Defending the Prize of the Chesapeake

By Scott S. Sheads

The British commander-in-chief, Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, planned a two-pronged attack by land and water. In the predawn hours of 12 September, British soldiers, sailors, and marines came ashore at North Point 1 and overall command of the combined expeditionary forces shifted from Cochrane to Major General Robert Ross. The land force quickly set out for Baltimore, with Rear Admiral George Cockburn leading its naval component.

During a midday skirmish, however, Ross was mortally wounded 2 and command devolved upon Colonel Arthur Brooke. Less than an hour later, the Battle of North Point began when the British advance ran into Brigadier General John Stricker’s 3rd Brigade of Maryland Militia 3 . Unlike at Bladensburg, the American militiamen held their ground for two hours before retiring toward the city. The British encamped that night on the battlefield.

Early the next morning, as Brooke’s force resumed its march on Baltimore, Royal Navy warships advanced up the Patapsco River and took station opposite Fort McHenry. At 0630 the first British shots fell short of the fort, and the ships moved closer, forming a half circle two miles below McHenry 4 .

As a general bombardment commenced, sailors of the Chesapeake Flotilla began scuttling merchant vessels in the 600-foot-wide channel between the fort and Lazaretto Point. A chain-mast boom also stretched across the gap, and eight barges patrolled behind the obstructions 5 . The vital water approach to Baltimore Harbor and the dockyards at Fells Point was thus securely blocked. Within several hours Admiral Cochrane had concluded that any attempt to force his way past Fort McHenry was futile and the navy would be unable to support a land attack on the city, it being “so far retired within the forts.” The shelling of Fort McHenry nevertheless continued through the rainy day and following night, with the defenders returning fire when the British vessels would occasionally advance within the Americans’ range.

Brooke’s soldiers, marines, and sailors had meanwhile reached the Philadelphia Road at about 1000 6 . Advancing another three-quarters of a mile, Brooke and Cockburn observed Baltimore’s eastern defenses. Atop Hampstead Hill was a two-mile line of earthen entrenchments and artillery redoubts nicknamed Rodgers’ Bastion. The commodore’s naval brigade and Stiles’ Marine Artillery manned most of the redoubts. They were supported by more than 15,000 Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Delaware militiamen.

Brooke marched his troops to the northwest to determine if the works could be turned, but militiamen and U.S. light dragoons countered the move. After deploying his force opposite Hampstead Hill, the British colonel began planning a midnight assault against the American right flank. But at 2130 he received a cautionary message from Cochrane, stating that “You are on no account to attack the enemy, unless positively certain of success.” Brooke concluded that, given the heavy rain, any attempt to storm the slippery heights would prove futile and result in the heavy loss of British life. Early the next morning the colonel would order his forces to retrace their line of march and re-embark on the waiting ships at North Point.

Because of the precarious nature of the British communications, Cochrane did not receive word of the attack’s cancellation in time to call off a prearranged naval diversion. Consequently, at 2200, 20 barges 7 set off toward Ferry Branch to shell the American batteries there. In the stormy darkness, 11 of the craft lost their way and approached the Lazaretto. Around midnight, a confusing three-hour fight erupted, as British sailors in the other barges exchanged fire with the Ferry Branch defenders. At 0730, British signal flags to disengage were hoisted and the 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry ended.

An hour and a half later, as the last of the besieging British ships loosened their sails and turned away, defenders hoisted the fort’s 30-by-42-foot U.S. garrison flag above McHenry’s ramparts to the national celebratory tune “Yankee Doodle.” Thus ended the last major campaign of the nearly two-year-long war on the Chesapeake.

 

 
 

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