Banished to Baltimore – Excerpt
1 September 1814, Fort McHenry
Baltimore Harbor lay southeast of the city, formed by a long peninsula that started at the city’s southern edge and jutted two miles southeast into the Patapsco River. On the peninsula’s tip stood Fort McHenry, guarding the quarter-mile-wide harbor entrance to the northeast as well as the mile-wide course of the Patapsco, which continued west for two miles past the fort before splitting again at Cherry Hill into Ridgely’s Cove to the northwest and Ferry Branch to the southwest. The Patapsco followed Ferry Branch for two miles before curving gradually to the west, narrowing to fifty yards by the time it crossed the Baltimore-Washington Road five miles southwest of the city.
Fort Street connected Baltimore and Fort McHenry, and the two-mile gravel road was rutted and muddy due to the recent heavy rains and the continuous stream of wagons hauling construction materials and supplies. The carriage passed through no less than three security checkpoints, each manned by the Baltimore Committee of Vigilance and Safety, each delaying their journey but whose efforts Dolley could only applaud.
Fort McHenry was a typical star-shaped fort of the Vauban design, named after the French military architect who sought to neutralize the ever-more destructive effect of artillery on masonry and stone-walled fortifications. It was in the shape of a pentagon, three hundred feet on a side, with diamond-shaped bastions at each corner, each eighty feet wide by one hundred thirty feet long. The walls were masonry filled with packed earth, thirty-five feet wide and twelve high, bristling with artillery. A broad, dry moat surrounded the walls, and the ground beyond the moat sloped down at a gentle angle, providing no cover for an attacking enemy. Additional artillery revetments were positioned outside the fort, near the shore, and hundreds of infantrymen camped nearby to repel enemy landing parties. Anyone storming the fort would be met by cannon and musket fire from multiple directions.
Dolley admired the fort’s robust construction, considered impervious to direct cannon fire. The British fleet, however, had five bomb ships, each with two mortars capable of tossing twelve-inch, two-hundred-pound cast-iron explosive shells over the walls. What could stand against that?
The carriage crossed the moat over two wooden bridges before entering the long tunnel that served as the main gate, then stopped beside the enormous flagpole, atop of which curled the largest American flag ever created. Soldiers escorted Dolley to Major Armistead’s quarters, which he’d converted into a war room, walls covered with maps and drawings, floor stacked with supplies.
Uniform drenched in sweat, haggard from many sleepless nights, Armistead walked out of a back room, wiping his hands. “Mrs. Madison! What a pleasant surprise!”
Dolley looked about the room. “I simply love the way Louise decorated your quarters. Is the style Valley Forge or Saratoga?”
Armistead chuckled. “Louise left several days ago to stay with her family in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. She is due to deliver my son in two weeks.” He bowed over her hand. “I heard about Washington. I’m so very sorry.”
Dolley murmured her thanks and handed him a thick, sealed package. “The latest Intelligence on the British. Of particular interest to you are the five bomb-ketches.”
“Devastation-class?” he asked. She nodded and he continued. “What about rocket ships?”
“One, the HMS Erebus. If they shoot the same rockets we encountered at Bladensburg they’re more bark than bite.”
“Congreve rockets come in several sizes. British Infantry probably used the twelve-pounders, the Erebus shoots the thirty-two pounders.” He shrugged. “Ineffective against McHenry’s thick walls, but devastating against Baltimore should that ship get within their two-mile range. The British burned Copenhagen and Danzig with such rockets.”
Two miles! Dolley examined the wall-mounted military topographic map of Baltimore: Ridgely’s Cove extended to within a half-mile of the city’s southern limit, its entrance blocked by a quarter-mile long boom beyond range of the fort’s cannon. The British could dash past McHenry, accept the battering dished out by the fort, and pierce the unguarded boom in an hour. Should the Erebus slip into that cove it could rain fire on Baltimore’s buildings with impunity, a single bomb-ketch could pound the buildings to dust! Five bomb-ketches . . . !
“You see it too.” Armistead stood beside her, voice registering fatigue. “The fort could hold and Baltimore still be destroyed. I need artillery batteries constructed behind McHenry to protect that boom and prevent the enemy from dashing into Ridgely’s Cove or landing a regiment up Ferry Branch. I have the guns, just need experienced hands to wield them.”
“When I last saw them, Commodore Barney’s flotillamen were anxious to fight but lacked artillery. Would they do?”
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