Attack on Baltimore launched from Bermuda in "War of 1812"

- Gave birth to America's National Anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner"

by James G. Howes

Bermuda Royal Naval Dockyard

<- Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda, fortifications (aerial view)

After England lost its American colonies and seaports at the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, the world's greatest seagoing power at the time was left without a naval base between Halifax and the West Indies. The British Admiralty then began to develop naval facilities at St. George's in Bermuda, its island colony in the Atlantic Ocean 650 miles off the coast of North Carolina. As Britain's maritime interests expanded, construction of the British "North America Station" began at the Royal Navy Dockyards in 1809, where a larger anchorage for the fleet and an extensive supply depot were developed and would be known for the next 150 years as the "Gibraltar of the West".

During the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States, Bermuda was the staging area for the British attack on Washington and Baltimore in the summer of 1814. From Bermuda, the Royal Navy fleet set sail on August 1st for the Chesapeake Bay with 5,000 army troops and Royal Marines, commanded by Maj. General Robert Ross, for its invasion of the United States' capital and the strategic seaport of Baltimore.

British Adm Cochrane   

<-British Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane

Led by Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane's flagship, the 86-gun HMS Tonnant, the fleet of 18  ships reached the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland on August 11th. British forces soon routed the disorganized American army at the Battle of Bladensburg and then marched into Washington, DC, burning down the White House, Capitol Building, and Library of Congress, the only time in American history since the Revolutionary War that a U.S. city was occupied by an invading army.

British forces then sailed up the Patapsco River in a two-pronged naval and land attack on Baltimore, spearheaded by the British army and marines who came ashore east of this major American seaport near Sparrows Point on Sept. 12th, advancing as far as present-day Patterson Park in Baltimore.  There they encountered a large force of 10,000 Americans behind hastily-built fortifications. While the British forces engaged the determined American defenders on land for two days, British warships simultaneously drew closer to Fort McHenry, strategically located at Baltimore's harbor entrance.   Beginning on the morning of Tuesday the 13th, the Royal Navy warships unleashed a heavy 24-hour bombardment by cannons and rocket batteries.  All through the day and rainy night, the defenders of Baltimore withstood these land forces and the naval attack on Fort McHenry, knowing that surrender meant the same fate for Baltimore as the capital had suffered.

As the morning of the 14th dawned and the guns firing on Ft. McHenry fell silent, a Baltimore lawyer named Francis Scott Key, held prisoner on the HMS Tonnant a few miles away, anxiously peered through a spyglass at the embattled fort.  Seeing the large American flag still flying above Ft. McHenry's ramparts, he knew that the gallant defenders had withstood the British assault and Baltimore was saved.fn

Ft. McHenry, Baltimore, Md.   

<-Key sees the U.S. flag waving over Ft. McHenry at dawn

15-star flag of 1814 at Ft. McHenry
 So inspired by the sight was Francis Scott Key, as he gazed at the Stars and Stripes, that he began to pen some verses,
 "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 fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?"

Published shortly afterwards in the Baltimore American newspaper, Key's stirring poem, written on a British vessel from Bermuda in Baltimore Harbor on Sept. 14, 1814, would become the United States' National Anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner"

In the years following the end of the "War of 1812", Bermuda's Royal Naval Dockyards continued to be intertwined in the history of the once-warring foes.  Colonel James Arnold, son of the infamous American traitor Benedict Arnold, became Royal Engineer and fortified the Royal Navy's "North America Station" in 1816 against possible attack by the U.S.

During the Civil War, Bermuda again figured in American history as a hotbed of blockade-running by Confederate ships, carrying munitions and goods between England and ports such as Wilmington, North Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina. Visitors to St. George's in Bermuda today can take a  walking tour  of the quaint World Heritage town and see the Globe Hotel, where Confederate agents openly operated between 1861-1865, now preserved as the National Trust Museum.

<- Historic Clocktower Centre at Royal Naval Dockyard, now a shopping arcade
In the 20th century, the Royal Navy Dockyard's strategic mid-Atlantic location was important for protecting the Allies' Atlantic shipping lanes against German U-boats during World War I and again in World War II. In the 1950's, the British finally decommissioned it as an active naval base.

Today, its picturesque, 19th century buildings and fortifications overlooking the Atlantic Ocean have made the Royal Navy Dockyards a popular Bermuda tourist attraction. Particularly of interest is the Maritime Museum, which describes the role of Bermuda in the War of 1812, along with artifacts and exhibits detailing Bermuda's naval and merchant marine development from the early 1600's to the present.   Its deepwater berths are still used by visiting cruise ships and ocean liners, such as the Queen Elizabeth II.

  •   The Dawn's Early Light, Walter Lord, 1972;
  •   Maritime Studies, East Carolina University, 2000;
  •    Bermuda Royal Gazette, Keith A. Forbes, 2003;
  •    Maryland Historical Society;
  •    Bermuda Dept. of Tourism;
  •    Bermuda Maritime Museum;
  •    Bermuda National Trust;
  •    St. George's Foundation;
  •    U.S. National Park Service;
  •    National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
  • Note: some historians now claim that Key was allowed to return to his American truce boat Minden prior to the bombardment, or to another British vessel, Surprize, but that is not supported by any contemporary sources or Key's own account, nor is it probable that the English would have permitted an unguarded enemy emissary to leave their warship at the critical moment of attack. Other revisionists contend that the British vessel on which Key was detained during the battle was so far away as to render the fort's flag out of sight, even with a spyglass, contrary to Key's own statements.

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