Tales from the Trenches
The Battle that Birthed the Star Spangled Banner
For most of the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key wanted no part of the dispute between Great Britain and her former colonies. But then the British went and wrecked his hometown.
Wednesday, the seventh of September 1814, was a fine day for sailing out of Baltimore harbor and into the Chesapeake Bay. The shallow hull and sloop rigging of the boat fairly sliced through the water with a following wind, her boom swung well out and her canvas filled with power thrusting her down the Patapsco River. Hoisting a fair amount of sail, she whipped along once clear of the headland. This was a “packet sloop,” custom made for these waters. She was designed to quickly deliver passengers and light cargo across the bay and up into the shallow inlets on the other side, or down the Bay and to Norfolk. She did her job well. With her sails set along the length of her hull instead of square across, she was one of the most maneuverable and versatile boats around. The civilians who had hired her would make good time, wherever they were going. The problem was that they did not yet know their exact destination. “Generally south” was the best they could guesstimate.
On the deck of the boat was a man with curly brown hair and a long face. He had turned thirty-five just the month before, on the first of August he celebrated his birthday in Georgetown. It must have seemed a lifetime away. He was by any measure successful, well-respected, and in the prime of his life. A lawyer who called Georgetown home, (it was then a separate town, though technically within the boundaries of the District of Columbia) he had opposed the politicking that led to the war that now consumed his nation, a conflict we now know as the “War of 1812.” But circumstances now thrust him into the epicenter of the conflict. He could not know that the events of the next seven days would make him immortal. At the moment he was intent on finding the British, as he had a bone to pick with them and a mission to accomplish.
At the top of her mast the sloop flew a white flag. This was no warship. And since the skipper intended to close up with a British warship, he wanted to make sure there were no mistakes about his intent. Yes, the packet sloop was fast and maneuverable, particularly in comparison with some of the lumbering warships lurking out on the bay. But the warships carried massive banks of huge cannon, and the sloop had no guns at all. Flying the biggest, whitest flag from the top of the mast was a simple precaution.
Just half a day after leaving the inner protected harbor at Baltimore they would have found at least some of the British, but then that was a foregone conclusion. Less than a month before at least sixty British warships and troop transports flooded into the Chesapeake, intent on raining destruction upon the uppity Americans. This is exactly what they did, raiding towns all up and down the lower half of the bay. Then a little more than two weeks earlier they capped it off by marching their red-coated troops to Washington, DC. There they took to institutional-level arson, burning all of the important government buildings…the White House, the Capitol, the National Archives, the Navy Yard, all of them went up in smoke. (Actually, it was us who set fire to the last one, in order to prevent the Brits from getting the naval supplies there.)
Until that point the curly-haired man with the long face was more than a little ambivalent about the war, indeed, he thought the conflict nearly useless. But when the British came to his town and sent the government fleeing, then destroyed everything that had been built up there in the past 14 years, he was incensed. Not long afterwards some friends made an appeal to him: Would he help in negotiating with the British for the release of some American civilians whom the Redcoats captured and were holding aboard their ships? He agreed, and after receiving personal permission from the President set out for Baltimore to find a boat. Then all he needed to do was find the British. The problem was that they did not know exactly where there British were at that point.
In the end it turned out that finding the enemy was easy.
Warships in a combat zone tend to be jittery critters. Moreover, the Royal Navy had some scores to settle. American frigates had bested them in all but one fight to this point in the war, and American privateers were growing rich and fat on the pickings of the British merchant marine fleets around the world. Literally thousands of British ships had been captured by the Americans, and all the Royal Navy had to show for it was a single frigate that they captured off the coast from Boston. Still, the little packet boat trusted in their white flag and pressed on.
Sailing side-to-side southward down the Chesapeake President was running against the prevailing winds that usually come from the southwest during this time of year, and due to the hydrography she was also fighting the tide most of the time. (In that portion of the Chesapeake a boat moving south will usually only have four hours when the tide is helping, but eight when it is opposing.) Still, she moved well and registered at least seventy-five straight-line miles down the Chesapeake when the forest of masts first came into view. Though it took her more than a day to cover that distance, from Baltimore down to the mouth of the Potomac, at last they had sighted their objective. As the late afternoon of 8 September 1814 shifted to dusk their objective hove into view with a vengeance.
At first the sails of the British fleet must have seemed like a distant cloudbank coming north with the wind. Moving north up the Chesapeake from Point Lookout at the entrance of the Potomac the masts of the biggest ships tore the horizon apart. These were the gigantic “Ships of the Line,” each carrying between 500 and 700 men, and rows upon rows of iron cannon, more than a thousand all tolled across the fleet. In the moderate winds the sails at the very top of their masts scraped the skies and these “topsails” could be seen from at least twenty miles away. Then, one after another, more sails appeared, until from the deck of the lowly American boat President the wide Chesapeake Bay seemed crowded with a vast moving wall of canvas before even the first hull could be seen. With two or three masts on each boat and ship, and as many as thirty sails that might be flown from a single Royal Navy vessel in light winds, by the time small American sloop was within ten miles these sails would have seemed less like individual clouds and more like a massive cloudbank rolling in from the south. Their off-white sails billowed as they drove the ships downwind and up-bay. The sun, setting behind them, made the canvas glow with an orange tint. Still, the men aboard the little packet boat trusted in their white flag and pressed on, boldly heading straight for the largest ship in the fleet, indeed the largest ship anywhere for at least a thousand miles.
HMS Tonnant was a massive “Line of Battle” ship. Nearly 200 feet long and carrying 80 cannon and 700 men, she flew the flags of the admiral in command of all the British forces. But before they could get that far into the British fleet the three American negotiators and the eight sailors aboard President were intercepted by one of the faster Royal Navy ships, a frigate, as they tried to approach the flagship.
The dicey moments came in the next minutes as President moved in close. HMS Surprise, a fairly new frigate and the model for the boat immortalized in the “Master and Commander” series of books and the Russell Crowe movie of the same name was the frigate they encountered. Her logbook records the moment in the clipped tones of the “Senior Service” of the British nation: “Sent a vessel and the marines to take charge of a sloop with a flag at 7:30.” Before long the passengers explained their mission and moved to the flagship, the ship that carried the commander of this vast force.
HMS Tonnant was a massive battleship, indeed she was the largest ship for at least a thousand miles. Nearly 200 feet long and carrying 80 cannon and 700 men aboard, she flew the flags of the admiral in command of all the British forces.
Coming up alongside Tonnant the men aboard the tiny sloop looked up nearly two stories to the deck of the battleship. Its masthead soared another fifteen stories above the deck. With no fewer than sixteen major sails, and weighing in at more than 2,200 tons, Tonnant (French for “Thunder,” as she was built by the French and captured by the British) was a marvelous system of systems. Her masts carried a vast amount of sail that constantly worked to try to tear those same masts right out of the ship. These pressures of wind and sea and gravity were countered by the intricate rigging. Tonnant carried dozens of miles of massively thick hemp rope, tarred to preserve them from seawater and the effects of the sun, and these kept the masts upright, force against force. Chain-driven pumps, operated by shifts of men, worked to remove the water that inevitably slid in through the gaps between the planks when the ship moved in heavy seas. And hundreds upon hundreds of men worked her guns when she went into action. Each one of them a system all their own. This was a movable fortress made of wood.
At the beginning of the 19th Century ships like HMS Tonnant represented the pinnacle of human sea-going engineering. A ship like her could cross oceans, circling the planet through some of the most vicious seas on the globe. It is no wonder that the Americans coming up alongside her from the sloop had a long climb up the steps built into the hull from the pitching deck of their packet-boat to the stately and stable main deck of this moving mountain. But the man with the brown hair made it, along which his compatriot, the local officer in charge of prisoner exchanges.
The Admiral greeted the two American negotiators quite civilly. Admiral Alexander Cochrane, as well as the commander of his 5,000-man land force, British Army Major General Robert Ross, invited the men aboard. That night in his quarters aboard the British commander shared dinner with the two Americans while they discussed the release of the civilian prisoners. Negotiations went on for hours, and then days. Ultimately the Americans presented their trump card, letters and testimonials to the British commanders from captured British soldiers who had been wounded and left behind during the earlier attack on Washington but who wanted their officers to know they were being treated well.
Finally, first Ross and then Cochrane agreed. It is likely that it was Cochrane who held out, as he apparently had a grudge against the American people. This was somewhat understandable as his brother, a British Army officer, had been killed at the Siege of Yorktown, fighting against the Americans in 1781. Eventually he allowed himself to be persuaded. The British released the American civilians into the care of the negotiators, but they could not depart, not just yet. The Americans, both the prisoners and the negotiators, had been aboard too long and it was obvious that the British were about to attack Baltimore itself. The Americans would have to stay with them until the attack concluded, lest the British plan be revealed too soon.
For a full week Mr. Francis Scott Key, American lawyer and sometime poet, was an unwilling guest of the Royal Navy. At the end of that time, however, he was witness to the unsuccessful Royal Navy siege of Fort McHenry which occurred by the “rocket’s red glare.” From the deck of his own boat he saw British “bombs bursting in air.” Key would then pen the first draft of the poem which became America’s national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner.