The Battle That Birthed Our Star Spangled Banner

Originally published:

img cr: Rembrandt Peale, Maryland Historical Society

Nothing like getting a report from someone who witnessed anything – and we provide a a reprint of the letter Lt. Colonel Armistead sent to the Secretary of War concerning the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British in September 1814.

Born on April 10, 1780, in Caroline County, Virginia, George was one of five brothers, all of whom later served in the War of 1812.

On May 18, 1813, while serving as an artillery officer at Fort Niagara, New York, he took an active part in the American attack on Fort George across the Niagara River in upper Canada and was accorded the honor of delivering the captured British flags to President James Madison.

On his taking command of Fort McHenry in June 1813, Armistead ordered a flag made “so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.”

He earned his enduring place in American history under that flag at Fort McHenry whose stalwart defense of Baltimore against British attack in 1814 inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Armistead remained in command of the fort until his untimely death at age 38 on April 25, 1818.

He is buried in Old St. Paul’s Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland.

source: National Park Service

Official Account of the Bombardment of Fort McHenry

Reprinted from the copy maintained by the Smithsonian Institute

Copy of a letter from Lieut. Colonel Armistead, to the Secretary of War, dated

Fort McHenry, Sept. 24th, 1814

A severe indisposition, the effect of great fatigue and exposure, has prevented me heretofore from presenting you with an account of the attack on this post. On the night of Saturday the 10th inst. the British fleet, consisting of ships of the line, heavy frigates, and bomb vessels, amounting in the whole to 30 sail, appeared at the mouth of the river Patapsco, with every indication of an attempt on the city of Baltimore. My own force consisted of one company of U.S. artillery, under Capt. Evans, and two companies of sea fencibles, under Capts. Bunbury and Addison. Of these three companies, 35 men were unfortunately on the sick list, and unfit for duty. I had been furnished with two companies of volunteer artillery from Baltimore, under Capt. Berry, and Lt. Commandant Pennington. –To these I must add another very fine company of volunteer artillerists, under Judge Nicholson, who had proffered their services to aid in the defense of this post whenever an attack might be apprehended; and also a detachment from Commodore Barney’s flotilla under Lieut. Redman. Brig. Gen. Winder had also furnished me with about six hundred infantry, and Major Lane, consisting of detachments from the 12th, 14th, 36th, and 38th Regim. of U.S. troops – the total amounting to more than 1000 effective men.

img cr: baltimore.org

On Monday morning very early, it was perceived that the enemy was landing troops on the east side of the Patapsco, distant about ten miles. During the day and the ensuing night, he had brought sixteen ships (including five bomb ships) within about two miles and a half of this Fort. I had arranged my force as follows: – The regular artillerists under Capt. Evans and the volunteers under Capt. Nicholson, manned the bastions in the Star Fort. Captains Bunbury’s, Addison’s, Redman’s, Berry’s and Lieut. Commandant Pennington’s command were stationed on the lower works, and the infantry under Lieut. Col. Stewart and Major Lane were on the outer ditch, to meet the enemy at his landing, should he attempt one.

On Tuesday morning about sunrise, the enemy commenced the attack from his five bomb vessels, at the distance about two miles, when finding that his shells reached us, he anchored and kept an incessant and well directed bombardment. We immediately opened our batteries, and kept a brisk fire from our guns and mortars, but unfortunately our shot and shells all fell considerably short of him. This was to me a most distressing circumstance, as it left us exposed to constant and tremendous shower of shells, without the remote possibility of our doing him the slightest injury. It affords me the highest gratification to state, that although we were left exposed, and thus inactive, not a man shrunk from the conflict.

The Guns that Won the Battle Marker – img cr: memorieshop.com

About 2 o’clock, P.M. one of the 24 pounders on the south west bastion, under the immediate command of Capt. Nicholson, was dismounted by a shell, the explosion of which killed his second Lieut. and wounded several of his men; the bustle necessarily produced in removing the wounded and remounting the gun probably induced the enemy to suspect that we were in a state of confusion, as he brought three of the bomb ships to what I believed to be a good striking distance. I immediately ordered a fire to be opened, which was obeyed with alacrity through the whole garrison, and in a half an hour those intruders again sheltered themselves by withdrawing beyond our reach. – We gave three cheers, and again ceased firing. The enemy continued throwing shells, with one or two slight intermissions, till one o’clock in the morning of Wednesday; when it was discovered that he had availed himself of the darkness of the night and had thrown a considerable force above to our right; they had approached very near to Fort Covington, when they began to throw rockets; intended I presume, to give them an opportunity of examining the shores – as I have since understood, they had detached 1250 picket men with scaling ladders, for the purpose of storming this Fort. We once more had an opportunity of opening our batteries, and kept a continued blaze for nearly two hours which had the effect again to drive them off.

In justice to Lieut. Newcomb, of the United States Navy, who commanded Fort Covington, with a detachment of sailors, and Lieut. Webster, of the flotilla, who commanded the Six Gun Battery, near the Fort, I ought to state, that during this time, they kept an animated, and I believe very destructive fire, to which I am persuaded, we are much indebted in repulsing the enemy. One of his sunken barges has since been found with two dead men in it – others have been seen floating in the river. The only means we had of directing our guns, was by the blaze of their rockets and the flashes of their guns. Had they ventured to the same situation in the day time, not a man would have escaped.

im cr: McHenry Fort

The bombardment continued on the part of the enemy until 7 o’clock on Wednesday morning, when it ceased; and about nine, their ships got under weigh and stood down the river. During the bombardment which lasted 25 hours (with two slight intermissions) from the best calculations I can make, from fifteen to eighteen hundred shells were thrown by the enemy. A few of these fell short. A large proportion burst over us, throwing their fragments among us, and threatening destruction. Many passed over, and about four hundred fell within the works. Two of the public buildings are materially injured – the others but slightly. I am happy to inform you (wonderful as it may appear) that our loss amounts to only four men killed, and 24 wounded. The latter will all recover. Among the killed, I have to lament the loss of Lieutenant Clagget and Sergeant Clemm, both of Capt. Nicholson’s volunteers; two men whose fate is to be deplored, not only for their personal bravery, but for their high standing, amiable demeanor and spotless integrity in private life. Lieut. Russel, of the company under Lieut. Pennington, received early in the attack a severe contusion in the heel; notwithstanding which, he remained at his post during the whole bombardment. Were I to name any individual who signalized themselves, it would be doing injustice to the others. Suffice it to say, that every officer and soldier under my command did their duty to my entire satisfaction.

I have the honor to remain respectfully, your obedient servant,
G. Armistead, Lt Col. U.S.A
Hon. James Monroe, Secretary of War

Im cr: DOD

Original Script for Our Spangled Banner

Though the words have been modified to fit today’s English, the script / lyrics of the song are the same.

Original lyrics follow, thanks to the Smithsonian Institute….

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb 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 the 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, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in 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 wash’d out their foul footstep’s 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 when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d 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.

Star Spangled Banner – Madison Rising

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