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The Battle of Fort McHenry

Francis-Scott-Key-654x821My daughter just sent me a Facebook link to a patriotic video of Pastor Rutherford preaching at the  Shepherd of The Hills Church in California back in 2010.
He passionately tells the story of the origin of the hymn “The Star Spangled Banner,” Francis Scott Key, and the Battle of Baltimore.  His is a moving rendition of history and unfortunately, mostly inaccurate.
I am taking the time to point out these misstatements only to make the point that today with instant access to information, when we embellish a story, we also give the enemies of truth and right the opportunity to discredit the very cause we are trying to promote.
What is even sadder is the fact that the historical account of the Battle of Fort McHenry or the Battle of Baltimore can easily stand on its own two feet and inspire patriotism without embellishment. Expanding the account actually cheapens it.
All of the statements below have been pointed out by other writers. Some pointed out these inaccuracies in an effort to discredit the speaker and down play patriotism. Some just wanted to get the story right.
Either way, not being accurate will always do more harm than good.
1.) Pastor Rutherford states that “the colonies were engaged in conflict with the mother country.” Rutherford continuously refers to “the colonies” throughout the video, which reveals very poor chronology on his part. Technically, the “Colonies” had ceased to be colonies since the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783, some 30 years before the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812.
scene_10_web2.) We do not know how many prisoners Key was negotiating for but it is almost certain that it was not an entire ship full. In fact, we only know for sure that he was securing the release of one prisoner, Dr. William Beanes.  From the Library of Congress website:

When the British invaded Washington in 1814, Ross and Cockburn with their staff officers made their headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Md., at the residence of a planter, Dr. William Beanes, whom they subsequently seized as a prisoner. Upon hearing of his friend’s capture, Key resolved to release him, and was aided by President Madison, who ordered that a vessel that had been used as a cartel should be placed at his service, and that John S. Skinner, agent for the exchange of prisoners, should accompany him. Gen. Ross finally consented to Dr. Beanes’s release, but said that the party must be detained during the attack on Baltimore.

3.) Rutherford continuously refers to the fort as “Fort Henry.” It was actually called Fort McHenry.
4.) Rutherford claims that Admiral Alexander Cochrane, who was in command of the British naval forces, informed Key that he was going to reduce Fort McHenry to rubble. This isn’t true. The British had no intention of destroying the fort but instead wanted to capture it.
5.) Contrary to the Rutherford account, there were less than 20 ships involved in the Fort McHenry Bombardment, not hundreds.
6.) By all accounts there were no women or children in the fort. There was one woman killed in the bombardment but she was not living there. She was simply trying to bring her husband and other men dinner, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
7.) There is no evidence that men from the fort held the flag up “until they died” and that “the patriot’s bodies” were piled around the flag pole. Fewer than 10 American soldiers were killed in the bombardment.
I am a patriot and a lover of liberty. I support the sharing of the story of freedom. It is a long and rich account of Public Virtue. Human beings sacrificing personal interest for the benefit of others. We don’t have to make stuff up, it’s already in the history books.  Just tell the straight story.

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  • Benjamin Beynon

    Some notes from a former Park Ranger at Fort McHenry. I’m glad you saw the error of this ridiculous presentation, but let’s further clear some things up.
    2. We know exactly how many prisoners Key wanted to release, but KEY WASN’T THE ONE SENT TO RELEASE THEM. Colonel John Skinner of the U.S. State Department was the official liaison between the U.S. Government and the Court of St. James in regard to prisoner negotiations in this conflict. He had an office in Annapolis, and personally knew Cochrane and Cockburn because of his job…they had successfully negotiated prisoner release before, although under fairly different circumstances.
    He knew Cochrane and Cockburn, but did not however, know Dr. Beanes, and could not personally attest to Beans’ character or WHY the British should release him. Beanes was being held because of a fairly sticky situation involving broken promises and British soldiers being attacked/attempted kidnapped at night by local civilians. F.S. Key knew Beanes personally, was a fairly popular and successful lawyer, and was also carrying letters written by severely wounded British soldiers that had been left behind at Bladensburg, attesting to their good treatment by the American government (they had been placed in a hospital, and were being given medical care). Key was just a sweetener to the deal. In short, they weren’t sure the British were going to agree to give Upper Marlboro their doctor back, so they sent their top man and another guy, who knows the doctor – and also has letters attesting that we’re taking care of our British prisoners.
    4. Cochrane wasn’t planning on capturing Fort McHenry either. In fact, he wanted as little to do with it as possible. Given his extended distance from any sort of major source of repair (or re-supply) he needed to play his cards in the Chesapeake (and it’s tributaries, such as the Patapsco River, where this battle took place) very carefully. Any serious damage done to his ships – either from man (like shore batteries) or nature (invisible oyster beds and dangerous shoals that he didn’t have charts of) – might not be possible to repair without a proper shipyard, and the nearest place where anything larger than a small skiff could be repaired was at least several hundred nautical miles away in either the West Indies or Canada. Their small outpost on Tangier Island could not perform major repairs on warships, let alone even smaller civilian watercraft. If he could, he did not intend on using *anything* to attack McHenry from a position where the shore batteries might do him damage. He could VERY easily run aground, and be shot away to pieces – the harbor had been cleared of buoys, and the RN did not have very accurate charts of the river and it’s depths (which change), let alone the Chesapeake bay at this time.
    5. This is super convoluted, and depends entirely on what you mean. The British fleet in entirety was over 60 ships, although most of them stayed off the beach head at North Point (where the Patapsco meets the Chesapeake) where the Army was landed on September 12. Ships logs indicate fairly deep water off the point, but the river gets far shallower upriver. HMS Severn attempted to ascend the Patapsco, and spent about an entire day getting re-floated after she ran aground. Most of the five frigates that went up the river (escorting the six ships that actually ATTACKED Fort McHenry) had an average of five feet under keel while they were maneuvering around the river, four miles from the fort. Four frigates (Surprise – the advance command ship, Seahorse, Severn, and Hebrus) escorted the bomb ships Meteor, Devastation, Volcano, Aetna, and Terror up river, along with the congreve rocket vessel HMS Erebus. These vessels physically fired on Fort McHenry – although depending on how you measure, all vessels were somehow involved in the assault on Baltimore.
    6. I’m not sure which account you looked at for this. There was an order issued by Major Armistead (commanding McHenry) that all idle women and children were to vacate the post, and find other residences. Prior to this, some of the families of non-commissioned and commissioned officers lived at McHenry. By the time of the bombardment, there were several women that worked as government contractors, and they served primarily as laundresses and medical support staff. We don’t know ANYTHING about the woman that was killed in the bombardment, other than that it was a woman who was “blown to atoms.” I have no idea where you got this fanciful idea of her bringing dinner came from, but she was very likely either a laundress or one of the hospital matrons. The only other possibility would be one of the female inhabitants of the local tavern/house, which stood fairly close to the government property. Many civilians (likely including the bulk of families of army personnel) had fled Baltimore. Armistead’s pregnant wife for example, went to Gettysburg, PA.
    7. The bodies holding up the flag pole story is about as ridiculous as it is insulting to the four killed, and twenty four wounded (of which several would later die) as a result of the battle.
    Armistead’s report after the battle mentions four killed, 24 wounded, and “superficial” damage done to the public buildings. Most killed and wounded were located (logically) by the waterfront. Those manning the external water batteries of the fort closest to the water suffered the most casualties.

    March 1, 2019 at 11:48 am

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