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Excerpt: The Dawn's Early Light by Walter Lord

As the Battle of Baltimore drew to a close, an American flag was raised—and the national anthem was born.





The Dawn's Early Light

By Walter Lord

It was shortly after 3:00 A.M. in the British camp when the orders went out to get everyone up. Lieutenant George Laval Chesterton, Royal Artillery, tried to uncurl from his square foot of floor in a crowded barn. His friend Captain Mitchell of the marines had an easier time—he was quartered all alone in a pigsty.

Several hundred yards to the north, three other officers were called in from the best billet of all—Surrey, the fine country place of Colonel Joseph Sterett, currently with his regiment on Hampstead Hill. As they left, one of them paused long enough to leave a waggish thank-you note on the dining room sideboard:

Captains Brown, Wilcox and McNamara of the 53rd Regiment, Royal Marines, have received everything they could desire at this house, notwithstanding it was received at the hands of the butler, and in the absence of the colonel.

Spirits were high as the men fell in. Off toward the harbor they could hear the guns of the naval bombardment; they could see the flashes and trails of fire. The fleet was doing its part; soon it would be their turn. They were greatly outnumbered—one look at the American campfires on Hampstead Hill told them that—but they had handled militia before; they would do it again tonight.

Shortly after 3:00 the columns began moving—but not toward Hampstead Hill. To the general (but perhaps not universal) dismay of the troops, they were heading the opposite direction. Away from the hill … away from Baltimore … away from the sound of the fight. As decided at the midnight council of war, Colonel Brooke was returning to North Point and the ships.

How humiliating. The men ranted at Brooke … at cautious staff officers … at planners in general. Of course they could, have taken the hill. Maybe they would have suffered a few casualties, but anything was better than this business of retreating, as one officer put it, “before a parcel of fellows who had scarcely even seen a gun fired in their lives … a parcel of tailors and shoemakers.”

In the Ferry Branch Captain Napier was beginning to wonder. Admiral Cochrane’s orders said to keep firing until he saw the army was “seriously engaged,” then return to the Surprize. But it was now after 3:00 A.M., and still no gun flashes—no rumble of cannon—from the hills to the east.

Something must have gone wrong. In any case, he had done his part: surely by now he had diverted all the Americans who could be diverted. So far he had miraculously escaped getting hit, but to stay any longer was courting disaster for no conceivable purpose. Signal lights flickered; Napier’s boats swung around and began the long row home.

Passing Fort McHenry, they again hugged the far shore and almost slipped by unnoticed. But one of the officers chose this moment to fire a signal rocket to let the fleet know they were returning. The fort instantly responded with a hail of balls and grapeshot. Later, the British claimed only one boat was “slightly struck” and one man mortally wounded; the Americans, however, found the remains of at least two boats and the bodies of three seamen.

At 4:00 A.M. the boats were again alongside the Surprize, and the bombardment came to an end. Two or three of the vessels continued to take an occasional shot, but to all intents the fireworks were over, and the whole blazing, tumultuous night gave way to a black, predawn quiet.

Francis Scott Key wondered what to make of this strange new quiet, as he stood with John S. Skinner and Dr. Beanes on the deck of their flag-of-truce sloop. They were anchored with the transports at Old Roads Bay, some eight miles down the Patapsco—well out of the fight, yet near enough to follow most of the action. All day they had watched Fort McHenry’s flag with a glass and knew it was still holding out. During the night the bombs and rockets were proof in themselves that Armistead had not surrendered. But this eerie silence, broken only by an occasional distant gun, gave no hint to the fate of the fort—or of the city itself.

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  • A engraving of the attack on Fort McHenry

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Key found himself torn with anxiety. It was the climax of the whole, soul-searing experience he had been going through these past days. He loathed “this abominable war,” yet here he was in the middle of it. He saw himself as a gentleman who would be quite at ease with the polished English officers, but he found them to be, with few exceptions, “illiberal, ignorant and vulgar … filled with a spirit of malignity against everything American.” He detested the saber-rattling rowdiness of Baltimore—sometimes felt the place deserved any punishment it got—but now it was fighting for its life, and he knew where his heart really lay. He was first and last an American, and in these hours of suspense he fervently—desperately—prayed that the flag was still there.

The rest of the night the three Americans paced the deck; scarcely daring to think what daylight might bring. Again and again they pulled out their watches, trying to gauge when the dawn would come. Five o’clock, and the first light of day at last tinged the sky. Out came the spyglass, but it was still too dark to make anything out. At 5:50 it was officially sunrise, but there was no sun today. The rain clouds hung low, and patches of mist swirled across the water, still keeping the night’s secret intact.

But it was growing brighter all the time, and soon an easterly breeze sprang up, flecking the Patapsco and clearing the air. Once again Key raised his glass—and this time he saw it. Standing out against the dull gray of the clouds and hills was Major Armistead’s American flag.*

Skeptics have wondered how much Key could really see from his position eight miles down the Patapsco. From comments in the logs of nearby British ships, it seems clear that with the help of a spyglass he could easily watch the fort under fire. A recently uncovered account, however, raises a new riddle. Was it actually Major Armistead’s big flag that Key saw, or a somewhat smaller “storm flag” (measuring 17 by 25 feet) supplied by Mary Pickersgill at the same time she turned out the larger one?

Capping the joy of the three Americans, at 7:00 the Surprize signaled the bombarding squadron to retire down the river … at 8:00 the Erebus and the five bombs were under way … and at 9:00 the supporting frigates followed. The attack on Fort McHenry was over.

Related: 13 Epic Battles That Changed the World 

Meanwhile other signs appeared, indicating to Key and his companions that the land attack too had failed. A steady procession of boats streamed out of Bear Creek, carrying scores of wounded to the various transports. To Key it was clear that the army had been “roughly handled.”

He looked at the flag on the fort again, and it was about now that the turbulent, fervent thoughts racing through his mind began to take poetic shape. Using the back of a letter that happened to be in his pocket, Francis Scott Key began to jot down lines and phrases and likely couplets. …

“The enemy has been severely drubbed—as well his Army as his Navy—and is retiring down the river after expending many tons of shot, from 1800-2000 shells, and at least 700-800 rockets,” Commodore Rodgers excitedly wrote Secretary of the Navy Jones on the 14th, while the British were falling back to North Point.

Others weren’t that sure. “The enemy has retired, not departed—this retiring may be a stratagem to throw us off our guard,” warned Sam Smith in a general order issued during the day. British deserters seemed to confirm the theory. Several said Brooke was pulling back only to pick up reinforcements.

Even on the 15th, when the enemy army was clearly re-embarking; Smith felt it might be just to hit Baltimore from another angle. That evening General Douglass’s brigade prepared to thwart an assault on the south side of the city, and Sam Smith warned Fort McHenry that he believed “an attack would be made in the course of the night on this post and on the city by way of the Ferry Branch.”

It was a bad moment for Fort McHenry to face such a prospect. Exhausted by five days of superhuman effort, Major Armistead was delirious with fever, and his subordinates were fighting over seniority. A new British attack would catch the place torn with dissension. Sam Smith hurriedly put Commodore Rodgers in charge. A little unorthodox, perhaps, to have a naval officer run an army fort, but as with most of Sam Smith’s solutions, it worked.

He looked at the flag on the fort again, and it was about now that the turbulent, fervent thoughts racing through his mind began to take poetic shape. 

September 16, Cochrane’s ships still hovered off North Point, but they were now anchored “out in the Bay. Slowly, imperceptibly, it finally dawned on Baltimore’s defenders that they had actually accomplished what they scarcely dared hope—they had turned back the British. At Fort McHenry, the men found it hard to believe that only three days ago they were crouching behind the ramparts, praying for their lives, and relying on such a dubious talisman as a rooster crowing on the rampart. But one man remembered—and bought the rooster the poundcake he had promised.

On Hampstead Hill the troops were released from the earthworks and marched back to their regular quarters. Free from tension at last, the men exploded with a ribald joy that appalled Private John A. Dagg, the sometime clergyman from Virginia: “During the last few days every one had spoken softly and seriously, and no oaths had been heard, but this night our barracks were in an uproar with noise and profanity, giving painful proof of human depravity.”

The noise and foolishness soon gave way to a deeper, quieter gratitude. For Baltimore it had been a very near thing, and everyone sensed it. Gifts poured in for the comfort of the wounded—not just money and medical supplies, but small things too from people who had little else to give except their thanks: too large pots of preserves from Mrs. Samuel Harris … one jar of crab apples from Mrs. William Lorman.

For the heroes there were dress swords and testimonial dinners; and for a convalescent Major Armistead, a fine silver punch bowl of the exact dimensions of a 13-inch British bombshell. But he won far more than that. His wife Louisa presented him with a baby girl that made him forget the son he had wanted. Professionally, Madison sent him a spot promotion, and even better, he had that dream of every soldier—a little military fame. “So you see, my dear wife,” he wrote Mrs. Armistead, “all is well, at least your husband has got a name and standing that nothing but divine providence could have given him, and I pray to my Heavenly Father that we may long live to enjoy.”

Related: Day of Infamy: Inside the Destruction of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor 

Baltimore was already celebrating when a small sloop arrived on the evening of September 16, inched past the block ships, and docked at Hughes’ Wharf between eight and nine o’clock. Released at last by Admiral Cochrane, the flag-of-truce packet was back with John S. Skinner, Francis Scott Key, and their elderly charge, Dr. Beanes.

Bystanders eagerly pumped them for news. What would the British do next? Well, said Key, the officers spoke of going to Poplar Island for repairs, then Halifax. Was Ross really killed? Yes, said John Skinner, no doubt about it. But the main focus of attention was Skinner’s list of 91 prisoners held in the British fleet. All Baltimore was desperate for news of missing friends and relatives; now a great surge of relief swept the city.

Breaking away, the three new arrivals retired to the Indian Queen Hotel—but there would be no sleep yet for Francis Scott Key. Vivid thoughts of the scenes he had witnessed raced through his poetic mind. He had tried to express his feelings—the thrill of seeing the flag at dawn—in a few random lines scribbled down right after the attack. Later he added more during the long wait and sail back to Baltimore. Now these lines had jelled into a song, and he simply had to get it down on paper.

From the start, he almost certainly thought of it as being sung, to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a familiar drinking song of the period. The same melody had already beern borrowed in 1798 by Robert Treat Paine for a patriotic air called “Adams and Liberty,” and Key himself had used it for an amateurish effort he composed in 1805, honoring the heroes of Tripoli.

Now it would do again, and he even relied, perhaps unconsciously, on some of the rhymes and images he had used nine years before. Taking a sheet of paper, he wrote it all out from beginning to end. Oddly enough, he gave it no title.

Next morning he showed it to John S. Skinner and also to his wife’s brother-in-law, Judge Nicholson, free at last from the ordeal of Fort McHenry.

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  • Sheet music for "The Star-Spangled Banner," dated from 1814: Shortly after the poem was written, it was set to the tune "The Anacreon in Heaven."

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

One of them sent or took it to the offices of the Baltimore American and Commercial Daily Advertiser to be struck off as a handbill. Probably set by Samuel Sands, a 14-year-old printer’s “devil,” copies were soon circulating throughout the city. A brief introduction explained how it came to be written, and a guide line gave the tune as “Anacreon in Heaven.” But it mentioned no author and carried no title except the modest heading, “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Weeks would pass before it became known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

But the song caught Baltimore’s fancy right away. Key’s words somehow conveyed perfectly the strange combination of fear, defiance, suspense, relief and sheer ecstasy that went into that desperate night. The Fort McHenry garrison adopted it—everyman received a copy—and the tavern crowds took it up. Resuming publication after a ten-day lapse, the Baltimore Patriot and Evening Advertiser ran it in full on September 20, proclaiming that it was “destined long to outlast the occasion, and outlive the impulse, which produced it.”

It quickly spread to other cities too, as the whole nation rejoiced in the news from Baltimore. Within a month papers in towns as far away as Savannah and Concord, New Hampshire, were running Key’s stirring lyrics. Everywhere they struck the right chord—the rare sense of exultation people felt about this totally unexpected victory.

For unexpected it was. As late as 7:15 A.M. on September 14 (15 minutes after Cochrane began his retirement), the vedettes at Elkton, Maryland, were warning the cities to the north that “the general opinion here is that Baltimore must fall.” In Philadelphia crowds filled the streets all day, despite the rain, waiting for news that never came. Communications were out; the stage not running; the outlook bleak. Coming so soon after Washington, the situation had all the familiar earmarks of another disaster.

And now the impossible had happened. Joy and relief swept the country. At Norfolk the Constellation fired rousing salutes; at Salem, Massachusetts, the town cannon boomed in celebration. “Never have we witnessed greater elevation of public spirits,” exclaimed the Salem Register. The triumph at Baltimore had erased all past impressions of the enemy’s irresistible strength. “Ten thousand victories cannot give them their former hopes, and the spell is lost forever.”

And almost at the same time word spread of an equally glorious victory on the Canadian front. On September 11 a large British invasion force under Sir George Prevost was thrown back at Plattsburg, New York. The naval arm of this expedition was annihilated on Lake Champlain by the brilliant tactics of Captain Thomas Macdonough, commanding a hastily assembled U.S. squadron; while Prevost’s army of 11,000 Peninsular veterans retired in confusion before the far smaller numbers of Brigadier General Alexander Macomb.

It was another miracle, and the defenders of Baltimore responded appropriately. Promptly at noon on September 18, the guns of Fort McHenry sounded loud and long. But this time it was not in angry defiance—it was a “federal salute” in honor of the new, splendid victory on Lake Champlain.

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Featured photo: Wikipedia