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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Fort McHenry - The Cornerstone of the American Defense!

The repulse of a British naval attack against this fort in 1814 prevented the capture of Baltimore and inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner".

England and France were at war from 1793-1815. Because of both their intents to crush each other, both nations confiscated American merchant ships and cargoes to prevent supplies from reaching enemy ports, which the Americans viewed as the violations of their rights as neutrals. The situation was made hotter by British impressmentof American seamen and the demands of the "War Hawks", a group of southern and western Congressmen who wanted the US to annex British Canada and Spanish Florida. The war on England was declared on June 18, 1812 to preserve "Free Trade and Sailors Rights" and was carried by the War Hawks.

The Americans were mostly an annoyance to the British for 2 years who couldn't devote much attention to them until after Napoleon's defeat in April 1814. In mid-August, a British force with 5,000 army and navy veterans under the joint command of Maj. Gen. Robert Ross and Vice Adm. Alexander Cochrane sailed up Chesapeake Bay with the intent on giving Americans "a complete drubbing" which was what they did at the Battle of Bladensburg and went on to burn Washington. So, they turned their attention to Baltimore.

Baltimore was better prepared for the invaders than Washington had been. Defenses were erected, arms and equioment laid in, and troops trained under the command of Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith, a US senator and veteran of the Revolution. Smith's command totaled about 15,000 men, mostly Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia militia. But there were also a few regular army units and several hundred sailors under Commodore John Rodgers.

Fort McHenry, the key to the harbor, was defended by a thousand men. Its guns and those of 2 batteries along the river's edge dominated the channels leading to the city. Lines of gunboats and sunken hulks across the mouth of northwest branch also obstructed entry.

Ross's troops landed at North point and marched toward Baltimore on September 12, and later that day, Ross was mortally wounded in the opening skirmish of the Battle of North Point. He was replaced by Col. Arthur Brooke, who completed the battle and compelled the Americans to withdraw. The next morning, he marched his troops to within 2 miles of the city and awaited the results of a naval attack before assaulting the Baltimore defenses.

Admiral Cochrane attacked the fort at dawn on the 13th, about the time Brooke began his advance. The bombardment lasted for 25 hours. Maj. George Armistead, Fort Mchenry's commander estimated later that there were 1,500-1,800 shells and rockets fired at the fort. Two shells exploded on the southwest bastion killing 2 officers and wounding several gun crew members.

Realizing that the fort would never fall to shelling alonge in the midnight on September 13, Cochrane launched a diversionary attack up the Ferry Branch in an attempt to distract the American long enough for Brooke's troops to storm Rodger's bastion guarding the east side of the city. In the dark, rainy night, the attack went awry: some of the landing party rowed up the wrong branch, while other barges were detected and driven back by the combined fire of Forts McHenry, Covington, Babcock, and Look-Out. The failure of this sortie dashed British hopes of capturing Baltimore.

Bombships continued the bombardment until 7am on September 14, then withdrew down the river. As the British went away, the American soldiers fired the morning gun and hoisted the large flag that would later become known as the "Star Spangled Banner" while the musicians played "Yankee Doodle".

Fort McHenry since then never came under enemy fire again, although it continued as an active military post for the next 100 years. During the Civil War, it was used as a temporary prison for captured Confederate soldiers, southern sympathizers and political prisoners.
US Army General Hospital No. 2 was located here to serve WW1 veterans from 1917 to 1923.
In 1925, Congress made Fort Mchenry as a national park. After 14 years, it was redesignated a national monument and historic shine, the only park in the country to have this double distinction.

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