The Bombardment of Baltimore


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from www.HowStuffWorks.com.

Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: And contrary to our title, The Bombardment of Baltimore, we are not starting off on a battlefield as you might think, but rather on a brewery floor in Baltimore where several women were piecing together a flag.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. That was Baltimore flag maker and widow, Mary Pickersgill, and she had gotten the order for the flag in July 1813 from Major George Armistead, and he was the new commander at Fort McHenry, which was a really important defense position for the city of Baltimore. It was defending the river, and he wanted a flag, an enormous flag that the whole city could see, something really big: 30 by 42 feet, which is about a quarter of a basketball court, so larger than even the biggest flag you've probably seen.

Katie Lambert: He needed that flag soon because the war that had started a year before, the War of 1812, was spreading through the country. Action at the Canadian border had leaked down to the Chesapeake Bay where the British were menacing ships and scoping things out.

Sarah Dowdey: So Armistead knew battle was going to come to Baltimore sooner or later, so he put in this rush order for his enormous flag from Pickersgill, as well as a smaller storm flag because when it's raining, you don't want to fly your 30-by-42-foot flag. Pickersgill works with 300 yards of English worsted wool bunting, piecing together red and blue stripes, and sewing on 15 - because there were only 15 stars at the time - enormous cotton stars. She carefully picked the wool off the back too, so she'd sew on the star, and then pick the blue off the back so the white star could show from both sides. This is a quality flag.

Katie Lambert: She is helped by her daughter, two nieces, and an African-American indentured servant. The women are done by August. They make $405.90 for the Garrison flag and $168.54 for the storm flag, which was very good money. Flag making was a pretty lucrative profession at the time. It's just in time for Armistead. The British have arrived at the Patapsco River. They're eying the city's defenses, and they're planning an attack for the following year.

Sarah Dowdey: To understand that, we're going to have to go back in time a little bit and give you all some context about the War of 1812. At the time Armistead commissioned the flags, it was starting to become pretty clear to a lot of Americans that the country had rushed into a war against Britain. It wasn't strong enough. It wasn't prepared enough to fight against these highly trained troops. The declaration of war had come in 1812, and it was over this dispute America had with Britain over maritime rights. The British had been battling Napoleon for global control for decades, and they didn't like that their former colony, America, which was officially neutral, was trading with both of them. It's understandable. It seemed to them as though the Americans were aiding Napoleon.

Katie Lambert: But by blocking them, they're interfering with American neutrality, which we didn't think was very fair. Not only was it bad for business, but it also offended the relatively new America. Historian Douglas Egerton wrote, "England still regarded American trade as part of their domain, even after the revolution." To make matters worse, the British needed all the men it could find to fight in the Napoleonic wars, so they would impress American citizens, charge them as Royal Navy deserters, and force them into service. Impressment is never very popular.

Sarah Dowdey: Not a good way to win friends, stealing them off boats, and making them join your army. So it's the War Hawks though that really push this battle ahead in this war. These are southerners and westerners who are mostly too young to have actually seen action in the revolution, so they're kind of itching for their own war, but they're also expansionists. They're offended over the violation of the maritime rights, sure. That's a problem. They don't like the impressments, but they're really eyeing British Canada to the north and Spanish Florida to the south and hoping that maybe this growing country can grow a little more.

Katie Lambert: They think Canada will be easy pickings. Even Thomas Jefferson says, "The acquisition of Canada this year as far as the neighborhood of Quebec will be a mere matter of marching and will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next, and the final expulsion of England from the American continent." Basically, he thinks, "We'll just walk in, and that will be the end."

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. But the War Hawks are still just a very small majority, and the votes to declare war are really, really close in both the house and the senate. It's an unpopular fight in a lot of the country. Actually, a year and a half into the war, some of the northern states are actually considering the idea of suc cession so they could pick up trading again.

Katie Lambert: The idea of war is pretty unpopular with a lot of Brits too. After all, Britain is still busy fighting Napoleon, but in 1814, Napoleon is defeated, and now Britain can focus on the conflict happening in North American. And focus they do, dispatching 5,000 troops from Europe and naval support from Bermuda.

Sarah Dowdey: Their plan is really intense. They finally have full attention to devote to North America, and they're going to use their navy to attack coastal areas. Then they're going to use the army to take the East Coast cities. They're hoping all of this action will distract Americans from the battles that are going on at the northern boundaries between the Canadians, and the natives, and the British.

Katie Lambert: During that scouting mission the Brits were doing in 1813 that made Armistead really want to get this flag flying, they had decided that taking Washington and Baltimore, the third-biggest city in the country, would be a piece of cake, and that it would be payback for the American's sacking of York, which is, of course, Toronto.

Sarah Dowdey: They've put Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane in charge of the naval forces and Major General Robert Ross in charge of the land forces. One important thing to note with a lot of the British troops is they are fresh out of the Continental War, so these are seasoned soldiers, and they really know what they're doing contrary to the American forces which don't have much training, and a lot of them are commanded by Revolutionary veterans who are getting up there and haven't really fought in a serious war in decades.

Katie Lambert: The British plan is to attack Washington first since it would be off guard, and they're right. The Americans are totally expecting Baltimore to be attacked first since that's where all the privateers are. Actions started June 1814 when American Commodore Joshua Barney sailed south from Baltimore to fight the British on one of their island naval bases, but he couldn't get out of the mouth of the Potomac and was forced to retreat.

Sarah Dowdey: So he holes up in Saint Leonard Creek, and the Brits can't get to him there, so they raid the area, burning plantations, kind of trying to lure him out to engage again. He finally does come out. They fight. He's able to escape up the Pawtuxet River. The British change their plan of attack. They're going to have a three-pronged approach, and the plan is to divert American forces all while pressing on toward Washington, so the American forces will wonder, "Are they going for Washington? Baltimore? Which way are they going to go? What's going on?" and this sense of confusion will be created.

Katie Lambert: By August 20th, more than 4,000 troops have disembarked at Benedict on the Pawtuxet River, which wasn't far from the city. Smaller ships continued upstream.

Sarah Dowdey: These are the British.

Katie Lambert: Right. Sorry. Barney was ordered to destroy his flotilla at Pig Point to prevent its British capture, so things aren't looking great for Americans at this point.

Sarah Dowdey: So the British decide to take the route to Washington through Bladensburg. They do run into American troops along the way, but the Americans are so unorganized. There's hardly a fight. They flee, and the Battle of Bladensburg is just this terrible humiliation. I mean, Washington has no protection now. By August 24th, the British arrive in the capital, and they burn the Library of Congress. They burn the capital, the treasury, departments of state, war, and navy, and the executive mansion, which is, of course, not the White House at this time. The president and his cabinet actually have to flee the city because they're concerned about what might happen to them.

Katie Lambert: We owe some thank yous to some quick thinkers, like First Lady Dolly Madison who made an arrangement to protect some White House treasures. She stuffed congressional papers into chests and waited for word from her husband. When it became clear that he wouldn't be able to come back and she would have to flee, she wrote to her sister, "Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and in a very bad humor with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of General Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for this perilous moment. I've ordered the frame to be broken and the canvas taken out. It is done." So thanks to Dolly for that one!

Sarah Dowdey: We also get things like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They're all rescued from the state department. There was a clerk who's been left in charge of the senate archival materials, and he tells his boss basically, "Either help me get these documents out of Washington, or I'm going to do it by myself." It ends up being the clerk and an African-American office messenger who confiscate a wagon and then load it up with 25 years' worth of senate archives. This is the early history of our country that would be lost in a fire. It's sad.

Katie Lambert: It should be clear that it's not just this huge, burning of the city. It's very controlled. The British are hitting specific targets, and they don't go about looting or burning private home. There's actually a tornado shortly after the burning that hurts and kills more people, but there are some causalities. We lose 3,000 books in the Congressional Library that are completely destroyed but are reestablished later with the purchase of Thomas Jefferson's private collection.

Sarah Dowdey: So the American troops - who are exhausted, and defeated, and probably feeling pretty bad at this point - head to Baltimore because they know that is where the fight is heading next. It's starting to seem like a pretty bad idea to have declared war on Britain.

Katie Lambert: But that brings us to our Battle of Baltimore.

Sarah Dowdey: Our bombardment, if you will.

Katie Lambert: We like alliteration. The British troops join up with the fleet at Benedict, and head down the Pawtuxet, and up the Chesapeake Bay toward Baltimore. As Sarah wrote in her notes, there's going to be a smack down.

Sarah Dowdey: It's true. The Baltimore privateers have captured all these British ships over the course of the war, or destroyed them. The British are looking for some payback time. All the privateers are based here. It's a very wealthy city. Baltimore is going to suffer at a greater extent than Washington did.

Katie Lambert: General Ross's British troops landed at North Point, Maryland on September 12th, moving in toward the city, but they ran into the American forward line that was actually prepared this time, and Ross was killed in the fight by a sharpshooter. So the surprised British make camp on the battlefield and plan to attack again the night of September 13th.

Sarah Dowdey: Meanwhile, the navy, having already successfully attacked Alexandria, Virginia, is ready to strike Fort McHenry, which we mentioned at the beginning. It's that crucial defensive point for Baltimore.

Katie Lambert: It's the key to the city.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. So the ships open fire on September 13th, and they lobby these 190-pound shells at the fort. It's a new arms technology where the shells actually explode, so some of them that don't quite reach their targets explode in the air. You might call them bombs bursting in air. That's a little hint for where we're going. One commander at the fort even finds a note written on an unexploded shell, "A present from the King of England," which sounds like a scene out of a movie.

Katie Lambert: It also reminded us of the St. Paul's watch podcast.

Sarah Dowdey: Definitely.

Katie Lambert: Things look bad for Baltimore because the ships are out of Fort McHenry's range of fire, so they can't fight back. They just have to sit there and take it for 25 hours. The British fire all day long through the 13th and into the predawn hours of the 14th shooting 133 tons of shells at the fort, which is nearly one per minute.

Sarah Dowdey: People as far away as Philadelphia can hear the racket from the Baltimore attack. There's one important thing though. The British can't advance either. They can sit there out of range with the guns and fire at them all day, but they can't get any closer because when they do, the Fort is actually able to hit them and does some serious damage when the ships try to advance in the afternoon of the 13th.

Katie Lambert: They're not doing too much danger to the fort either. Only four men are killed, 24 wounded, but out of 1,000, that's not so many. By dawn, Admiral Cochrane halts the assault.

Sarah Dowdey: So it's rained the whole day and the whole night of the attack. It's likely that the fort was probably flying its smaller storm flag. We should probably note that. as the British ships maneuver around to leave, Major Armistead, who's in charge of the fort, orders that they hoist the huge garrison flag that he's commission and fire rounds in defiance of the retreating ships. So it's this very patriotic moment. Baltimore has pulled through.

Katie Lambert: Lawyer and poet Francis Scott Key has been watching the bombardment from a ship in the bay. He was detained during the battle after negotiating the release of an American and a kinsman, so all day long, he's been able to see what was likely the smaller storm flag flying from the fort, knowing it was still in American hands. But at night, he can't see anything and doesn't know what's happening, which must have been scary.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. He wrote, "It seemed as though Mother Earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone." He's wondering all night if the fort is still going to be in American hands. Then at dawn on the 14th, he sees that the flag is still flying. He knows the city has made it through the night. It's this grand patriotic moment. America's going to make it. After the British leave, Key is so inspired that he checks into a Baltimore hotel and finishes this poem he started thinking about about the flag, the Star-Spangled Banner, and he sets it to an English drinking song and publishes it. Within a week, it's reprinted nationally, and by November, it's been printed as sheet music. Long after, in 1931, it becomes the country's official national anthem.

Katie Lambert: We'd like to note too that Key had been adamantly opposed to the war, but after the White House was burned and Baltimore was attacked, he'd had it.

Sarah Dowdey: Not too long after Key's poem is set to music, the war is over. It's partly due to the British loss at Baltimore and again at Lake Champlain. The British are just getting tired. They've been fighting Napoleonic wars for about 20 years, and they have the taxes to show for it, and they're suffering from the lack of trade with the U.S. That's a profitable business for the British.

Katie Lambert: The U.S. has also realized that it won't gain any of its objectives, so the two countries work out a peace at the Treaty of Ghent, and there are no major concessions, and no major territorial exchanges. The impressments won't end, but that doesn't matter much anyway since Britain doesn't need soldiers for its continental wars, and England promises not to mess with the Canadian boundary or try to set up an Indian state. Really, it seems like a bit of a pointless war.

Sarah Dowdey: Kind of a null and void outcome here.

Katie Lambert: No one got anything.

Sarah Dowdey: The scorecard doesn't change in any way.

Katie Lambert: We're going to call it even.

Sarah Dowdey: The news of peace comes too late, though, to New Orleans where the British attack the city, and they're held off by Andrew Jackson.

Katie Lambert: Despite the end of the war.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. But that victory, as well as the victory at Baltimore, kind of helped contribute to the American sense that we won the war. You can give a little credence to it because it does help establish American credibility abroad, that we were able to fight against the larger world's super power and defend certain American cities.

Katie Lambert: It also gives us a bit of a desire to keep out of Europe's business for a while. Canada comes out with a similar surge of patriotism because they kept America out, although they remained British.

Sarah Dowdey: Getting back to the flag, we're not going to finish this podcast before we wrap that little bit up. Major Armistead takes it home with him. It probably got pretty beat up over the next few years. He dies pretty young and leaves it to his widow, who keeps it in Baltimore. She takes it out every now and then and lends it to big patriotic events and helps build the cult of the Star - Spangled Banner. People want to see it and get a look at it in person. His descendents keep it through the Civil War, even though they have confederate sympathies, which is a really weird thing to imagine if they're confederates, and here they have the symbol of the country they're rebelling against.

Katie Lambert: They pass it on through the generations, so later, visitors are allowed to take little snippets of it. Over time, the flag becomes rather square. It also becomes a bit of a curse on their family.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. There's all sorts of in-fighting, and it leads to bitterness and paranoia. "Why should this person get the flag?" I think some of the later descendents feel like they're being hounded by constant requests to see the flag, and hold the flag, and get snippets of it.

Katie Lambert: Family flag feud.

Sarah Dowdey: More alliteration. Good job, Katie. One of the family members even notes that, "More battles have been fought over the flag than under it." Finally, an exhausted Armistead descendent leaves it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1907, and it is there today.

Katie Lambert: As for Key, his Georgetown house was removed for a highway in 1947, so two stories worth of his brick house were dismantled, packed up, and put into storage. But by 1955, every brick had disappeared, which reminded us a lot of the Amber Room.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, it's our American version, I guess. That about wraps up the bombardment and the missing house and the flag story, and it brings us to listener mail.

Katie Lambert: We got an email from Ali, who requested a podcast on Nefertiti, but we beat her to the punch and recorded it before we got her email. She said she was pretty much an expert on the subject, so we wish we'd gotten this before and could've taken her up on some of her awesome sources, but she did have one interesting tidbit which was that Nefertiti and Akhenaton had a very public romantic relationship and were depicted kissing in public, and her sitting on his lap. So there's a little romantic piece of Nefertiti's life.

Sarah Dowdey: We also got some cool postcards. Two postcards from Asia came the same day, which was funny. It must've been the same sack of mail or something.

Katie Lambert: It was a nice interlude.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. One was from Hong Kong, and it was inspired by our opium wars podcast from Luke. Another one was from Japan. It's from Walter. I think Walter is going to be pleased by the Samurai podcast, so I bet he sent it before it came out.

Katie Lambert: Yes. I think he'll like that one. If you'd like to send us some email, we're at HistoryPodcast@HowStufWorks.com. We'd also like you to follow us on Twitter at MissedinHistory, or join our Facebook fan page, and as always, come check out our home page. We've got a pretty cool article on the Smithsonian Institution if you search at www.HowStuffWorks.com.

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