As General Stricker’s 3rd Brigade was retreating from the Battle of North Point during the evening of September 12, 1814, British naval ships out on the Patapsco River were moving into position for an attack on Fort McHenry. The star fort was the last main obstacle into Baltimore. Once the fort was destroyed, the ships would sail into the city, empty the warehouses, and set fire to the city as they left.
Among the ships of the British fleet was an American packet ship that had left Baltimore a week ago. It was on a mission to secure the release of an American prisoner, Dr. William Beanes.
From Hospitality to Hostage
Three weeks earlier, as the British were marching towards Washington City, Beanes had hosted General Ross, Admiral Cockburn, and other British officers at his house in Upper Marlboro. The elderly Beanes was a prominent local physician whom the British believed was sympathetic to them. Before leaving for Washington City, Beanes had promised Ross and Cockburn that he would not interfere with British military operations. However, as the British army marched back to their ships after they burned Washington City, Dr. Beanes took part in helping to round up some of the stragglers. When hearing of this, Ross was furious, and he ordered Beanes brought to the fleet. Ross intended to send him to Halifax to be put on trial for his duplicity.
Word of the doctor’s plight had spread throughout southern Maryland. Lawyer Francis Scott Key, an acquaintance of Beanes, went to Octogon House in Washington City to meet with President Madison, seeking authorization to negotiate with the British to secure Dr. Beanes’ release. Madison approved, telling Key to go to Baltimore and meet with the U.S. Prisoner of War Exchange Agent, John S. Skinner.
Before leaving to meet with Skinner, Key went to Bladensburg, where the battle had been fought that opened the way for the British to enter the capital. At Bladensburg, Key found American doctors who had been treating wounded British soldiers too injured to return to the fleet.
Key announced he was going to meet the British fleet and asked if anyone had letters for home. After receiving a sack of letters, Key left for Baltimore to meet with Skinner. Arriving in Baltimore at Bowley’s Wharf at the base of South Street, Skinner and Key boarded a local mail packet ship called THE PRESIDENT, which was owned by the Ferguson Brothers, and on September 5th, they sailed to meet the British fleet.
A Rescue Mission
The next day, off the Patuxent river, Skinner and Key sighted HMS ROYAL OAK, and learned that Dr. Beanes was aboard Admiral Cochrane’s command ship, the HMS TONNANT. The 80-gun ship was further down the bay, so Key gave the sack of letters from the British prisoners to one of the smaller faster ships to relay them to General Ross, who was also on the TONNANT.
On September 7, the TONNANT arrived to meet with the rest of the fleet. Skinner and Key were brought aboard where they were greeted by Admiral Cochrane. They realized an attack on Baltimore was being planned. Before Skinner could mention the purpose of the visit, Key told Cockburn they were there for the release of Dr. Beanes. Cockburn spoke very harshly about Beanes, and the other British officers did not think he should be released.
However, the Americans were invited to lunch with the British officers. Skinner, in his official capacity as Prisoner Exchange Agent, had met the British officers many times before. As lunch was served and the officers started to talk among themselves., Skinner and Admiral Edward Codrington got in a heated discussion over the fact that Skinner’s house had been burned by the British three weeks before. There was also an army officer at the lunch who Skinner had not previously metHe was surprised to discover it was General Ross.
Ross invited Skinner back to his cabin, and told him that Dr.Beanes was no gentleman and should not be released for any reason. BUT! Ross had read the letters from the British prisoners and his officers stating what great treatment the Americans had given Ross’s soldiers.
Ross expressed his relief and gratitude about the kind treatment his men had received, and stated that for this reason, and no other, he would consent to the release of Dr. Beanes.
After his meeting with Ross, Skinner returned to tell Key that Dr. Beanes would be released. Admiral Cochrane told Skinner and Key that with so many officers from other ships aboard the TONNANT planning the attack on Baltimore, there was no room for the Americans to remain onboard. The three Americans, and the remainder of the crew from the truce vessel, were transferred to the 38-gun frigate HMS SURPRIZE. The truce ship was then tied to the SURPRIZE and towed up the bay with the fleet to the Patapsco River.
As the British fleetreached the mouth of the Patapsco River, Skinner suggested to Admiral Cochrane that since they were noncombatants and so close to the city, he let them return to Baltimore.
Cochrane told him that since the British officers had freely discussed the attack in front of Skinner and the others, they could not let them go into Baltimore and risk informing the defenders of the British plans. So, the Americans would be detained until after the British had taken the city. Skinner then ask to be transferred back to their own ship so they would not have to watch the attack from the deck of a British warship. Cochrane agreed to this but also sent a detachment of royal marines to ensure the Americans did not try to escape.
Returning to their ship, the Americans reluctantly settled in to watch the British attack proceed, helpless to provide any warning to the city in front of them.