The Twelfth of September

From Grandma’s Album… The Twelfth of September – Defenders’ Day

The Twelfth of September – Defenders’ Day

What event was so momentous that it merited a holiday in the city of Baltimore exactly one week after school started? What was so important that I have never forgotten the details? Of course, it was Defenders’ Day!

It was 12 September in 1812, toward the final days of “Madison ‘s War”, that the British war plans changed. Washington , D.C. , the capitol of our rebellious nation was newly burned and emptied. The war was as good as over and they were certain that the upstart “colonies” would soon be back as part of the British Empire . Why not tackle the rich and productive port of Baltimore? So off the troops went to Jones’ Creek for a tranquil landing, the back door to the rich city and loot.

Oil on Canvas c. 1814
by Thomas Ruckle, Sr.

General Ross in his “red-breast coat” was confident. The highway into the city looked clear on 13 September. No one was about. He knew that there were no colonials in the area, since they were avoiding the soldiers and had run to the city for protection or fled farther into the countryside. He and his men noisily tramped their way down the road. Victory was certain. Such a clever surprise attack on Baltimore ! But, no. . . it was not to be.

As the soldiers stamped their way past a walled orchard, the General was at the head of the column, leaving the others to eat his dust. Suddenly two shots rang out and the General crumpled into the dirt, his coat red with his own blood, instead of just the red coat and crossed belt target that had drawn the aim of two teenagers hiding in the trees. Wells (15) and McComas (17) were sharpshooters and had proved their worth, and then showed a clean pair of heels, running to the trenches that the locals had dug through the fields. A banshee scream of triumph sounded from the farmers and field hands hiding there. In the chaos of the unprepared British army, no one even thought to look to see who might have done the deed until the boys were far out of range.

The army turned and marched right back the way they had come. The “back door” was foiled.

The other claw of the “pincer” that was to crush any resistance that there might be in the rebellious inhabitants was the fleet that sailed brazenly up the Patapsco River after dropping off General Ross’ contingent. The British sailed right into the inner harbor on September 12th, dropping anchor just out of range of the guns of the tiny, star-shaped Fort McHenry that guarded the port. Since the British had a number of folk captured from skirmishes on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and some were still left from the investment of Washington , D.C. , several small sailboats went out to the fleet under a flag of truce to negotiate for their release and to treat their wounds. The head of this group was Dr. Beanes. He got so involved in treating the injured that he and a friend, the lawyer Key, who was assisting him, elected to stay on the ship with the prisoners until the next day. When they woke in the morning, though, they were not allowed to leave as the attack on the Fort had begun.

All that day and all that night they watched the bombardment.

In the city and in the fort as well there was nothing to be done, except to hunker down and wait. Our guns were too small. They could not reach the ships that were 8 miles from the closest point to which the guns could be dragged, and to put them on the small boats would be suicide.

During the night, the misery increased as a storm rolled in, obliterating the view of both the fort and its flag. The shelling went on all night, bright flashes and booms that shook slates from roofs and frightened the city folk down into the brick basements in Fells Point, Canton and the Harbor district, as shards of hot metal rattled into the streets and started small fires that could only be fought at risk of injury from weather or more shells. It was a long night.

On the morning of the 14th, the British, confident that their shelling had breeched the walls of the tiny fort and frightened off the defenders, upped anchor and sailed in, dropping off soldiers on the beach just out of small arms range. As they then closed on the fort, they discovered to their shock that we were neither frightened away nor asleep! With our muskets and rifles we pummeled them, with the small saker shot cannons we punched holes in vital parts of many of the ships, disabling several and causing the rest to flee, leaving their own troops on land to fight a running and losing battle, since they were in an area that they knew not at all and we had staffed and armed in hopes of just such a fight! The demoralized and shattered units soon surrendered, those that were left, and the ships sailed away down the river and Bay, never to return.

General Armistead of the defenders ordered the huge 30×46 foot star-spangled flag that Mary Pickersgill and her daughter had made a year earlier, sent up the flagpole to replace the tattered small flag that had flown during the cannonade so that all could see. We had won against all odds.

As soon as the way back into the harbor was clear, the truce ship docked and those on board were taken to shelter with Dr. Beanes continuing to treat them. He needed a new assistant that day because his friend was busy. During the fight Francis Scott Key had pulled an old letter out of his pocket and begun scribbling down the lines of a poem on the back, inspired by the questions that those waiting so anxiously had asked,

“Oh, say can you see
By the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed
At the twilight’s last gleaming?”

He set the poem that he called “The Defense of Fort McHenry” to the tune of a popular drinking song, “To Anachreon, in Heaven”. It became quite a hit, gaining more and more popularity in our young nation, until it was made the official National Anthem in 1931.

The banner of the tiny fort that survived is now in the process of being restored at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington , D.C, which city was being rebuilt even before the war was over.

And so. . . Defenders’ Day, the remembrance of the bald eagle chick that won an impossible victory over the British Redcoat and all he stood for.

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Page added and published 8/24/18 (C)M. Bartlett
Last updated 8/24/18