Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Defender's Day and 10 years after 9/11.......

Since I have been so focused on making things down in my shop, I have been shamelessly ignoring this blog but then I found this post I lost for a while.  I figured that I might as well post it, if for no other reason to fill up space. I wrote it way back in September. 

I spent the weekend of September 10/11 at Fort McHenry in Baltimore MD. We are quickly approaching the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812 and I have sorta "drifted" into portraying a common seaman of that period. I had a great time talking to the public, showing off the weapons of the age of fighting sail, sewing on a period hammock and doing my knot work, as well as visiting with my fellow "living historians".

Since Sunday was the 10th anniversary of 9-11, I couldn't help but think of the reaction of myself and everyone I knew on that date, and compared it in my mind with what others had experienced and felt at other times of crisis in the history of our country. An event which no doubt had the same effect on people 195 years ago was the British attack on Baltimore. To properly put yourself in that time and place remember that England was the primary world power in the early 1800's. She had forced Napoleon to abdicate the French throne and had forced him into exile. Britain had also fought a war with America since 1812 that had not gone well for the Americans. The coast of America had been blockaded by the Royal Navy and for all intents and practical purposes the Chesapeake Bay was a English pond with the Royal Navy landing parties and raiding at will all along the coast. On August 20th 1814 a large British force was landed at Benedict MD, it's target, Washington. The Americans attacked the advancing British at Bladensburg on August 24th. The battle was a unmitigated disaster. The majority of the American forces broke and retreated from the British with such enthusiasm, that one observer stated "They ran like sheep chased by dogs" This battle was nicknamed by the British "The Bladensburg Races" The British then marched into Washington unopposed. The burned the White House, The Capitol and several other public buildings. The also burned the Washington Navy Yard. Then having nothing else much to accomplish, they marched back out and went back on their ships.

So now, this same Royal Navy has just appeared in Baltimore Harbor. The population had time to build defenses and seemed to have built up a bit of a fighting spirit. The British had landed troops and there had been a battle at North Point, which had been a British victory, but had cost the British forces a very bloody nose. (The British commander Major General Robert Ross was K.I.A. By American marksmen) The trenches and fortifications the Americans had built around Baltimore had given the British Army a bit of a pause. It was decided to give the Royal Navy the chance to take the city. The main point of defense for the harbor was Ft. McHenry commanded by Major George Armistead. Major Armistead was a well trained professional, who had fighting spirit enough for two men. Sometime before the appearance of the British he had ordered a new flag for the garrison. He stated that he wanted an American flag so large, that there would be no difficulty for the British to see it any time of day or night. The flag he ordered was 42 feet long by 30 feet high. It had 15 stars as well as 15 stripes and was made of wool bunting. It cost the government $405.90. Remember this was in 1814 dollars. Major Armistead while he had the will to fight and defend the city, there was a secret that only he knew. The fort's bomb proofs in which he stored the garrison's gun powder were not as bombproof as they should have been.

On September 13th, 1814 the British Bomb Vessel Volcano weighted anchor at 05:00 and started to ease in the direction of the American fort. In consort with the Volcano was the bomb vessel Meteor as well as the Rocket ship Erebus and the schooner Cockchafer The largest cannons that the fort mounted were the 24lbs. which had an effective range of 1,800 yards and the larger 36 lbs. which had a range of 2,800 yards. The British Bomb Vessels with their 10 in. and 13 in. Mortars could fire a 200 lb. explosive shell up to 4,200 yards. The rate of fire for these weapons was 45 to 50 rounds per hour so the British could stand safely out of range of the American guns and given enough time and luck could pound the American defenses to dust. These huge weapons did however a weak point. A fuse was lit in the projectile when the weapon was fired. The gunners attempted to cut the fuse length so as to time it to set off the shell's explosive charge just before it impacted into the target, spraying metal fragments around. This method was VERY unreliable and a good number of the shells exploded anywhere from mid air to minutes after landing. (One shell fell into the fort's magazine and sat there with it's fuse burning until a defender dumped a bucket of water on it, putting it out and preventing an explosion.) Soon the first 4 ships were joined by 3 other bomb vessels, the Terror, Devastation and Aetna With this much firepower, it was thought that Ft. McHenry would fall fairly soon after the attack commenced.

At 06:30 the Volcano fired a few ranging shot to discover that she was still out of range so she advanced further, less that two miles from the fort. At 07:00 the Meteor commenced firing, then the other bombships joined in. Along with the bombships, was a fairly new development, the rocket ship Eribus. The Congreve Rocket was a new addition to the armament of the British forces. It consisted of a large iron tube with a wooden stick attached to the side. Different warheads were attached depending on the target, the warheads were explosive, incendiary and anti-personnel. Unlike the bombships which had to be braced, reenforced and modified to stand the enormous recoil of the mortar's firing, a ship to launch rockets only needed at most a few holes cut in the upper decks to allow the rockets to protrude. The rocket could be launched with fairly large warheads, 24, 32, 36 and 42 pounders were used.

The rocket however did have several things that prevented it's whole hearted acceptance. The Congreve was very much like a modern bottle rocket that has been fed a LOT of steroids. It was insanely inaccurate, we are talking minute-of-town accuracy. It had a nasty habit when being used by ground forces to come back on the troops that were firing it. It's fusing was very similar to that of the mortar shell, so there was no telling when the explosive charge would go off. They were also dangerous to any ships that launched them. The rocket when fired, emitted a shower of hot gas and sparks, not something that a wooden ship, loaded with canvas sails, hemp rope, tar and other combustibles would do well with. But since the rocket was approved, it was used.

Major Armisted and the garrison of the fort hunkered down for a long day. They attempted to boost the range of their guns to reach the British ships by elevation and boosting the powder charge, but all that accomplished was to dismount three of his big guns due to excessive recoil. (The guns were not permanently damaged and were remounted.) Knowing that he was wasting his shots, he ordered his gun crews to stand down, take cover where ever they could find it and only fire their guns once in a while to let the town know that the fort was still holding out.

All day and the following night, the British shelled the fort. It was estimated that over 2000 shells were fired at the fort with an estimated 700 to 800 rockets. The men in the fort's garrison just sat there and took it, one compared his feelings to that of a pigeon who's leg has been tied to allow someone to shoot at it. Another bird served to boost the morale of the garrison. In the midst of the shelling, a rooster mounted the fort's parapet and began to crow as if in defiance of the British. One of the defenders yelled out that if he and the rooster survived the fight, that he would treat that bird the finest pound cake in Baltimore.

On a few occasions, the British ships thinking that they had silenced Ft. McHenry's guns advanced within the range of the American guns. This was taken advantage of by the Americans at around 3:00 that afternoon. Three of the bomb vessels and the rocketship weighed anchor and eased toward the Fort. Closer and closer they came until they were within a mile and a half of the fort, at that point, the Americans opened up with everything they had. The Devastation took a hit in the port bow which sprung timbers and started a serious leak. She took another that went through her main topsail. The Volcano took five straight hits, none of which caused serious damage. After meeting this rebuff, the British ships withdrew to outside the American's range once again. With that, the British command structure began to think that the effort that they were expending wasn't worth the possible cost. Baltimore was the first vigorous defense that the British had met and it wasn't something that they were used to dealing with. The British also had their eye on another prize much more valuable than Baltimore. The city of New Orleans was the next target of the British. They would need every man and ship to both take that city as well as pack out all the loot that they expected to gather there.

On the morning of September 14th after a diversionary attack which was not followed through on, the British fleet ceased fire on the Fort at 04:00.

In the British fleet were some Americans who had been caught up in the attack while negotiating the release of an American civilian arrested by the British. One of these Americans was Francis Scott Key a lawyer from the area. Key was against the war, on many occasions spoke of how Baltimore deserved what it got, due to it's pro war jingoism. But during that long night he had had a change of mind and heart. He decided that he was an American and he and his fellow Americans prayed that the fort would hold out. The cease fire caught Key by surprise and he didn't know what it meant, He with the help of a spyglass saw Armisted's flag flying all the proceeding day. During the night, the British cannon fire indicated that the fort still held. As dawn broke, Key and the others strained to see if they could see the flag, through the overcast and mist of the morning. Then an easterly breeze came up and Key could see once the mist was blown away Armisted's flag flying over the battered fort. Key was overcome with emotion and being an amateur poet, pulled out a old envelope and started writing down his thoughts. Of course, you know where THAT ended up.

Back to my original thought. I suspect that the British capture of Washington and burning of White House and Capitol had the same effect on the American people that 9/11 had on us. Fear, uncertainty, confusion, finally turning into anger, fury, a sense of digging in and getting the job done, and eventually victory over great odds. It always seems that that's the way the American character is. After taking a good slug in the chin, we pick ourselves up, dust off, wipe away the blood, grin, spit on our palms and proceed to wax the a*s of anyone that monkeys with us. That's why I believe that no matter what happens, America and it's never stoppable spirit will continue, no matter what.

Oh yeah, two other things. First of all, the brave Anti- British rooster DID get his pound cake. Nothing like a man who keeps his word.

Also, Major Armisted who worked himself so hard preparing for the fort's defense that he fell ill after the battle. Due to contiuing poor health brought on by this overwork, he only lived more four years, dieing in 1818. Armisted had four brothers who also served in the war. One of these brothers moved down to North Carolina. This brother, had a son who followed his uncle into military service to build a life long army career. He was a student at West Point who was asked to leave the school after breaking a mess plate over fellow cadet Jubal Early's head. This son, was appointed to the army even after his incident, had a very steady career, regular promotion and was well thought of by his fellow officers and superiors. In 1861, when his home state of Virgina left the Union, he could not and would not serve in a Army that would be fighting against his family and friends and invading his home state. He took command of Virginia troops and again was known for his competency and professionalism. He was made a Brigadier General under George Pickett and led his troops in the Pettigrew-Pickett assault on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg PA. on July 3rd 1863. He was badly wounded and died on July 5th in a Federal field hospital. This officer's name was Lewis A. Armisted. So in one of those twist of history that I find so fascinating, the nephew of the defender of the Star Spangled Banner died fighting against that same flag almost 49 years later............

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