13 September 2014: At dawn this morning exactly 200 years ago, the British fleet began the bombardment of Fort McHenry which blocked their access to the inner harbor at Baltimore. As long as the fort remained viable, the British ships would be unable to pass through the narrow channel next to it and gain access to the city itself. Ashore on North Point, Admiral Cockburn and Colonel Brooke waited patiently for the navy to take care of business from the water; once the fort was reduced, the army would sweep in from the north while the navy began a further bombardment from the water and Baltimore would fall.
HMS Tonnant, Admiral Cochran’s flagship, was anchored between the transports, which had already discharged their troops at North Point, and the bombardment fleet of bomb ships, frigates, and rocket ships. On board, in addition to the Admiral and the men and officers of the Royal Navy, were Americans, Col. John Skinner, Lawyer Francis Scott Key, and Doctor William Beanes who had been taken prisoner by General Ross following the British departure from Washington City. (Beanes had been helpful to his cousin and former governor of Maryland, Robert Bowie, in rounding up some British stragglers who had been looting farms and homes in Upper Marlboro. Ross, when he found out about it, had the doctor taken prisoner.) As far as the British were concerned, Beanes was no longer a prisoner, but was not allowed to leave the ship until the bombardment was finished.
So Key, and occasionally Skinner and the somewhat infirm Doctor Beanes, watched in horror as the fleet threw iron shot, mortar shells, and Congreve rockets all day and into the night at the fort. He felt that as long as the enormous American flag, the Garrison Flag, flew over the ramparts, all was well. With nightfall, however, Key could no longer see the flag (he was unaware that Major Armistead, in command of the fort, had replaced it with a smaller storm flag in the face of some nasty storms that were pounding the area. It must have been a horrendous night; thunder, lightning flashing around the heavens, heavy rain pouring down, and the detonations of mortar rounds, cannon firing, and the red traces of the Congreve rockets streaking across the water and over the fort. In fact, Key described it thus:
“The explosion was so terrific that it seemed as though Mother Earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone. The heavens aglow were a seething sea of flame and the waters of the harbor were lashed into an angry sea by the vibrations. It is recorded that the houses in the city of Baltimore, some two miles distant, were shaken to their foundations.”
And I am sure he felt (though he did not record it) some measure of pity for the soldiers and women and children sheltering with the walls.
At one point during the early morning hours when the storm was at its worst, the British tried to slip past the fort in boats, their intent being to come at it from the land side (the back) and attack in conjunction with the fleet. The alert men at Lazaretto and Covington Batteries saw them and opened fire. The galling fire drove the invaders away and made them pass through the batteries in the fort on the way back to the ships. It was not pretty – for the British.
And so the night passed, Key pacing up and down the deck of Tonnant, soaked to the skin, but oblivious to the rain, and checking the ramparts through his useless long glass, and becoming increasingly agitated.
Tomorrow, we’ll see how it ended!
“You have to understand the sea, he said, to listen to her, to look out for her moods, to get to know her and respect her and love her.” Michael Morpurgo, “Alone on a Wide Sea”