Rocket Attacks and Bursting Bombs

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June 6, 2022 by Scott Crosby - Views: 95

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Rocket Attacks and Bursting Bombs

Thirty years earlier, they had won their independence from the greatest empire on Earth.  

Now, that vengeful tyranny had returned, intent on humiliating the population which had so embarrassed them, and possibly even re-assimilate them into that empire.

Depending on accounts, between nineteen and thirty warships made their way up the Bay on a September day.  Their goal was to destroy the country’s third most populated city and burn it to the ground.

One fort stood in their way, preventing their smooth sailing to achieve that horrible purpose.  The attack on the city had been expected for a year or two, and preparations had been made to establish the fort for its defense.  That fort now stood ready and able to prevent the passage of that massive war fleet.  

The ships spread out on the Bay, almost from shore to shore, each being arranged so that all its guns could be aimed at that fort when the order came.  More than two miles away, the fort’s guns could not reach them.  But the guns of those ships could easily reach the fort.

And not just the guns:  the fleet included ships able to launch rockets, and ships able to throw bombs – bombs designed to explode in mid-air, sending a hellish rain of shrapnel and burning fire down upon the soldiers of the fort.  The was no doubt of the intent:  to shred that fort and its inhabitants.

Meanwhile, a small ship sailed out to the fleet, carrying two men under a flag of truce.  The two were taken to the fleet’s flagship, where they met with the fleet’s admiral and the general whose troops would be ordered to level that city.

The fleet included a ship full of prisoners.  One prisoner was a well-known doctor, whose services were needed ashore.

The admiral and the general were disinclined to release the doctor.  But then letters were presented to them from citizens pleading for the doctor’s release.

Among those letters were those of prisoners from that general’s own army.  They praised the doctor’s efforts to cleanse and treat their wounds; it was clear that the doctor was crucial to the lives of that general’s own soldiers.

The orders for that doctor’s release were given.  

But a new issue blocked their departure:  neither the doctor nor those who had arrived under truce could be allowed to leave.

It was almost 8:00 a.m., and the battle against the fort was about to begin.

Again, accounts differ as to whether the three stood on the Admiral’s flagship, the prison ship, or another ship.

But whichever ship it was, from its deck they watched the events of the next 25 hours unfold.

The shelling was constant, uninterrupted, and intense.  The smoke from the firing of the guns was extremely thick, making it nearly impossible to see the fort more than two miles distant from the ship’s deck where they stood.

During those 25 hours, two attempts were made to begin a close assault against the fort.  Several hundred of the General’s soldiers were taken to shore, from where they made their way towards the fort.  But the fort’s soldiers spotted them, and they were repulsed.

Several smaller vessels capable of faster movement travelled up the Bay, to open up a second line of attack against the fort.  But as soon as they came within range of the fort’s cannon, they were hit with enough force that they soon retreated.

One version of events recounts that the Admiral stood beside the men on his ship under truce, along with the doctor.

“Don’t the soldiers in that fort understand?  All they have to do is surrender, and they would be allowed to leave unharmed.  In Europe, that is common practice.”

“Admiral,” replied one, “These are not subjects of the kings and emperors of Europe.  These are free men, who own the land on which they make their lives and raise their families.  They would rather die as free men than live on bended knees.”

One of the two who had sailed out to the fleet under truce was known to write poetry, from time to time.  Throughout the 25 hours of the battle, he jotted down some lines on the back of an envelope.  


Fort McHenry’s main flag, which flew
at dawn on 14 September 1814, over Fort McHenry,
in defiance of the British attack, is now located in the
Smithsonian’s National Museum of
American History, in Washington, DC.

Particularly as the dawn of the battle’s second day approached, the concerns of the three as they watched were dramatically described:  

“Oh, say can you see

By the dawn's early light

What so proudly we hailed

At the twilight's last gleaming?”

The fort had two flags, specially made by a local seamstress at the commander’s request.  One was considered a “battle flag”; it measured 17 feet by 22 feet.  The main flag was larger:  30 feet by 42 feet, in order, the commander stated, "to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance."

That poet’s name was Francis Scott Key.  In answer to the question raised in that first verse of his poem, before dawn the battle flag had been taken down, and the main flag had been raised.  The dawn now showed it flying in full measure above the fort.

Mr. Key goes on to add details of what he had seen during the battle:  

“Whose broad stripes and bright stars

Through the perilous fight

O'er the ramparts we watched

Were so gallantly streaming?”

Thinking back on the night, Mr. Key then describes the events and the status of the unfolding battle:  in the light of the rockets’ red glare, and the light from the bombs bursting in air, they could sometimes make out the fort’s flag, still proudly flying.  

Even when that flag could not be seen because of the smoke and fog, they knew that, should the flag be taken down, it would signal surrender, and the shelling would quickly cease.  The fact that the attack continued meant that the flag still flew above the fort.

“And the rockets' red glare

The bombs bursting in air

Gave proof through the night

That our flag was still there”

Mr. Key finishes with a reticent question, to which he already knows the answer.  Given the determination of the fort’s soldiers, and the reason for it as was expressed in the conversation with the Admiral, there can be only one explanation.

“O say, does that star-spangled

Banner yet wave

O'er the land of the free

And the home of the brave?”

At 9:00 a.m. that morning, their ammunition spent, the British Admiral gave the command to cease fire, raise anchors, and the fleet sailed out of Chesapeake Bay.  It was a defeat.

According to the report by Fort McHenry’s commander, “our loss amounts to only four men killed, and 24 wounded.  The latter will all recover.”  According to a newspaper report some weeks later, many of the wounded later died; it is unknown which report is correct.  But there could be no doubt that America was “the home of the brave.”

Baltimore, the intended target of the British, escaped unscathed.

Americans had once again brought the plans of the world’s greatest empire to a screeching halt.

In the process, the words of The Star-spangled Banner, America’s national anthem, were forged and put to paper.


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