A great lacuna I have felt as an Indian is of being deprived of India’s history, which has many lessons for the future, including importantly, how to protect/maintain the country’s geography. Leave alone Indian history not being taught in schools, important chunks of pre and post Independence history have been deliberately suppressed or even twisted, for 68 years since Independence.
This fact rubbed me yet again during my recent trip to the US, where my itinerary included New York, Baltimore, Washington DC and Annapolis. This story is about my visit to Baltimore to meet my aunt, Swaran, a child psychologist. Thanks to her, her daughter Neetu, her son-in-law, Dennis Gray, an award winning landscape watercolorist and her old friend, Sushil Sharma, a double Ph. D and Assistant Director, U.S. Government Accountability Office , I was treated to a wonderful conducted tour of Baltimore. Aunt Swaran drove me around some of the most picturesque parts of the historic city and that too on the day of the Strawberry Festival. Dennis took me to the B&O (Baltimore & Ohio) Railroad Museum and the Naval Academy at Annapolis and Sushil took us to Fort McHenry.
Even after 30 years since the Americans had won freedom from Britain, America continued to be plagued by British occupation of American territory along the Great Lakes, highly unfavorable trade restrictions and the practice of
boarding American ships to force their sailors to serve on British ships. Britain continued to regard America as a set of troublesome colonies, rather than a nation of equal standing. The then ragtag US army was only about half the size of Britain’s and stationed in widely scattered outposts. The American navy had only about 50 ships, while Britain’s had over 850 ships and much than the American ones. Coastal defense infrastructure was limited and that there was no core of trained military officers to lead the poorly trained troops and militia.
Even after 30 years since the Americans had won freedom from Britain, America continued to be plagued by British occupation of American territory along the Great Lakes, highly unfavorable trade restrictions and the practice of boarding American ships to force their sailors to serve on British ships. Britain continued to regard America as a set of troublesome colonies, rather than a nation of equal standing. The then ragtag US army was only about half the size of Britain’s and stationed in widely scattered outposts. The American navy had only about 50 ships, while Britain’s had over 850 ships and much than the American ones. Coastal defense infrastructure was limited and that there was no core of trained military officers to lead the poorly trained troops and militia.
In 1814, after England had defeated Napoleon, some 14,000 experienced British troops were available for battle in America. The British formed a blockade, which. by the end of 1813’s summer, had extended north to Long Island and severely affect American trade, diminishing it considerably. The British planned a three-pronged strategy: 1) to attack New York along the Hudson River and Lake Champlain in order to divide New England from the rest of the country; 2) to attack the Chesapeake region – the center of government and pro-war sentiment; and 3) to attack New Orleans to block and control the Mississippi River. The situation was grave: no one believed that America could defend itself against the full force of the British; the country faced insolvency due to the blockade of trade routes and the costs of the war. Some segments of the US, particularly New England, proposed making a separate peace accord with the British, who were looking for opportunities to inflict a major blows to the morale of the Americans, which would bring a speedy end to the war in England’s favor.
Baltimore, Maryland appeared to be the most likely target. To attack the city successfully, the British would first have to seize the unique, well-sighted brick walled Fort McHenry, overlooking the Patapsco River. What the British had not reckoned was the stubborn, determined people of Baltimore, which had become an anti-British hotbed. The city had openly proclaimed its anti-British stance days after war was declared. An angry mob destroyed a building housing a newspaper which criticized America for going to war. Baltimoreans also struck at the British directly. Swiftly sailing schooners seized British merchant ships and transported limited cargoes to foreign ports.
Other cities followed the practice; however, Baltimore alone accounted for about 30 percent of all British merchant ships captured by the U.S. during the war. From this, Baltimore earned the nickname “nest of pirates.”
The blockade resulted in stockpiles of goods along the city’s wharves. Shipbuilders avoided bankruptcy by building blockade runners and vessels for the U.S. Navy. The potential to strike a decisive morale blow, capture goods, a frigate, and settle a score, may have influenced the British decision to attack Baltimore.
The city fathers foresaw a possible attack on the harbor, so preparations were made as early as 1813. A committee of public supply was established to raise funds for various construction projects. Citizens began to dig a huge entrenchment along the outskirts of the city, facing east. Large gun barges were constructed to defend the harbor. The city militia was called on for periodic drills.
The regular army also assisted. Colonel Joseph G. Swift dispatched Captain Samuel Babcock to supervise improvements at Fort McHenry. Improvements included mounting a battery of 32-pound cannons along the water’s edge, construction of hot shot furnaces, fortifications at Lazaretto Point, and additional gun batteries along the Patapsco River.
On the morning of September 12, 1814, the British landed more than 3,000 troops at North Point. They marched north and west to attack the city. That night, after the Battle of North Point, they reached Hampstead Hill, where 12,000 Americans blocked their path. The British troops waited for the navy to subdue Fort McHenry and sail into the harbor to shell the city. At first light on September 13, British ships of war began to fire bombs, rockets, and cannon balls at Fort McHenry. The hope was the Americans would panic, evacuate the fort and leave Baltimore defenseless.
For 25 hours, through heavy rainfall and lightning, the British bombarded the fort, firing 1,500 to 1,800 rounds, but causing only four deaths and leaving 24 wounded. Major George Armistead and the 1,000 patriot defenders fired back with their cannons when the British ships sailed within range. Realizing the attack had failed, the British sailed downriver to North Point to retrieve their retreating soldiers. The Battle of Baltimore was over. It was the most dangerous period following the War for Independence as patriots faced and defeated a vengeful foreign power on American shores.
The War of 1812 has been called the “second War of Independence,” because it forged national character and demonstrated that Americans would unite not only to win liberty, but to keep it. After the battle, the young flag, with 15 stars and broad stripes, waved in defiance. The courage Francis Scott Key was inspired to write his poem, “Defense of Fort McHenry,” later renamed as the “Star-Spangled Banner,” sung today as the National Anthem. Fort McHenry, home of the Star-Spangled Banner, still flies the 15-star flag every hour of every day, above its ramparts. Fort McHenry has been made into an attractive tourist destination, where an articulate guide conducts -briefs visitors including school-students and also makes them unfold the Stars and Stripes and neatly fold it back. And the well-maintained cannons are fired by the Fort McHenry Guard every 4th of July.