Following the battle at North Point, the Americans retreated to Baltimore. At Hampstead Hill, the city’s main defense, the British faced over 60 cannons and between 15-18 thousand men within well-constructed earthworks.
To take Baltimore the British navy would have to sail into Baltimore to assist the army’s attack on the city.
Early in the morning of September 13, 1814, 17 ships of the British navy sailed up the Patapsco river heading for Baltimore, the third largest city in the United States.
The main defense along the Patapsco was Fort McHenry. Located on a peninsula two miles from the city, the fort covered the water approaches to the northeast and northwest of the city
To the northwest, in the Ferry Branch of the river, were three small forts, Battery Babcock, Forts Covington and Lookout .
At Fort McHenry, commanded by Major George Armistead of the U.S. Corps of Artillery, were over 1000 defenders made up of U.S. Army regulars and state militia. With 23 cannons in the fort and 20 on the water battery Fort McHenry could sink any ship within of a range mile and a half.
To the east, in the Northeast Branch, across the river from Fort McHenry was the 3-gun Lazzaretto Battery, manned by the Chesapeake flotilla.
In the channel, a line of merchant ships was sunk to obstruct the entry into Baltimore. Behind the sunken ships were 11 gun barges the size of large rowboats, each had a cannon in the bow and one in the stern. Across the narrow channel was also a boom chain in front of the sunken ships.
At 6 o’clock in the morning of the 13th, The British ships under the command of Admiral Cochrane approached Fort McHenry.
The five bomb ships, with names designed to inspire fear, HMS AETNA, DEVESTATION, METEOR, TERROR and VOLCANO, capable of firing a mortar shell two miles, and the rocket ship EREBUS, began the bombardment of the fort at 6:30 a.m. . During the next 25 hours, under a heavy rainstorm for most of the time, 15-18 hundred bombs and rockets would be fired at the fort.
Watching the bombardment from three miles away, aboard a Baltimore packet ship, leased as a truce vessel, was Francis Scott Key.
The defenders of the fort returned fire, damaging but not sinking any of the enemy ships.
Of the 1000 defenders in the fort, miraculously only 4 men were killed and 25 wounded.
Hoping to make the Americans send reinforcements to the Fort, the British launched a feint, sailing armed barges past Fort McHenry into the Northwest Branch. If successful, this might enable the British Army to attack and breach the defenses at Hampstead Hill.
The barges were discovered by the men at battery Babcock. Forts Lookout and Covington joined in the fight and, repulsed, the British returned to the fleet.
Unable to sail past the fort, Cochrane realized his forces could not take Baltimore, and ordered the fleet to prepare to retire back down the river by 9 am on September 14.
The rainstorm had stopped by 7:00 that morning. And the HMS VOLCANO fired the last bomb at the fort at 7:30. It was then quiet. One person would soon describe it as “dread silence”.
An hour and a half later as the British ships began to spread their sails to depart, Armistead had the flag that had flown during the battle, a 17 x 25’ wool flag with 15 stars and stripes, now heavy with water from the storm and hanging limp against the flagpole, taken down. A few minutes later, at 9 o’clock, following Army regulations, morning colors were hoisted. The larger 30’ X 42’ flag, with 15 star and 15 stripes were raised over the ramparts at Fort McHenry. The morning signal gun was also fired. As the flag was being hoisted over the fort, the rain clouds dispersed. Just as the flag reached the top of the flagstaff, the sun broke though the clouds.
From the deck of the truce ship Key saw the large flag as it caught “the mornings first beam”.
On one of the British frigates, a young midshipman later wrote; “As we spread our canvas…the Americans hoisted a superb and splendid ensign and fired a gun of defiance.”