marching. Leading them all was General Robert Ross, and by his side was the gusty, rambunctious figure of Rear Admiral George Cockburn. At 7 A.M. the bugles sounded, and the British force—now 4,700 strong started for Baltimore.
Ross knew that the American force defending North Point was large, but he also knew the troops were mostly militiamen, and he didn’l care, he said, “if it rains militia.” But before the two approaching forces ever made full contact, Ross was killed, shot by an American advance party; no one has ever known for certain who fired the fateful shot.
Colonel Arthur Brooke, the second-ranking officer in the army, assumed command. The two forces met at a narrow neck of land where General John Stricker, the American commander, had arranged his defense line. The battle raged for more than two hours, with the Americans pushed back but not routed. They finally regrouped and camped for the night back near Sam Smith’s earthworks. Brooke, inexperienced and uncertain, didn’l pursue but camped also. American casualties were 163 killed and wounded; the British had three hundred casualties. The attackers had advanced less than a mile along the route to Baltimore.
On the Patapsco, Admiral Cochrane was making greater progress in carrying out his part of the two-pronged advance. After landing the last of the troops and supplies at North Point, he shifted his flag to the Surprize and at 1:30 P.M. ordered the frigates and bomb vessels to head upstream for Baltimore. As yet he knew nothing of Ross’s death or the change in command, but he could plainly hear the gunfire ashore, and he struggled to get his ships in position to support the advancing army.
It was a backbreaking job. The Patapsco was not only shallow, but full of unexpected shoals, and the squadron had only two or three pilots who knew the water. The Seahorse went ahead to feel the way, but she ran aground almost immediately. For nearly four hours she was either stuck or warping slowly through the mud.
At three thirty the Surprise finally anchored at a point about five miles below Fort McHenry. Here she was joined by the Severn , flying Cockburn’s flag, and the other frigates and brigs. The five bomb vessels and the rocket ship Erebus continued creeping closer until they anchored only two and a half miles from the fort.
No one knew how the Americans might react, but Cochrane was taking no chances. He ordered every ship to ready grappling hooks in case the enemy tried fire vessels, as they had on the Potomac. Torpedoes were always a menace, although the Admiral considered them outlawed by the rules of war. He issued careful instructions on towing them clear of endangered craft. Sets of passwords and countersigns were distributed for use in the night.
Sweeping his glass along the shoreline, Cochrane discovered one defense measure he didn’t know how to counter. The Americans were busy sinking blockships across the mouth of the Northwest Branch. These would effectively keep him from storming the inner harbor, either to bombard the town or to carry off” the prize goods he thought about so much. There was no alternative but to capture Fort McHenry first.
Examining the earthworks on Hampstead Hill, Cochrane felt more encouraged. The defense line swarmed with people and ran right to the water’s edge, but it didn’t seem to extend very far back into the country. “I think it may be completely turned without the necessity of taking it in front,” he wrote that afternoon in a letter addressed to General Ross. He also took the opportunity to outline his own plans: “At daylight we shall place the Bombs and barges to bombard the fort. You will find them over upon the eastern shore, as the enemy have forts upon the western side which it is not necessary to encounter.”
At 7:30 P.M. the letter was returned unopened together with the shattering news that Ross was dead.
Cochrane immediately forwarded it to Colonel Brooke, adding some observations that he thought might be useful to the army’s new leader. His main concern was that Brooke might be too easy on Baltimore. Ross had been so soft at Washington - all that nonsense about respecting private property -that this new man must be set straight right away: It is proper for me to mention to you that a system of retaliation was to be proceeded upon in consequence of the barbarities committed in Canada—and if General Ross had seen the second letter from Sir George Prévost he would have destroyed Washington and Georgetown. …
So there would be no leniency this time. “I do not like to contemplate scenes of blood and destruction,” Cochrane’s flag captain, the normally placid Rear Admiral Edward Codrington, wrote to his wife that evening, “but my heart is deeply interested in the coercion of these Baltimore heroes, who are perhaps the most inveterate against us of all the Yankees, and 1 hope they will be chastized even until they excite my pity, by which time they will be sufficiently humbled.”
Baltimore sensed its crisis was at hand. Commodore Rodgers hoped sinking the blockships would tighten the barrier across the Northwest Branch. Until now the merchants of Baltimore had not taken kindly to this idea—they couldn’t see the logic of sinking their fortunes to save them—but today, with the British on the doorstep, the mood was different. Down went John Donnell’s handsome ship Chesapeake , John Craig’s brig Father and Son , Elie Clagett’s schooner Scudder —twenty-four vessels altogether. Ultimately, the barrier was extended across the Ferry Branch, too, although there was no time for that just now. As always, Sam Smith looked to the east; the west could take care of itself.
General Winder knew it all too well. For a whole week he had seen his western command neglected or nibbled away. Now a new order came from Smith to send his cavalry to Colonel Nicholas Ruxton Moore, operating east of the town. Winder of course complied but sent at the same time a last, despairing note to headquarters: “This has finally robbed my command of its only means of availing itself of favorable opportunities of annoying the enemy. … In fine, I am now fairly destitute of every means by which I can render my command honorable to them or myself as essentially useful to the country, unless by mere accident.” A,
As usual, Sam Smith was too busv to answer, nor did anyone else have time to worry about the ruffled feelings of a forgotten general this hectic afternoon. Around 4 P.M. word spread that General Stricker, commanding the American forces on North Point, was beaten—was falling back—and the whole city plunged into a frantic, last-second rush of preparation. The Committee of Vigilance and Safety ordered all lights out tonight—no point in giving the British gunners a mark to shoot at. Nervous citizens reread the morning Telegraph ’s instructions on handling incendiaries. “Should Congreve rockets be thrown into the city,” the paper advised its apparently well-heeled readers, “we should recommend to every house-keeper to have a servant ready with buckets filled with water to extinguish the flames.”
At Fort McHenry, Major Armistead studied the ominous line of British ships lying just out of range. The gun ports were open; small craft were clustered along the sides. “From the number of barges and the known situation of the enemy,” he wrote Sam Smith at 4:30, “I have not a doubt but that an assault will be made this night upon the Fort.”
At the Lazaretto across the channel, Lieutenant Solomon Rutter worried about British trickery. To guard against a surprise blow, he and Armistead quickly worked out a set of challenges for the night. The password would be “William,” the answer “Eutaw.”
Such precautions were wise and necessary, but at a time like this a man could also use a little inspiration. The defenders of Fort McHenry got theirs from a huge American flag that flew from a pole just inside the parade ground. Measuring thirty by forty-two feet, it seemed to dominate not only the fort but the outlying strong points and even the defenses on Hampstead Hill. Needless to say, it could also be seen by the newly arrived visitors from Britain.
That was just the way Major Armistead wanted it. During the invasion scare in the summer of 1813 he had written Sam Smith, “We, Sir, are ready at Fort McHenry to defend Baltimore against invading by the enemy. That is to say, we are ready except that we have no suitable ensign to display over the Star Fort, and it is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.”
He had gotten his wish. Some time that summer a committee of high-ranking officers had called on Mary Young Pickersgill, a widow who normally specialized in making house flags for Baltimore’s far-flung merchant ships. They had explained their needs, and Mrs. Pickersgill had accepted the order.
Recruiting her thirteen-year-old daughter Caroline to help, she had spent the next several weeks cutting and measuring her bolts of cloth—fifteen white stars, each two feet from point to point, eight red stripes and seven white, each two feet broad. Altogether she had used some four hundred yards of bunting.
Then had come the job of piecing it together. Even the big upstairs bedroom in the Pickersgill house wasn’t large enough, so on an inspiration she had borrowed the use of the malthouse in Brown’s brewery. Here she and Caroline had continued working—often by candlelight—sewing and basting the colors together.
That August the flag had been delivered at a cost meticulously calculated by Mrs. Pickersgill of exactly 8405.90. For a year it hadn’t been needed, but on this hot, dangerous evening of September 12, 1814, it blazed in the sunset —not an icon of might and power, but rather an expression of earnest purpose, a mark of defiance flown by a small, young, and not always wise country about to take its stand against the strongest nation in the world.
The next morning, Major Armistead’s big flag was snapping in a damp, easterly breeze as the British bomb vessel Volcano weighed anchor at 5 A.M. and began edging toward Fort McHenry. Close behind came another “bomb,” the Meteor , and the rocket ship Erebus . Also tagging along was the Cockchafer , a pugnacious little schooner that always seemed in the middle of things. Later they were joined by three more bombs—the Terror , Devastation , and Aetna —while the frigates and sloops moved up to lend support.
At six thirty the Volcano came to, and Captain David Price fired a couple of shots to check the range. Not close enough. The bombs and rocket ship crept on- now less than two miles away—but even before they were in position to fire, the perky Cockchafer let loose a broadside at the star-shaped ramparts.
At seven the Meteor opened up. Then one by one the other bombs and the Erebus joined in, while the Cockchafer continued banging away. The guns of the fort roared back, firing erratically but now within range. “The enemy shot falling short and over us,” coolly noted the keeper of the Meteor’s log.
At 8:40 a cannonball ripped through the mainsail of the Cockchafer, and Admiral Cochrane decided to play it a little safer. Shortly after nine he pulled the squadron back to a point slightly over two miles from the fort. This meant sacrificing the firepower of the frigates and the Erebus , but that was why he had brought the bombs along.
Compared to the stately frigates and ships of the line, these ungainly vessels weren’t much to look at—the Aetna , for instance, was a stubby 102 feet long. Nor was service in them fashionable. They fired shells that burst—a bit unsporting, that—and their operation was left largely to the Royal Marine Artillery, who didn’t seem to mind. Nevertheless, they were useful and in many ways remarkable ships. Armed principally with two guns—a ten- and a thirteen-inch mortar—they fired huge bombshells that weighed over two hundred pounds and carried up to 4,200 yards—well over two miles.
It took enormous force to do that, and this in turn put enormous strain on the ships every time the mortars were fired. A complicated system of beams and springs was designed to cushion the blow, but even so the jar was terrific. It rattled the crew’s teeth, shook loose anything not made fast, and sent the whole ship bucking and plunging like a frightened horse.
When the mortar was fired, that also lit a fuse in the bombshell itself. With luck, it exploded about the time it landed, scattering fragments far and wide. But not often. While every effort was made to cut the fuse to fit the distance, the shells were wildly erratic and quite likely to burst in midair.
At Baltimore, however, arithmetic was on Admiral Cochrane’s side. A well-handled bomb vessel could hurl forty-five to fifty shells an hour, and he had five of them. With all that firepower—and safe from the annoyance of any return fire—the fall of Fort McHenry seemed only a matter of time.
Major George Armistead tried to coax just a little more range out of his guns. He had already increased the elevation as much as he could, but that wasn’t enough. Now he loaded them with extra charges of powder—a dangerous experiment, since the barrels could only stand so much. Happily, they didn’t burst, but three of the guns gave a mighty kick that threw them off their carriages. That could be fixed; the big problem remained. Armistead had tried everything, and the guns of Fort McHenry still couldn’t reach the British fleet.
The best the fort could do was 1,800 yards with the twentyfour-pounders and 2,800 yards with the big French thirty-sixpounders. But since the British ships were over two miles out, he was just wasting his shots. At 10 A.M. Armistead grimly ordered his guns to cease fire, and the garrison settled down to a long, hard wait.
The gunners crouched by their parapets; the infantry huddled in a dry moat that ran around part of the fort. Trying to make himself small, Judge Nicholson felt that he and his Artillery Fencibles were all “like pigeons tied by the legs to be shot at.”
By 9:30 A.M. Admiral Cochrane was feeling discouraged, too. He was meant to be helping the army, yet this flashy bombardment had been going on for two hours, and nothing had been accomplished. The firing was too slow; the shells were too erratic; and above all, the fort was too strong. He now dashed off a pessimistic note to Admiral Cockburn, presumably attacking by land with the troops: My Dear Admiral —It is impossible for the ships to render you any assistance—the town is so far retired within the forts. It is for Colonel Brooke to consider under such circumstances whether he has force sufficient to defeat so large a number as it is said the enemy has collected, say 20,000 strong, or even a less number and to take the town. Without this can be done, it will be only throwing the men’s lives away and prevent us from going upon other services. At any rate a very considerable loss must ensue and as the enemy is daily gaining strength, his loss let it be ever so great cannot be equally felt. …
Thus by midmorning caution was again creeping over Admiral Cochrane. He had given up all idea of supporting Colonel Brooke. He wasn’t even sure the army should go through with its attack. But assuming the troops did take the city, the navy must continue battering at the fort, hoping ultimately to open a passage through which he could join Brooke, share the glory, and remove the riches of Baltimore. The five bombs pounded on—eleven … noon … i P.M. …
It was just about 2 P.M. when a British shell landed square on the southwest bastion of Fort McHenry and exploded with a blinding flash. For a brief second everything was lost in a ball of fire and smoke; then it cleared away, revealing a twentyfour-pounder dismounted and its crew sprawled at odd angles in the dirt.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
A surge of confidence swept America. It had many ingredients: there was Jackson ‘s victory at New Orleans; the brilliant triumphs on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain; the splendid single-ship engagements on the open seas. But of them all, nothing did quite so much to pull the country together as that searing experience of losing Washington—the people’s own capital—followed by the thrill of redemption when the same enemy force was turned back at Baltimore. In this swift turnabout new hopes were born, spirits raised, a nation uplifted. People forgot the dissension that had torn at the country through most of the war, and a new sense of national pride emerged.