Baltimore Saved

When the bombing of Fort McHenry finally stopped early on the morning of September 15, 1814, not everyone knew what the outcome was. Two miles from the fort, the truce ship, the STEPHEN DECATUR, was still tethered to Cochrane’s temporary command ship, the HMS SURPRIZE . Francis Scott Key, John Skinner, and Dr. Beanes had watched the attack from the deck of the STEPHEN DECATUR, and once the firing had stopped they waited for it to resume. When it did not the Americans were trying to figure out why the British had stopped firing. What did it mean? Had the fort and the city surrendered?

The Garrison Flag

A sketch showing the size of the garrison flag on the flag pole.
A drawing depicting the Garrison Flag at Fort McHenry.

NPS/Harpers Ferry Center

For nearly 90 minutes the Americans on the truce ship were waiting anxiously for an answer. They could tell the British ships were preparing to sail. But sail to where? Back down the Patapsco towards the fleet, or up the Patapsco into the city?

Key and Skinner kept looking through a spyglass to see if a flag was still on the pole and if so, whose flag was it? Was it the same one that they had seen the night before? Inside the fort the men of the garrison were also wondering what the British cease fire meant. The men on the ramparts kept a sharp eye on the ships, ready to open fire if they started towards the city.

Major Armistead was receiving reports from the garrison about any damage to the fort, the number of casualties, and what the British ships were doing. Just before 9:00 a.m., Armistead ordered the storm flag taken down, the same flag that Key had seen “at the twilight’s last gleaming.” By now the flag was hanging limp against the flagpole, heavy from all the rain absorbed by the wool. Following army regulations, at 9:00 a.m. Armistead ordered the garrison flag raised. The garrison’s fife and drums, joined by the musicians of the Maryland militia, played the national air “Yankee Doodle” while the large wool 30’ x 42’ garrison flag was hoisted.

As the flag rose to the top of the flagpole, the sun broke through the clouds, shining onto the flag. Aboard the STEPHEN DECATUR, Skinner, Beanes, and Key, watching through a spyglass, saw the large 30’x 42’ flag reflected in the sunlight, waving over the ramparts of Fort McHenry. They were elated that the fort was still held by the Americans.

A painting depicting Francis Scott Key atop a cannon on a boat in the river with is arm gesturing towards the flag over Fort McHenry.
Percy Moran's painting depicting Francis Scott Key the morning after the bombardment of Fort McHenry.

Library of Congress

At almost the same moment, the three of them, along with the rest of the crew, were towed along with released the British ships retiring from the fort, heading for a rendezvous at Old Roads Bay, four miles down the Patapsco River.
As the STEPHEN DECATUR was towed down the river away from Baltimore and the fort, Key began thinking of what he and the others on the ship had witnessed in the last two days. Being a lawyer, he always had paper with him. Taking a letter from his coat, he began writing notes about what he had seen and felt watching the bombardment.

All day on September 15th, the British embarked Brooke’s troops returning from the defenses of Baltimore and began making repairs to the ships involved in the bombardment of Fort McHenry. Still commanding from the SURPRIZE , Cochrane held an after-action conference with officers from the fleet and Admiral Cockburn. After the meeting with Cockburn, he went aboard the truce ship to meet with John Skinner.

During their meeting Cockburn gave Skinner an incomplete list of the Americans taken prisoner by the British. Skinner strongly objected to receiving an incomplete list. Cockburn promised that he would send an updated list as soon as he received the remaining names. Cockburn also told Skinner that Baltimore would have been taken were it not for the ships sunk in the channel, preventing the British from sailing past Fort McHenry into Baltimore. Skinner was shocked when Cockburn informed him that General Ross had been killed. Just as shocking to the Americans was the condition of the British troops being brought back to the ships. From what they could see the British soldiers had been “roughly handled.”

On Friday, September 16th, the British spent the morning and early afternoon finishing repairs and resupplying the ships in preparation for sailing down and out of the Chesapeake Bay. Still aboard the truce ship waiting to be released, Key continued working on his composition about his experience watching the attack on Fort McHenry.

Near 6:00 p.m., as the British fleet began making their way out of the Patapsco, the STEPHEN DECATUR started making its way up the Patapsco river towards Baltimore. Key was still writing as they passed Fort McHenry and the sunken ships that Cockburn said had saved the city.

A sheet of paper showing the lyrics of the Star-Spangled Banner and music notes.
Manuscript of Star-Spangled Banner music.


The Star Spangled Banner

About 8:00 p.m. that evening the STEPHEN DECATUR docked in Fells Point at Hughes Wharf. Spending the night in the Indian Queen Tavern, Key finished writing the poem he had been working on since sailing away from Fort McHenry two days ago. The next morning Key showed what he had written to both Skinner and Beanes. He also showed it to one of the defenders from Fort McHenry, Judge Joseph Nicholson, who was Captain of the Baltimore Fencibles. Nicolson was also Key’s wife’s brother-in -law and was equally impressed with his account of the battle.

Skinner and Nicholson thought it should be published in a newspaper. Key and Dr. Beanes, anxious to return home, left as the others went to find a printer. Before leaving, Key added the name of the tune, Anacreon in Heaven, to Skinner’s copy of the manuscript. At the offices of The Baltimore American, Nicholson and Skinner found the owner, Thomas Murphy, and Samuel Sands, a 14-year-old apprentice. Together they printed over 1,000 copies of a handbill entitled, “The Defense of Fort McHenry.”

By late afternoon on Saturday, September 15th, the handbill was being handed out on the streets of Baltimore. The next day, Nicholson and Skinner handed out copies of the handbill to the soldiers at Fort McHenry. One private wrote to his mother “… we have a song composed by Mr. Key of G(eorge) Town …presented to every individual in the fort on a separate sheet....”

One individual who probably did not receive a copy, at least right away, was Major Armistead. The day after the battle was over Armistead was taken ill and confined to his bed for 10 days. Having pushed himself preparing the fort and its garrison to the state of exhaustion, he ruined his health in the process. Promoted to brevet Lt. Colonel, Armistead would die at Fort McHenry within four years.

On September 20, 1814, “The Defense of Fort M’Henry” was published for the first time in a newspaper, The Baltimore American. Within six weeks of the battle it was published in newspapers in all 18 states and the territories. In 1931, “The Defense of Fort M’Henry”, now known as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” became the official national anthem of the United States.

A black and white photograph looking from the fort towards the Potapsco river with cannons and the George Armistead statue in the foreground.
Early 20th century view from Fort McHenry looking out towards the Potapsco River with the statue to George Armistead in its original location.


End of the War

The outcome of the Battle of Baltimore was that the city was saved, having avoided the occupation of an invading force who probably would have sacked the warehouses and then burned the city. The defeat of the British invading force had national importance as well. During the summer of 1814, representatives of the American and British governments were meeting in the Belgian town of Ghent to negotiate a treaty to end the war.

When the news of the burning of the public buildings in Washington City arrived in London, the British government told the negotiators in Ghent to strengthen their demands to annex all the land between the Ohio River and the Canadian border. The British also insisted that the Americans grant them sailing rights to the Mississippi River, and demanded free access to New Orleans, which would give Great Britain control of all the goods going in or out of the city.

London and the Houses of Parliament were shocked when they received news of the British defeat at Baltimore, and the September 11th American victory at Plattsburg, New York.
The government turned to Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and asked him to go to America and win the war for Great Britain. Wellesley responded that, being a good soldier, if ordered, he would take command in America. But he added that even if he went to America, he could not win the war unless Britain was ready to send endless men and treasure. Even then he could not guarantee victory. The Duke also told the government that the British forces had not achieved any victory over the Americans that would give them the right to demand any territory from the Americans. Wellesley recommended that the British sign a treaty to end the war.

When the British returned to the negotiating table, they proposed to the Americans that both countries revert to pre-war boundaries. Basically they said, we keep what we started with, you keep what you started with (Status Quo Anti Bellum) and we’ll call it a draw.
Except for some minor points about fishing rights and some small islands to be worked out later, the treaty was signed in Ghent, Belgium, on December 24, 1814, and would take effect when it was ratified by both sides.

Great Britain ratified the treaty within a week. The treaty did not reach the United States until February 1815. Ratified unanimously by the Senate, the treaty was signed by President James Madison on February 17, 1815. The War of 1812 was over the next day.

Last updated: January 9, 2023

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