As I mentioned yesterday, the last few days have been the 199th anniversary of the British attack on Baltimore during the War of 1812. Most people today don’t realize just how important that war was. At the time it took place, many people referred to it as the Second War of Independence because they realized that our young nation’s very survival was at stake.
How fitting then that this was the occasion of the writing of our national anthem.
To understand what happened, it helps to know a little bit of geography. Baltimore is a harbor, but it does not lie directly on the Atlantic coast. Rather, it was built on the Patapsco River, an estuary leading off Chesapeake Bay. The city is located on the Northwest Branch, upstream from Fort McHenry. In practical terms, the British fleet could not reach the inner harbor of Baltimore without first taking the fort. So British ships gathered in the river below McHenry and began to bombard it.
While all this was going on, an American lawyer named Francis Scott Key was on one of the British warships. A month earlier, after the British burned Washington, DC., they captured a friend of Key’s named Dr. William Beanes. President Madison had given Key permission to negotiate with the British for the release of Beanes, and Key just happened to arrive right before the attack. Once the battle started, he had to remain aboard the ship—which gave him a front row view of the battle.
Like the people in Baltimore, however, Key really didn’t have much information about how the attack was going. All he could do was to make inferences from what he saw before him. As long as the British kept firing mortars and rockets at the fort, he could assume it hadn’t surrendered. This went on from early in the morning of the 13th all through the night.
Then by the dawn’s early light, Key and the people in Baltimore saw that the U.S. flag still waved. This was no ordinary flag. Major George Armistead, commander of the fort, had commissioned a huge 42′ x 30′ flag from Baltimore seamstress Mary Pickersgill. He wanted “a flag so large that the British would have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.” That defiant banner gave proof to anyone who cared to look that Fort McHenry remained in American hands even after 24 hours of shelling.
Not long after sunrise, the British fleet gave up and sailed away. Key wrote a poem about his experience, and that poem eventually became our national anthem.