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Through “Rocket’s Red Glare” Flotilla Sailors Stand Strong

A painting by Thomas Moran shows Francis Scott Key watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the Dawn’s early light of September 14, 1814. Key, a lawyer, was part of a delegation negotiating the release of American prisoners and was compelled to remain on board a Royal Navy warship. It was viewing the battle from warship that inspired him write the poem which became the American National Anthem. Artwork courtesy Library of Congress


By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford, Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division

It was arguably one of the most famous battles on American soil and is still sung of today. It was a failed attempt by the British to invade one of America’s largest cities during the War of 1812, a battle that inspired the anthem of the American people. When Francis Scott Key witnessed a battered American flag still waving “at dawn’s early light,” he was seeing it not from Ft. McHenry, but from a British ship.

Key, a lawyer, was on a British ship, HMS Tonnant, to negotiate the release of a prisoner. After having dinner with British military leaders, Vice Adm. Alexander Cochrane, Rear Adm. George Cockburn, and Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, the American was told he could not leave because he knew the British location and number of units for the planned Sept. 13, 1814 attack.

After 25 hours of constant bombardment, the British turned away from Baltimore in defeat, unable to take Baltimore as it had so easily taken Washington, D.C a few weeks earlier. After the assault, Key was released from the British ship, where his pen had given birth to what is now our national anthem.

Life was not quite as easy on the American side for those 25 hours. Before the bombardment, soldiers and militiamen stood awash with the familiar emotions for the oncoming Battle of Baltimore – fear, anger and excitement – they were not alone. Alongside the soldiers that night stood local Sailors including Sailors of Commodore Joshua Barney’s Flotilla. They would prove to be an invaluable asset.

Barney, a privateer and patriot, had set a defense for the Chesapeake with his flotilla – a mosquito fleet of small ships, lightly armed — that harried the British through the war until he was blockaded and forced to scuttle them. Even ship-less, he used his Sailors to stall the 4,000-strong British forces at Bladensburg. Even the British praised Barney’s Sailors, saying the only opposition they faced came from the Sailors.

Ultimately, the Americans lost the battle and Barney was wounded and captured, but his men escaped. When war loomed over Baltimore, the Sailors came north to defend that harbor city along with the regular Army and militia. The flotilla men joined with other Sailors already in Baltimore to defend the city.

Eighty flotilla Sailors and one officer were given the duty of manning an artillery defense protecting the city from the South, taking control of a battery of three long 18-pounders at the Lazaretto, a point of land across from Fort McHenry at the entrance to the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River. An additional 50 flotilla seamen manned Fort McHenry’s water battery. West of Fort McHenry, flotilla seamen manned batteries at Fort Babcock and Fort Covington. Forts Babcock and Covington were active participants in the repulse of a British effort to flank Fort McHenry during the bombardment. More than 300 Sailors worked on gun barges protecting the harbor.

When a British assault force in boats slipped by Fort McHenry unnoticed, they were sighted by the flotilla men manning Forts Babcock and Covington. These forts immediately engaged the assault force and drove it off before troops could be landed. Meanwhile the Navy manned the fort’s guns at the Lazaretto, and the water batteries actively engaged the bomb ships bombarding Fort McHenry.

A small part of the Sailors sacrifice was recorded by the Niles Register on Sept. 24, 1814:

“Aided by the darkness of the night and screened by a flame they had kindled, one or two rocket or bomb vessels and many barges, manned with 1,200 chosen British troops, passed Fort McHenry and proceeded to assail the town and fort in the rear, and, perhaps, effect a landing. The weak sighted mortals now thought the great deed was done — they gave three cheers, and began to throw their massive weapons.  But, alas! their cheering was quickly turned to groaning, and the cries and screams of their wounded and drowning people soon reached the shore, for Forts McHenry and Covington with the City Battery and the Lazaretto and barges vomited an iron fire upon them, heated balls, and a storm of heavy bullets flew upon them from the great semi-circle of large guns and gallant hearts.”

So when you celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Fort McHenry, remember the Sailors and Soldiers who made possible the sight on the morning of Sept. 14, as the smoke cleared, of the giant flag flying over the fort inspiring the following poem:

O say, can you see by the dawn’s early light,

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming!
And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb’s bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say, does that star spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

On that shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,

Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, now conceals, now discloses?
Now it catches the beam, of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream;
‘Tis the star-spangled banner! O, long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore

That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

O, thus be it ever where freemen shall stand

Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto, “In God is our trust”;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!