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Monday, September 14, 2015

September 13 and 14: the anniversary of the battle of Baltimore, inspiration for the Star-Spangled Banner

It was a galling sight for British seamen to behold. And as the last vessel spread her canvas to the wind, the Americans hoisted a most superb and splendid ensign on their battery and fired at the same time a gun of defiance... When the squadron retreated from Baltimore, sullen discontent was displayed and malevolent aspersions cast upon our veteran chief... 

~Midshipman Robert Barrett, RN (1799-1828) (on the British withdrawal from Baltimore, "Naval Recollections of the American War") 

Without any clash on the battlefield the young American republic had humbled the might of the British empire. The rebuff of Britain at Baltimore decisively demonstrated America's independence of its former master. And this explosion of national pride was only to be magnified by the events of the remaining months of the war.* 

Larger version of map here
September 13th and 14th mark the anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore (wiki) during the War of 1812, remembered primarily for the unsuccessful British bombardment of Fort McHenry and Francis Scott Key's penning the words of "The Star-Spangled Banner" while interned on a British warship. 

President James Madison had declared war on Great Britain in June 1812 in response to interference with American shipping and the impressment of U.S. merchant seamen during the Napoleonic wars, as well as the British stirring up the Indians of the Ohio Valley to resist American settlement. Following an abortive American invasion of southern Canada, the British sent a modest naval and marine force - newly freed up from the Spanish campaign against Napoleon - to the Chesapeake in retaliation. 

The burned White House by George Munger,
White House Historical Association
In mid-August 1814, an expeditionary force under Admirals Alexander Cochrane and George Cockburn landed on the lower Patuxent River and after routing U.S. militia at the Battle of Bladensburg on the 24th, occupied Washington that night and burned its major government buildings, including the White House and the Capitol, before withdrawing a day later. (Simultaneously, another Royal Navy flotilla maneuvered up the Potomac River to seize Alexandria and held that city for several days before retiring with significant plunder.) After returning to their ships, the British moved up the Chesapeake Bay to attack Baltimore with a naval penetration of the Patapsco River and an amphibious landing southeast of the city on 12 September. 

By then, however, the Americans had rallied their own forces, stopped the (outnumbered) British at the Battle of North Point, and fought off the Royal Navy's attempt to reduce Fort McHenry on the night of September 13th - 14th. In the face of these failures, the badly over-extended British expedition withdrew southward and departed the Chesapeake Bay to prepare for the New Orleans campaign. And as for "The Star-Spangled Banner," here's the verse we never sing:

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Here's a rather well-done shortish documentary:

The U.S. Marine Band plays the National Anthem:

* The reference here is to the American victories on Lake Champlain (8-11 September 1814) and in the Battle of New Orleans, 8 January 1815, the second of which was actually fought two weeks after the Treaty of Ghent ended the war. 

** This recent book (St. Martin's Press, New York, 2013) presents a lively and readable account of the British invasion of Washington and the attack on Baltimore during the War of 1812. It should be remembered that all of this happened while Britain was deeply preoccupied with her struggle against Napoleon. He had been exiled to Elba as recently as April 1814 but would return to France on 20 March 1815 to fight the Hundred Days Campaign, which culminated in the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June.

John Farrier at Neatorama has an excellent article on the same subject.

Based on Ed's Quotation of the Day, only available via email. Leave your email address in the comments of you'd like to be added to his list.


  1. You beat me to the punch! I've got a Battle of Baltimore post coming out this weekend.

  2. One thing that struck me during research: the commanding general was a US Senator. And he was remarkably competent. I can't imagine trusting a modern senator with managing anything of consequence.

    1. Excellent point - I hadn't realized he was a Senator. I'll update my post with a link to yours when you publish it.

  3. When I was an elementary school student in Baltimore in the 1950's we had to memorize all the verses of The Star Spangled Banner, so I am very familiar with "the verse we never sing".