A Turning Point
The Battle of Baltimore was an important turning point in the War of 1812. By 1814 the young United States faced a desperate situation. The treasury tottered on the verge of bankruptcy and British forces invaded New York State. A second British invasion force had burned the government buildings in the capital, Washington, D.C. and hoped to follow up their success with seizing the port city of Baltimore. Fort McHenry served as the center of the city's defenses. If British naval forces could get past the fort, then they could destroy the city.
All-Out Naval Attack
Preparing Fort McHenry to receive an all-out naval attack by the British Navy fell on the shoulders of Major George Armistead. Working at a frantic pace, he called up reinforcements, ordered additional supplies such as food and ammunition, oversaw the training of recruits and worked directly with city leaders and militia units to develop battle plans.
Throughout the 25-hour bombardment Armistead directed the fort's defenses and inspired the troops to keep morale high. One eyewitness during the battle remarked "He (Armistead) was everywhere at once." From fifteen to eighteen hundred shells were fired by the British and Armistead wrote that "A few of these fell short. A large proportion burst over us, throwing their fragments among us and threatening destruction." Direct casualties were four soldiers killed and 25 wounded.
An Anxious Observer
Francis Scott Key anxiously watched the battle from the deck of an American truce ship. Key, and the U.S. Prisoner Exchange Agent John Skinner successfully negotiated the release of a prisoner, Dr. William Beanes. During the night of the battle they saw the red trail of the rockets as they arching into the fort. The explosions from the bombs could be heard for miles. On the morning of September 14, the British ships withdrew, and a giant American flag, 30 x 42-feet was hoisted over the ramparts as the fifes and drums played "Yankee Doodle." At that moment, Francis Scott Key saw the flag and inspired, wrote the words that became the National Anthem.
Although British casualties were slight, Armistead's success in "holding the fort" proved an important morale victory. The loss of the capital two weeks before had been redeemed, and the myth of British invincibility had been shattered. The battle was won through planning, training and logistics as much as bravery during combat.
Although not injured by a British bomb or rocket, the stress of command had a severe effect on Armistead. He suffered from fatigue and exposure for two weeks after the battle. Although he remained in command of Fort McHenry for four more years, he never fully recovered and died at the age of 39 on April 25, 1818.
New-found National PrideThe successful defense of Baltimore City helped end the War of 1812. This victory, together with the defeat of a British naval squadron on Lake Champlain showed the British government that the United States could hold out against British attacks. Conversely, American offensives into Canada proved failures. According to the Treaty of Ghent ending the war, neither side gained land as a result of the conflict. However, Americans gained a new-found feeling of confidence and pride in their nation because of the War of 1812. National honor had been preserved, and the nation stood up to the might of the British Empire and performed well. The two greatest symbols of American identity emerged from the conflict: the American flag and National Anthem — both from the victory at Baltimore.