Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in
VOA Special English.
As we described last week, British forces attacked Washington in the summer of
eighteen fourteen. They burned the Capitol building, the White House and other
public buildings before withdrawing to their ships in the Chesapeake Bay.
Today, Harry Monroe and Maurice Joyce tell the story of how a British attack on
Fort McHenry in the port of Baltimore led to "The Star-Spangled
Banner," America's national anthem.
British General Robert Ross and Admiral Sir George
Cockburn led the attack on Washington. They planned next to attack Baltimore.
But the people of Baltimore expected the attack, and began to prepare for it.
Fifty thousand of them built defenses around the city.
The port of Baltimore was protected by Fort McHenry. The
guns and cannon of the fort could prevent British ships from reaching the city.
The British began with a land attack against Baltimore.
General Ross, Admiral Cockburn, and about four thousand British soldiers landed
at North Point, a finger of land reaching into the Chesapeake Bay.
From North Point, it was a march of about twenty-two
kilometers to Baltimore. The march began about seven in the morning. General
Ross and Admiral Cockburn stopped their men after an hour. The two commanders
and several of their officers rode to a nearby farmhouse and forced the family
living there to give them breakfast.
When the British officers had finished eating, the farmer
asked General Ross where the British were going. "To Baltimore,"
answered Ross. The farmer told Ross that he might have some difficulty getting
there, because of the city's strong defenses. "I will eat supper in
Baltimore...or in hell," answered the British general.
Ross and Cockburn moved far in front of the British
forces. A group of several hundred Americans opened fire on the British
officers. Ross was hit and died soon afterwards.
The Americans retreated, but slowed the progress of the
British soldiers. It was late the next day before the British force arrived to
face the army of Americans near Baltimore. The Americans were on high ground
and had about one hundred cannon to fire down on the British. The British
commander ordered his men to rest for the night. He sent a message to the
British warships to attack the city with guns and mortars. Such an attack, he
felt, might cause the Americans to fall back. But the British ships already had
been firing since early morning at Fort McHenry. The British guns were more
powerful than those of the fort. This let the ships fire from so far away that
the American guns could not hit them.
Shells and bombs from British mortars fell like rain over
Fort McHenry. But few Americans in the fort were hurt or killed. Most of the
rockets and shells exploded in the air or missed. Many of them failed to explode.
On a tall staff from the center of the fort flew a large
American flag. The flag could be seen by the soldiers defending the city and by
the British warships. The flag also was seen by a young American. His name was
Francis Scott Key.
Key was a lawyer who once had thought of giving his life
to religious work. He was a poet and writer. Key opposed war. But he loved his
country and joined the army in Washington to help defend it.
When the British withdrew from Washington, they took with
them an American doctor, Wiliam Beanes. Key knew Beanes. And he asked President
Madison to request the British commander to release the doctor. President
Madison wrote such a request, and Key agreed to carry it to Admiral Cockburn.
Key also carried letters from wounded British soldiers in American hospitals.
In one of the letters, a British soldier told of the excellent medical care he
was being given.
Cockburn agreed to free the doctor after he read the
reports of good medical care given his wounded men. But Cockburn would not
permit Key, the doctor, or a man who came with Key to return to land until
after the attack.
Francis Scott Key watched as the shells and rockets began
to fall on Fort McHenry.
"I saw the flag of my country," Key said later,
"waving over a city -- the strength and pride of my native state. I
watched the enemy prepare for his assault. I heard the sound of battle. The
noise of the conflict fell upon my listening ear. It told me that the `brave
and the free' had met the invaders."
All through the rainy day, the attack continued. Doctor
Beanes, watching with Key, had difficulty seeing the flag. He kept asking Key
if the "stars and stripes" still flew above the fort. Until dark, Key
could still see it. After then, he could only hope.
Britain tried to land another force of men near the fort.
But the Americans heard the boats and fired at them. The landing failed. Shells
and rockets continued to rain down on Fort McHenry. At times, the fort's cannon
answered. And Key knew the Americans had not surrendered.
The British land force east of Baltimore spent most of the
night trying to keep dry. Commanders could not decide if they should attack or
retreat. Finally, orders came from the admiral: "Withdraw to your
ships." A land attack against Baltimore's defenses would not be attempted.
At first light of morning, British shells were still
bursting in the air over the fort. The flag had holes in it from the British
shells. But it still flew. The British shelling stopped at seven o'clock. Key
took an old letter from his pocket and wrote a poem about what he had seen.
Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
For more than one hundred years, Americans sang this song
and remembered the attack at Fort McHenry. In nineteen thirty-one, Congress
made the "Star-Spangled Banner" the national anthem of the United
The unsuccessful British attack on Baltimore was followed by news that Britain
also had suffered a defeat to the north.
British General Sir George Prevost led eleven thousand soldiers south from
Montreal to New York. At Plattsburgh, on the western shore of Lake Champlain,
his army was opposed by less than four thousand Americans. General Prevost
believed he should get control of the lake before moving against the American
He requested the support of four British ships and about ten gunboats. A group
of American ships of about the same size also entered the lake. In a fierce
battle, the American naval force sank the British ships. The large land army of
Prevost decided not to attack without naval support. The eleven- thousand British
soldiers turned around and marched back to Montreal.
By the time these battles of eighteen f ourteen had been fought, the two sides
already had agreed to discuss peace. The peace talks began in the summer at
Ghent, in Belgium.
The British at first were in no hurry to sign a peace treaty. They believed
that their forces would be able to capture parts of the United States.
Britain demanded as a condition for peace that the United States give large
areas of its northwest to the Indians. It also said America must give Canada
other areas along the border. And Britain would not promise to stop seizing
American seamen and putting them in the British navy.
British policy at the peace talks changed after the battles of Baltimore and
Plattsburgh. That will be our story next week.
Join us each week for THE MAKING OF A NATION – an American history
series in VOA Special English.
This is program #47 of THE
MAKING OF A NATION