Following the capture of Washington in late August 1814, British expeditionary forces under Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane moved to attack Baltimore. As the third largest American city and home to privateering operations that had netted over 500 British merchantmen, the Maryland port offered a tempting target for a destructive, retaliatory blow. Fort McHenry, a star-shaped masonry fortification guarding the entrance to Baltimore harbor, held the key to the city’s defenses. U.S. naval forces not only helped garrison Fort McHenry but manned shore and floating batteries protecting the water and land approaches to the American bastion.
On 12 September the British landed approximately 5000 soldiers and sailors at North Point, launching a landside attack on Baltimore’s eastern defenses. While the British assault succeeded in rolling back the city’s defenders, it failed to breach the main American lines. It also resulted in the death of Cochrane’s second-in-command, Major General Robert Ross. To aid his stalled land forces, Cochrane ordered a bombardment of Fort McHenry on the morning of the 13th. For twenty-four hours the American garrison withstood the bombs and rockets hurled at them from enemy vessels lying off the fort. The stout Yankee resistance displayed by McHenry’s soldiers and sailors ultimately compelled Cochrane to abandon his attack on Baltimore.
Francis Scott Key, a young D.C. lawyer and amateur poet who witnessed the bombardment from the vantage point of the British fleet, was so inspired by Fort McHenry’s resolute defense that he composed a poem to honor its gallant defenders. This poem, set to the English tune “Anacreon in Heaven,” was soon published in sheet music form as “The Star Spangled Banner.” The Star Spangled Banner gained steady popularity as a patriotic tune in the nineteenth century. It became our nation’s national anthem on 3 March 1931.