Bombardment of Fort McHenry Part 1

With the Battle of North Point over, General Stricker’s men retreated towards Hampstead Hill, while the British troops, now under Colonel Brooke’s command, waited for daybreak to begin their attack on the city. During the night of September 12, 1814, and into the early morning hours, under the same rainstorm drenching both Colonel Brooke’s men and the defenders on Hampstead Hill, 17 ships of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, made up of frigates, five bomb ships, one rocket ship, and other warships, sailed further towards Baltimore.

A black and white photograph showing Fort McHenry from the air.
Image of the star fort from above.


The Harbor Defenses

The focus of the city’s defense now turned to Fort McHenry, two miles south from the center of Baltimore on a peninsula that overlooked the water approaches to the city. By 6 a.m. that morning it had stopped raining but remained cloudy, with fog over the river. The commanding officer of Fort McHenry, Major George Armistead of the US Corps of Artillery, was keeping a close watch on the ships. With reinforcements from four US Army regiments and three Baltimore artillery companies of the Maryland Militia, close to 1,000 men were at the fort.

The men were out in the open. There were no bombproofs or shelters to protect the soldiers during the attack. A dry moat, about three to four feet deep surrounding the fort was the only place that offered any semblance of protection. And not much at that. On the outside of the fort, aimed downriver into the Patapsco, were two water batteries, an upper and lower battery. Each battery had 20 French naval cannons of different sizes: 18, 24 and 36 pounders. Each could fire a solid iron ball, or shot, at a rate of 1800 feet per second, or close to one and a half miles. A crew of 22 men were needed to load and fire each gun.

The star fort had five bastions, or points, that gave it the shape of the star. Each bastion had four 18 or 24 pounder cannons. Including the three guns in the ravelin, a triangular structure just outside the fort, there were 23 guns total at Fort McHenry. Directly to the east of Fort McHenry, less than a mile across the Patapsco’s Northeast Branch which led directly into Baltimore city, was the Lazzaretto Quarantine Station. Now abandoned due to the British blockade of the Chesapeake Bay, a three-gun battery manned by the Chesapeake Flotilla was at the Lazzaretto.

Flotilla men also manned 11 gun-barges spread across the Northeast Branch between the Lazzaretto and Fort McHenry. These were basically extra-long (50 to 75 foot) row boats, with a total of 22 cannons of different calibers, and they were in the direct path of any British ship that tried to dash past the Lazzaretto and the fort. As the British continued their approach up the Northeast Branch, a line of eight to ten merchant ships sailed down the river toward the enemy ships. Sailing past the flotilla’s gunboats they stopped at the narrowest point in the channel and were deliberately sunk, making it even more difficult to sail into the city.

The final obstacle was a boom chain stretched across the channel. This consisted of a large metal chain with an old wooden mast and logs attached to it to keep it from lying on the bottom of the river. To the west of the fort was the Ferry Branch of the river, a more indirect path into Baltimore. Within three and a half miles northwest of Fort McHenry were three smaller earthworks. These were Battery Babcock, with six guns manned by the flotilla, and two forts manned by US sailors and marines: Fort Covington, with ten guns and Fort Lookout, with seven guns.

A historic painting depicting british ships firing on Fort McHenry.
A historic drawing showing the bombardment of Fort McHenry.


The Attack Begins

The British frigates, including the HMS SURPRIZE, still towing the American truce ship, and Cochrane’s command ship dropped anchor three miles away from the fort. Most of the larger 38-gun frigates stopped at this distance as well since the channel was getting too shallow to come much closer.

With the British approaching, Armistead ordered the 30’ x 42’ garrison flag hoisted on the flagpole inside the fort. Armistead had ordered “a suitable ensign” along with a smaller 17’ x 25’ storm flag the year before from a local maker of “ship’s colours,” the widow Mary Pickersgill.

The bomb ships TERROR, AETNA, DEVASTATION, METEOR, and VOLCANO, along with the rocket ship HMS EREBUS, were about two and half miles from the fort. Shortly before 6:30 a.m. on September 13, the VOLCANO, testing the range, fired the first bomb at the American defenses. The bomb fell short.

The bombs fired by the five ships were also known as mortar shells. Each of the bomb ships carried a 10-inch and 13-inch mortar shell. The bombs weighed 200 pounds. The shells were hollow and filled with 10-15 pounds of gunpowder. A wooden fuse was screwed into the opening of each bomb. When the mortar was fired the explosion of the powder in the mortar tube lit the fuse. The fuse was cut for a flight of 27 seconds. When the fuse burned down to the powder inside it set off the gunpowder, resulting in the bomb exploding, or “bursting,” in air and raining down shrapnel on the defenders.

As the TERROR began firing its first few shells the other bomb ships drew closer. HMS COCKSCHAFER, a schooner tender of five guns, sailed towards the fort and from one mile away fired a broadside at the water battery.
The men at the water battery returned fire. The COCKSHAFER and the water battery exchanged several shots. This exchange revealed the range of the American guns.

The bomb ships and the EREBUS moved within two miles of the fort and began a bombardment that would last for the next 25 hours. At 7:00 a.m., Major Armistead ordered the fort’s guns to open fire, followed by the 36 pounder cannons on the outer battery. Within a half hour, two bomb ships and the EREBUS were keeping up a sustained bombardment of the fort. The defenders at the fort returned fire, scoring hits on the some of the frigates and smaller ships. In the fort, the fifes and drums played Yankee Doodle as the men in the fort gave three cheers. After observing the defenses at Fort McHenry, and the Lazzaretto, and the boats of the flotilla between them, Cochrane lost hope of taking Baltimore. He sent a note to Brooke and Cockburn that the navy would not be able to assist them in destroying the defenses.

Within three hours of the British opening fire, the rocket ship and all five bomb ships were pouring a heavy rate of fire at Fort McHenry. Soon a bomb or rocket would either explode above or in the fort at a rate of one every 45 seconds.
The bomb ships moved out of range of the fort’s cannons. Armistead, desperate to hit the British ships, ordered the cannons to their maximum elevation hoping to lob the cannon balls onto the decks of the British ships. When that failed, hoping to increase the range of his cannons, Armistead ordered double powder charges loaded into the guns. This caused two of the cannons to flip over taking them out of the fight. On the lower battery Thomas Beeson of the Washington Artillery and Thomas Messenger of the Chesapeake Flotilla on the upper battery were both killed.

A photograph of the storm flag flying over Fort McHenry.
A replica 17'x25' storm flag flying over Fort McHenry


By 10:00 a.m. that morning, both the cloud cover and the threat of rain increased over the area. By noon it started to rain. Armistead ordered the large wool flag taken down and Pickersgill’s smaller 17’ x 25’ foot storm flag hoisted.

By 11:00 a.m., with the British still out of range, Armistead, not wanting to waste powder and shot, ordered the guns manned by skeleton crews. They were to keep firing but at a slower rate, about once every five or ten minutes. This was done for the next three hours. Even though the fort’s cannons could not hit the enemy, Armistead wanted the British, and more importantly the inhabitants and defenders in Baltimore, to know that the fort had not surrendered.

The British army, led by Brooke and Cockburn, had approached the city from the east earlier that morning, and were attempting to find a weakness in the entrenchments. Every time a reconnaissance probe of the defenses was made, the Americans shifted men to counter any attack.All the British Army could do now was to wait for the navy to come up to help reduce the city’s defenses.

Last updated: March 29, 2024

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