Fort McHenry: September 12-14, 1814

By René Chartrand

On September 12, Baltimore was in view of the 50 British warships. To defend the city, some 14,000 militiamen joined 1,000 regulars. The most important fortification in the area was Fort McHenry, which guarded the access to the city’s port. It was a large First System earth-and-masonry fort built from 1799 to 1805 on the plans of French engineer Jean Fontin. It was a pentagon with five bastions, which gave it the shape of a five-pointed star, and was armed with some 30 guns, in addition to three water batteries. More features were added later on, notably a water battery in 1814 that had heavy French naval guns including some 36-pdrs. A boom consisting of ships’ masts fastened together was laid to block the 600yd-wide (549m) harbor entrance between the fort and Lazaretto Point.

 

Francis Scott Key watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the Dawn’s early light of September 13, 1814. A lawyer, he was part of a delegation negotiating the release of American prisoners and was compelled to remain on board a Royal Navy warship. The night’s intense bombardment inspired his poem “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which became the words off the Unites States’ national anthem. (Print after Thomas Moran; Library of Congress. Caption: Osprey publishing.)

Francis Scott Key watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the Dawn’s early light of September 13, 1814. A lawyer, he was part of a delegation negotiating the release of American prisoners and was compelled to remain on board a Royal Navy warship. The night’s intense bombardment inspired his poem “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which became the words off the Unites States’ national anthem. (Print after Thomas Moran; Library of Congress. Caption: Osprey publishing.)

Just past midnight on September 13, British bomb ketches and rocket ships started an intense bombardment of Fort McHenry that lasted 25 hours. Some 1,800 explosive bombs were fired at the fort, which some expected to be destroyed, but it stood up to the bombardment well. The great majority of the fort’s guns could not reach the British ships, which stayed safely outside their range of 1½ miles (2.4km). As a result, most of the British bombs and rockets fell short and missed the fort. The bombardment’s noise was deafening and could be heard by the worried population as far as 48 miles (77km) away.

Meanwhile, a British landing had been repulsed by American militiamen at North Point, and another west of Fort McHenry had been foiled by its guns and those of the Fort Covington battery. It became obvious to the British that Baltimore’s defenses were much stronger than expected. The bombardment ceased at 1.00 am on September 14, and later in the morning the British fleet sailed away. The Americans were elated; their coastal defense had stood up against a major attack and the confident fort commander, Corps of Artillery Major George Armistead, wanted an even larger flag for his fort in order to defy the British.

ORT MCHENRY, BALTIMORE: Of all the forts of the War of 1812, Fort McHenry in Baltimore is undoubtedly the most famous and, for Americans, the most beloved fort in the history of the United States of America. This is due to the valiant defense put up by its garrison in September 1814, when a large British fleet came up Chesapeake Bay and bombarded Fort McHenry for 25 hours. As all Americans know, the British bombardment inspired patriotism and resolve, which was stirringly put into words by lawyer Francis Scott Key who witnessed the event in his poem “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It immediately became very popular, was put to music, and is now the national anthem of the United States. The fort itself was a First System work to protect access to Baltimore’s harbor, which it certainly did brilliantly in September 1814. Construction began in 1799 and was completed by 1805. Its curtain walls were of earth and masonry. Engineer Jean Fontin’s design was not revolutionary, but resulted in a fortification that could resist an attack by land as well as by sea. The fort was laid out on a pentagon plan with five bastions (1), one at each corner, which gave it its “star” shape, and the main gate was protected by a ravelin (2). There was a ditch outside its walls. Each bastion had four guns mounted en barbette with up to another 30 installed in three shore batteries (3) in front of the fort, facing the water. Image and Caption credit: Osprey Publishing.

ORT MCHENRY, BALTIMORE: Of all the forts of the War of 1812, Fort McHenry in Baltimore is undoubtedly the most famous and, for Americans, the most beloved fort in the history of the United States of America. This is due to the valiant defense put up by its garrison in September 1814, when a large British fleet came up Chesapeake Bay and bombarded Fort McHenry for 25 hours. As all Americans know, the British bombardment inspired patriotism and resolve, which was stirringly put into words by lawyer Francis Scott Key who witnessed the event in his poem “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It immediately became very popular, was put to music, and is now the national anthem of the United States. The fort itself was a First System work to protect access to Baltimore’s harbor, which it certainly did brilliantly in September 1814. Construction began in 1799 and was completed by 1805. Its curtain walls were of earth and masonry. Engineer Jean Fontin’s design was not revolutionary, but resulted in a fortification that could resist an attack by land as well as by sea. The fort was laid out on a pentagon plan with five bastions (1), one at each corner, which gave it its “star” shape, and the main gate was protected by a ravelin (2). There was a ditch outside its walls. Each bastion had four guns mounted en barbette with up to another 30 installed in three shore batteries (3) in front of the fort, facing the water. Image and Caption credit: Osprey Publishing.

Forts-of-the-War-of-1812-by-Rene-Chartrand

 

Excerpted from Forts of the War of 1812 by René Chartrand.

Reprinted with permission from Osprey Publishing.


RENÈ CHARTRAND was born in Montreal and educated in Canada, the United States and the Bahamas. A senior curator with Canada’s National Historic Sites for nearly three decades, he is now a freelance writer and historical consultant. He has written numerous articles and books including Forts of the War of 1812.

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