CMH Remembers: 200th Anniversary
September 2014, CMH
The War of 1812 had reached a critical phase in September 1814. On 24 August, American forces suffered an embarrassing defeat at Bladensburg, which resulted in the British raid on the capital at Washington and the burning of many government buildings. Just three weeks later, the British turned their attention toward the important port city of Baltimore as a target for similar treatment.
"Battle of North Point" by Don Troiani
To defend Baltimore, Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith of the Maryland Militia commanded a mixed force of U.S. Army regulars, militiamen from Virginia, Pennsylvania and his own state, plus sailors and marines. Unlike at Bladensburg, the American forces had prepared positions, better intense training, and improved inter-service cooperation. After Maryland militia units fought a successful delaying action on 12 September at North Point, British commanders realized that their land attack on the city's main defenses would not prove an easy task. A supporting naval attack pounded the U.S. Army post of Fort McHenry in an attempt to unhinge the American defensive line on 13-14 September. The one thousand-man garrison, most of whom were Regular Army and Maryland Militia soldiers, withstood the bombardment with skill and bravery. When the firing ceased, the sight of the garrison flag flying over the unconquered post inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the poem that was later named the Star Spangled Banner and set to music, and which became the U.S. National Anthem in 1931.
Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith
Artist: Rembrandt Peale
Smith, who saw combat during the Revolutionary and commanded the Maryland Militia contingent called to federal service in the Whisky Rebellion, had resolved to conduct an active defense. On 10 September, observers on Federal Hill watched as British warships scouted the mouth of the Patapsco. The next day additional vessels probed further up the river. By noon on 11 September, enemy transports and escorting warships anchored off North Point. Alarm guns sounded throughout the city. Smith directed a number of small units to reinforce the light forces already screening on the south bank of the Patapsco. He then instructed Brig. Gen. John Stricker to deploy his entire 3d Maryland Militia Brigade forward to Patapsco Neck to delay the British as they advanced along the single road that led to the city. Numbering three thousand men, the 3d Brigade consisted of five infantry regiments, a battalion of riflemen, a company of artillery, and a regiment of cavalry, all from the Baltimore area. The brigade arguably was the most capable of the three Maryland militia brigades. Stricker – Commodore Joshua Barney's brother-in-law – had served in combat during the Revolutionary War and had been called into federal service during the Whiskey Rebellion.
Brigadier General Jonh Stricker
Artist: Rembrandt Peale
An Active Defense
The brigade marched at about 1500, headed down the North Point Road. It halted at approximately 2000, just below the junction with Trappe Road, where the neck of land narrowed to less than one mile in width between Bread and Cheese Creek on the north and Bear Creek on the south. Stricker chose his ground based on previous reconnaissance. He established camp behind a strong pike-rail fence at the edge of a wood line facing a large field where, except for the cover provided by the Bouldin Farm, the enemy would have to cross an open area. On the rising ground behind the clearing, Stricker set up headquarters in a Methodist meeting house. As volunteer militia companies from Hagerstown, Maryland, and Pennsylvania arrived to reinforce his brigade, he attached them to several of his subordinate regiments and prepared for battle. He ordered Capt. William B. Dyer, commanding in the place of the wounded Major Pinckney, to advance one company of the 1st Maryland Rifle Battalion, accompanied by the 5th Maryland Cavalry. After the riflemen formed a skirmish line two miles farther down the neck, Lt. Col. James Biay led the 140 troopers one mile further, and deployed as vedettes near the Gorsuch Farm.
At 0300 on 12 September, as British gun brigs came in close to North Point to lend naval gunfire support if needed, the first landing boats pulled toward shore loaded with red coated soldiers. Soon after the Light Brigade, now consisting of all the light infantry companies and the 85th Foot, was ashore, Maj. Gen. Robert Ross sent them ahead at about 0700 under the command of Maj. Timothy Jones to reconnoiter. Ross told his second-in-command, Colonel Arthur Brooke, to supervise the rest of the landing and advance with the 21st Regiment of Foot and the artillery as soon as possible so as to attack that morning. By 0800, six field pieces and two howitzers, plus their horses and limbers, had landed and advanced inland. Brooke caught up with Ross at the Gorsuch Farm to report, just when a British patrol brought in some captured American cavalrymen. The prisoners told Ross that he faced twenty thousand militia, at which the British commander allegedly scoffed, "I don't care if it rains militia." The general ordered Brooke to go back and hurry the troops along as American troops were probably in the area.
Volunteer Militia Infantryman, by Herbert Knötel,
from the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection
The Delaying Action
The cavalry vedettes had kept Stricker well informed. By 0700, he knew the British had landed. He sent his baggage back toward Baltimore and deployed his brigade in three lines, with Dyer's skirmishers to the front. He formed the first line just inside a wood astride North Point Road. Colonel Joseph Sterrett's battle-tested 5th Maryland Volunteer Infantry was posted on the south side with its right flank resting on a branch of Bear creek. Lt. Col. Kennedy Long's 27th Maryland formed on the north with its left flank extending to Bread and Cheese Creek. The six 4-pounder field guns of Capt. John Montgomery's Union Artillery company straddled the road between the two infantry regiments. The position strechted a mile in length. Three hundred yards to the rear, behind the west bank of Bread and Cheese Creek, Stricker deployed Lt. Col. Henry Amey's 51st Maryland on the right and Lt. Col. Benjamin Fowler's 39th Maryland on the left side of the road. One half mile further to the rear, on Perego's Hill near Cook's Tavern, Stricker positioned Lt. Col. William McDonald's 6th Maryland in reserve.
Maryland Rifleman, by Herbert Knötel,
from the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection
Stricker planned for Dyer's riflemen to retard the enemy's progress until the two forward regiments in the first line took up the fight against the leading British units. After forcing the British to deploy into battle formation, the first line would hold as long as possible without risking becoming decisively engaged, and then withdraw through the second line to take position on the right of McDonald's regiment. The second line would then take up the battle, repeat the tactic of the first, and withdraw to McDonald's left. The reunited brigade would then engage in a fighting withdrawal back to Hampstead Hill.
The plan got off to a rocky start. Acting upon a false rumor that British marines had landed to his rear, Dyer ordered the riflemen back before they had fired a shot. Chagrinned by the unauthorized retreat, Stricker ordered Dyer and the cavalrymen who had returned from scouting to take positions on the front line to the right of the 5th Maryland. When vedettes reported that a British advance party was at the Gorsuch farmhouse, several officers of the 5th Regiment volunteered to lead their companies for a strike. Maj. Richard Heath of the 5th Maryland advanced with Capt. Aaron Levering's Independent Blues and Capt. Benjamin C. Howard's Mechanical Volunteers of that regiment, Capt. Edward Aisquith's Sharp Shooters from the rifle battalion, and Lt. John S. Styles detachment of artillerymen with one gun. They deployed about a half mile forward, and the two hundred fifty Americans initiated a sharp skirmish with the British advance guard. After sustaining some casualties, the Americans withdrew while continuing a running fight through the thick woods.
Death of Ross
Ross and Royal Navy R. Adm. George Cockburn heard the firing and rode forward to assess the situation. The American foray surprised Ross and caused him to overestimate his opponent's strength. He decided to bring his army's main body forward quickly, and just as he turned in the saddle to tell Cockburn, a round of ball and buckshot struck him in the arm and chest. He fell from his horse mortally wounded as aides and subordinate officers rushed to his assistance Ross died as he was carried back to the landing site for medical treatment. His death shocked the British, and Colonel Brooke assumed command. He brought up reinforcements that drove Heath's men back to the main American line. While bringing up his own artillery, Brooke perceived a "several hundred yard gap" between the American left and the Back River, and he moved to exploit it. Seeing the British move toward his left flank, Stricker ordered the 39th to the left of the 27th Regiment, and ordered the 51st to form at a right angle to protect his vulnerable left flank. Such a maneuver under fire was beyond the capabilities of the inexperienced troops, and instead of forming where Stricker wanted them, they milled about in confusion.
Battle of North Point
Sensing the moment was right to attack, at 1450 Brooke launched a furious assault concentrated on Stricker's left flank. Both sides traded volleys, but the 51st Regiment became confused and broke, taking part of the 39th along with them. While the left crumbled under the fire of Brooke's 4th Regiment, the more reliable troops on Stricker's right held firm. Blasted with musketry and grapeshot, the 21st and 44th regiments suffered heavy casualties assaulting the 5th and 27th Maryland. After an hour of heavy fighting, Stricker, having followed his orders to fight a delaying action, directed his infantry and artillery to fall back to join the 6th Maryland at Cook's Tavern. While the British claimed that they drove and scattered the Americans from the field, Stricker reported most of his units had re-formed. Brooke did not order his forces to exploit their success, but remained on the battlefield until the morning of 13 September. Stricker listed his losses as 24 killed, 139 wounded and 50 men captured. In addition to General Ross, the British suffered 38 killed, 251 wounded, and 50 men missing.
Having accomplished his delaying mission, Stricker withdrew toward Worthington's Mills and took new positions as Smith had ordered. General Winder arrived with Brig. Gen. Hugh Douglass' Virginia brigade from the south of town and some regulars not deployed elsewhere, including a company of U.S. Dragoons under Captain John Burd. These joined Stricker on the left flank and apart from the main American line. They were positioned to attack the right flank of Brooke's army if it continued its advance on Hampstead Hill.
Following a heavy rain on the night of 12-13 September, Brooke had his men moving toward Hampstead Hill at 0530. A short while later, he could hear Royal Navy V. Adm. Alexander Cochrane's bomb ships shelling Fort McHenry. When he reached the junction of the North Point and Philadelphia Roads, the sight of the well-prepared and manned American defensive line stunned Brooke. He had assumed that the force he had driven off at great cost the day before at North Point represented the main American effort. After realizing his error, he tried to maneuver toward the entrenchments on Smith's left flank, and immediately encountered Winder's and Stricker's men arrayed on high ground in prepared positions above the Belair Road. When Brooke withdrew back toward the Philadelphia Road, Stricker and Winder advanced their brigades in a demonstration that threatened his rear. By the afternoon of 13 September, Brooke was content with merely sending patrols to probe Smith's main line for weaknesses, possibly for a risky night attack.
The Perilous Fight
Admiral Cochrane believed that if he could pound Baltimore's harbor defenses into submission, his ships could enter the harbor and enfilade the main American defense line on Hampstead Hill with their naval guns to assist Brooke in driving off the defenders. Due to the shallowness of the river, Cochrane only advanced one frigate, his five bomb ships, and one rocket firing ship toward Fort McHenry. Each bomb vessels had one 10-inch and one 13-inch mortar that could fire a two hundred-pound exploding shell or an incendiary carcass every five minutes. They began firing toward Fort McHenry from nearly two and a half miles away by 0700. When the defenders attempted to reply with their larger caliber guns, they realized the mortars' greater range allowed the British to remain beyond their reach and ceased firing by 1000. The British continued their bombardment against the fort, but Cochrane could tell that his weapons were not having the desired effect. He wrote to Cockburn who was ashore with Brooke, "It is impossible for the Ships to render you any assistance … It is for Colonel Brooke to consider … whether he has Force sufficient to defeat so large a number as it [is] said the Enemy has collected; say 20,000 strong or even less number & to take the Town."
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The Bombs Bursting in Air
Meanwhile, large bombs continued to fall inside the fort's walls or to explode overhead. Capt. Frederick Evans of the U.S. Corps of Artillery, who commanded the regulars of the garrison, saw two men killed by shrapnel as they hid under a heavy gun. He also stated that he saw a woman carrying water vaporized as a shell hit her. He noted that some shells "as big as a flour barrel" fell nearby and failed to explode. At 1400 a shell scored a direct hit on bastion number four and its 24-pounder, killing Lt. Levi Clagett and Sgt. John Clemm, militia artillerymen of the Baltimore Fencibles company, and wounding a number of others. When Cochrane ordered his bomb ships closer, the move brought them within range of the fort's larger guns. After American fire damaged two bomb ships and damaged the rocket ship so badly that she had to be towed to safety by the accompanying frigate, the admiral ordered his vessels to retire to a safer distance.
British Diversionary Attack
Cochrane continued long-range firing through the night and into the early morning hours of 14 September. After considering his options, Cochrane ordered Capt. Charles Napier of HMS Euryalis to lead twenty ship's boats loaded with nearly 1,200 sailors and marines in an attempt to slip into Ferry Branch and threaten Fort McHenry from its landward side. Under a driving rain, eleven of the boats became separated and drifted toward the Lazaretto, where Lt. Solomon Frazier's flotillamen and nearby Pennsylvania riflemen prepared to repel the landing. On realizing their mistake, the British pulled back towards their fleet. The nine remaining boats continued up Ferry Branch until detected by the men at Fort Babcock. They opened fire, and were soon followed by the guns at Fort Covington. Sailing Master Webster later stated: "I could hear the balls from our guns strike the barges. My men stated to me that they could hear the shrieks of the wounded…During the firing of the enemy, I could distinctly see their barges by the explosion of their cannon which was a great guide to me to fire by." The other batteries in and around Fort McHenry added their fire to punish Napier's force as it retreated.
By 0400, 14 September, the British firing began to slacken. At 0700 it ceased altogether. Soldiers on Hampstead Hill worried the fort had fallen, but the post had withstood the onslaught. Georgetown lawyer and District of Columbia Militia artillery lieutenant Francis Scott Key had been taken aboard a British flagship to assist in negotiating the release Dr. William Beanes' – a Maryland civilian who the British had taken prisoner. Key, Beanes, and Col. John Skinner, the American prisoner exchange agent, witnessed the night-long bombardment with fearful anticipation. After the firing had ceased in the morning, Key saw the large garrison flag flying from the fort's flagstaff. The three Americans knew that the men in the fort had prevailed. The sight inspired Key to write the poem he originally titled The Defense of Fort McHenry, which he later renamed The Star Spangled Banner. It became the United States National Anthem in 1931. Skinner and Key's mission ultimately succeeded in obtaining Beanes' release.
Our Flag Was Still There
With naval forces unable to outflank Hampstead Hill, Brooke's only options were to conduct an unsupported attack against a strongly entrenched enemy or retreat. After weighing the advantages and disadvantages, he decided on withdrawal. As his army marched back toward North Point, Brooke halted in an attempt to lure the Americans into a battle in the open. Smith, however, resisted the temptation to leave the trenches. By 15 September Cochrane's ships re-embarked the exhausted troops. British operations in the Chesapeake had effectively ended for the season. Before long, Cochrane headed to Halifax, and Cockburn departed for Bermuda. The British retained their naval base and a small contingent of colonial marines on Tangier Island until March 1815, the month following ratification of the Treaty of Ghent which ended the war.
An aerial view of Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine. This image shows the fort more in its Civil War era appearance. It was here, in September 1814, that the sight of the historic U.S. Army post's garrison flag still waving defiantly despite twenty-five hours of intense bombardment inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner," the song that later became our national anthem.