And the rockets red glare the bombs bursting in air

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and the rockets red glare the bombs bursting in air

The Rockets Red Glare: The Maritime Defense of Baltimore in 1814 by Scott S. Sheads

“And the rockets’ red glare/The bombs bursting in air/Gave proof through the night/That our flag was still there…” These words from Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner,” conveying as they do the drama of the British bombardment of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore on September 13-14, 1814, have become a part of American culture (even though most of us Americans know only the first stanza of Key’s four-stanza poem). And for the reader who wants to be taken back to that grim and suspenseful (albeit ultimately triumphant) night that inspired the writing of the national anthem of the United States of America, Scott Sheads’s The Rockets’ Red Glare provides a good place to start.

Sheads, a ranger and historian at what is officially called the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine (the only site in the U.S.A. to enjoy that double distinction), is certainly well-qualified to tell the story of The Maritime Defense of Baltimore in 1814 (the book’s subtitle); and The Rockets’ Red Glare provides a quick, economically written account of the campaign (the book is only 102 pages long, not counting appendices, notes, bibliography, and index).

Sheads’s account of the British military’s Chesapeake Campaign that ended at the Battle of Baltimore benefits from his extensive quoting of relevant primary-source materials, as when he quotes Captain George Stiles’s July 20, 1814, appeal to potential new recruits for the First Marine Artillery of the Union: “Many 18-pounders are already manned and many more fit for service; come and join as we give a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull altogether – and save the ship” (p. 25). Those quotes may sometimes cause pain to American readers, as when Sheads cites the testimony of Charles Ball, an African-American flotillaman who bravely stayed with his commander, Commodore Joshua Barney, while American militiamen fled the field during the August 24, 1814, Battle of Bladensburg:

“I stood by my gun, until the Commodore was shot down, when he ordered us to retreat, as I was told by the officer who commanded our gun. If the militia regiments, that lay upon our right and left, could have been brought to charge the British, in close fight, as they crossed the bridge, we should have killed or taken the whole of them in a short time; but the militia ran like sheep, chased by dogs…” (p. 57)

Ball’s testimony is all the more telling when one reflects that the flight of the U.S. militia from the battlefield at Bladensburg (the battle was later referred to by some as the “Bladensburg Races”) facilitated the subsequent British occupation of Washington, D.C., and the burning by the British of Washington’s public buildings.

A comparably helpful quote, from a correspondent for the Salem Gazette, captures well the drama of the climactic British bombardment of Fort McHenry, as seen by eyewitnesses from the heights of Federal Hill, just south of the Inner Harbor:

”The attack on Fort McHenry, by nearly the whole British fleet was distinctly seen from Federal Hill, and from the tops of houses which were covered with men, women, and children. The night of Tuesday and the morning of Wednesday (til about 4 o’clock) presented the whole awful spectacle of shot and shells, and rockets, shooting and bursting through the air. The well directed fire of the little fort, under Lieutenant [George] Budd, and the gallant seamen under his command, checked the enemy on his approach….The garrison was chiefly incommoded by the shells, which burst in and about the fort, whilst they had no bomb proof shelter. As the darkness increased, the awful grandeur of the scene augmented…” (p. 101)

Indeed, one of the chief criticisms that might be levied against The Rockets’ Red Glare is that author Sheads is perhaps too conscientious in quoting primary-source material, at the expense of providing his own synthesis, analysis, and interpretation of the events of the Chesapeake Campaign and the Battle of Baltimore. The quotes might have gained even more power from Sheads using his considerable authority and knowledge regarding this period of history to set these quotes in context and explain their significance.

Maps are helpful in setting the fine points of the later American defense of Baltimore, as when Sheads indicates the different fortifications that United States Marines and Maryland and Pennsylvania militia manned at Hampstead Hill, on Baltimore’s eastern outskirts (about where Patterson Park is now). Indeed, the reader who wants to get a complete sense of how the battle of September 13 and 14 unfolded would be well advised to refer frequently to the maps while reading Sheads’s narrative.

While The Rockets’ Red Glare is far from being the last word on the defense of Fort McHenry (for me, the best book on the subject is Walter Lord’s The Dawn’s Early Light), it is a helpful text for readers who enjoy reading about this point in history. Fellow Marylanders are likely to read it with particular pride – knowing, as we all do, that it was in central Maryland that a small group of Americans, outnumbered and outgunned, did the seemingly impossible in repelling an attack by elite soldiers and sailors of an imperial superpower, veterans who had just inflicted final defeat upon Napoleon Bonaparte himself.

I found The Rockets’ Red Glare at what was then my local library – the Miller Branch Library in Ellicott City, Maryland – and I am glad I did. Published by the now-defunct Tidewater Publishers, a very fine regional publishing company that was based in the Eastern Shore town of Centreville, Maryland, The Rockets’ Red Glare certainly puts one back in the time of the battle that gave our nation its beloved anthem.

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Published 16.12.2018

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All Americans know these words: “And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” The line has a.
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Key was inspired by the large U. The poem was set to the tune of a popular British song written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society , a men's social club in London. With a range of 19 semitones, it is known for being very difficult to sing. Although the poem has four stanzas , only the first is commonly sung today. President Woodrow Wilson in , and was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution on March 3, 46 Stat. Before , other songs served as the hymns of U. Their objective was to secure an exchange of prisoners, one of whom was William Beanes , the elderly and popular town physician of Upper Marlboro and a friend of Key's who had been captured in his home.

Two hundred years ago this month, Key witnessed the British fleet launching the rockets over Baltimore Harbor during the battle for Fort McHenry, an historic victory that interrupted a string of U. Today, on the National Air and Space Museum website, you can see a replica of the type of rocket the British used in the battle for Baltimore and throughout the war. The model was given to the Museum in , a birthday present from the Science Museum of London. The rockets were the brainchild of the highly inventive William Congreve, who happened to be the son of a British lieutenant general of the Royal Artillery. Before Congreve began his experiments, the basic rocket was no more than a conveyance for fireworks. A rocket was sometimes used to send signals. Even though the technology was a thousand years old—it had probably originated in China—it had hardly changed from its beginnings.

Francis Scott Key was a gifted amateur poet. Inspired by the sight of the American flag flying over Fort McHenry the morning after the bombardment, he scribbled the initial verse of his song on the back of a letter. Back in Baltimore, he completed the four verses PDF and copied them onto a sheet of paper, probably making more than one copy. A local printer issued the new song as a broadside. Shortly afterward, two Baltimore newspapers published it, and by mid-October it had appeared in at least seventeen other papers in cities up and down the East Coast.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Elizabeth H. says:

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  2. Donatela R. says:

    What separates humans from animals can be summed up as one simple thing -- the mastery of fire.

  3. Ella M. says:

    Key’s Manuscript

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  5. Rosemarie C. says:

    "The Star-Spangled Banner" is the national anthem of the United States. The lyrics come from .. And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof.

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