Tag Archives: War of 1812

The Star-Spangled Banner, eh?


It might seem like a strange subject for Canadian Culture Thing but the Star-Spangled Banner has deep Canadian roots and could have never been written if not for the villain of its story – Canada.

After dishing out some payback for declaring war on Canada, by torching the White House and other government buildings in Washington, Major General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane set out to add insult to injury in the War of 1812 by going after Baltimore. Baltimore was a busy port and was thought by the British to harbour American privateers, government-sanctioned terrorists, who were raiding their ships.

The Burning of Washington 1814

The plan was for Major General Robert Ross to launch a land attack at North Point and for Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane to lay down a thrashing to Fort McHenry at Baltimore Harbour. When Ross arrived, he was greeted by 3,000 American soldiers sent to duke it out as a planned distraction while the Americans made fortifications. Ross was killed by a sniper during the battle and replaced by the less competent Colonel Arthur Brooke. The Americans retreated.

The next day, Brooke was surprised to find that he faced 12,000 troops dug in behind substantial earthworks east of the city. Under orders not to attack unless there was a high chance of success, Brooke poked around and found no discernible weaknesses in the line of defence so he sat back and waited to see the result of Cochrane’s attack of Fort McHenry.

On September 13, a bombardment began on Fort McHenry. Nineteen British ships began pounding Fort McHenry with Congreve Rockets from rocket vessel HMS Erebus and mortar shells from bomb vessels Terror, Volcano, Meteor, Devastation and Aetna (the Deadpool and Rocket Robin Hood were late getting to the fight). After the initial exchange of fire, the Canadians withdrew beyond range of Fort McHenry’s cannons and continued to blast the Americans for another 27 hours.

As night fell, Cochrane sent out a landing party in small boats to the west of the fort, distracting the centrally concentrated defence for a half hour or so, affording the British a little time to blast them some more. After the 27-hour bombardment, Cochrane figured drawing the battle out might be too costly and decided to pack it in.

Brooke’s orders were clear that they weren’t to attack the American positions around Baltimore unless they were certain that there were less than 2,000 soldiers in the fort. Because of his orders and the loss of naval support, Brooke was forced to return to the fleet as they prepared to attack New Orleans.

Early manuscript of the Defence of Fort McHenry by
Early manuscript of the Defence of Fort McHenry/Star-Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key

During the assault an American lawyer (and amateur poet), Francis Scott Key was appealing to the British for the release of his friend Dr. William Beanes, a prisoner from the Washington wedgie. The British agreed to Beanes’ release but he and Francis Scott Key would have to remain on the British truce ship until the end of the siege as they had heard information that could be used against the British forces in the hands of the Americans.

On the morning of September 14, 1814, the Americans took down the tattered and scorched storm flag at Fort McHenry and replaced it with a ginormous 9.1m x 12.8m (30’ x 42’) American Super-Flag! The flag had been made a year earlier by local flag-maker Mary Pickergill and her 13-year-old daughter. As the sun rose, Francis Scott Key could see the flag from the truce ship on the Patapsco River, some say it could even be seen from the moon. Feeling all warm and gushy inside, Key began jotting down verses on the back of a letter he was carrying and the rest is anthem-history.

Cover of the Star Spangled Banner sheet music
Cover of the Star Spangled Banner sheet music
Sheet music for the Star Spangled Banner

Star-Spangled Banner

O! 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?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Some historians have mistakenly assumed that the raising of the big flag was to taunt the Canadians with a “Look! You missed this giant flag! What were you aiming at anyway?” but the Fort customarily raised this flag every morning along with reveille.

The Ginormous Fort McHenry Super-Flag photographed in 1873

Ironically, Francis Scott Key’s poem, “the Defence of Fort McHenry” was set to the tune of a British song called “To Anacreon in Heaven” written by John Stafford Smith as the official song of the Anacreonic Society, an 18th-century gentleman’s club of amateur London musicians. Eventually becoming known as “the Star-Spangled Banner”, the American Congress made it the official national anthem of the United States in 1931.

While we all listen to this anthem at sporting events, it seems that no one knows that it was Canada’s rockets flaring red and Canada’s bombs bursting in the air. No one seems to know that the villain of the Star-Spangled Banner was in fact Canada. Though we were painted as the villain, we were merely responding offensively to a declaration of war from the United States. It’s kind of like when you come to the realisation that the poor, victimized Goldilocks has actually burglarized and vandalized the Bears’ home while they were out for a walk.

And now…

Celine Dion sings the American and Canadian national anthems prior to the start of the Montreal Expos’ home opener versus the Philadelphia Phillies on April 13, 1984. Celine was just two weeks past her sixteenth birthday. That’s right, we inspired an awesome anthem but we’ve got Celine Dion. (Sorry for the static).

Oh, by the way the Expos beat the Phillies 5-1.

Pete Rose had been having a bad year and spent most of his time sitting on the Phillies bench. He was eventually granted an unconditional release from the Phillies in late October 1983. Phillies management wanted to retain Rose for the 1984 season, but he refused to accept a more limited playing role. Months later, he signed a one-year contract with the Montreal Expos. On April 13, 1984, the 21st anniversary of his first career hit, Rose doubled off the Phillies’ Jerry Koosman for his 4,000th career hit, becoming the second player in the 4000 hit club (joining Ty Cobb).

Again, Canada seems to be the inspiration for some great American thing.

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Washington Burning

Attacking Washington during the War of 1812

On August 25 during the third year of the War of 1812, British Troops torched the White House. They also burned the buildings housing the Senate and the House of Representatives along with some other buildings that the Americans hadn’t burned themselves. The campaign was in retaliation to lowly attacks on Canadian citizens and private property along the north shore of Lake Erie in May of 1814.

On August 24th, 1814, a British force led by Major General Robert Ross (not to be mistaken with General “Thunderbolt” Ross who spent many years hunting the Incredible Hulk although no less tenacious) occupied Washington, D.C. and set many fires on controlled targets in the American capitol. Due to the strict discipline of the British troops, private buildings and dwellings were preserved, garnering the respect of much of the American citizenry, while facilities of the U.S. Government were utterly destroyed.

Timing is sometimes everything, and in April of 1814, the Emperor Napoleon had grown tired of conquest and had decided on early retirement on the Island of Elba (even though he grew too bored to stay retired) and he allowed the British to retrieve some troops and redeploy them to the war in the Americas. That and the raised ire against the United States after unruly attacks on the north shore of Lake Erie against Canadian civilians and private property by the American war-machine, the British saw their opportunity to send a message to Washington. While Washington offered no strategic significance, its symbolic message would be heard loud and clear all over the world.

Rear Admiral George Cockburn was given his orders on July 18th to “deter the enemy from a repetition of similar outrages…You are hereby required and directed to destroy and lay waste such towns and districts as you find assailable. However, you will spare merely the lives of the unarmed inhabitants of the United States” (further proof that being unarmed is usually the better choice).

A force of 2,500 soldiers under Major General Robert Ross arrived in Bermuda and then sailed to the Washington area, setting ashore at Benedict, Maryland on August 19 and easily defeating a detachment of U.S. Marines and inexperienced American militia at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24th.

Immediately, Major General Ross sent soldiers under a flag of truce to agree to terms of the surrender of Washington. Though a civil occupation was attempted, the soldiers were attacked from a house full of partisans. After a quick defeat, the British soldiers burned the house and raised the Union Flag over Washington.

The Capture of the City of Washington engraving

Next, the building that housed the Senate and the House of Representatives were torched and though the torrential rainfall from a passing hurricane preserved the buildings, the Library of Congress contained inside was destroyed.

The Burning of Washington 1814

From there the troops turned northwest up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. During the American retreat, President James Madison sought out his Secretary of War John Armstrong Jr. to see what the plan was for the defence of the capital. Armstrong reported that there was none; he had expected the British to turn near Baltimore. The President, his cabinet and many other government officials fled to the mountains of Virginia. Most residents of Washington had already abandoned the city; preservation of the government’s documents and records had been largely left to clerks and slaves. While the U.S. officials fled, First Lady Dolly Madison remained to pack up the silverware and personal valuables before the arrival of the expected British before fleeing herself.

The (charred) President’s House by George Munger 1814-1815

British soldiers added fuel to ensure that the White House (which for a brief time became known as the Black House until it was repainted) would continue burning throughout the rainstorm. It was said that the smoke could be seen as far away as Baltimore. Some even say from as far away as York in Upper Canada.

Continuing to retaliate, Rear Admiral George Cockburn and his troops burned the United States Treasury and intended to set afire the building of the anti-British Washington newsletter, the National Intelligencer but decided against it when a group of women persuaded him not to for fear that the fire would spread to their nearby homes. Cockburn found generosity and lit no fires. Because the paper had been printing disrespectful articles about him, referring to him as a “ruffian” Cockburn now ordered all of the contents of the building to be emptied into the streets and standing on a printing press, he announced that he would destroy all of the letter-C-type “so that the rascals can have no further means of abusing my name.” Instead of burning the building, Cockburn remained a gentleman and ordered his troops to dismantle the building brick by brick.

Rear Admiral George Cockburn posing in front of the burning Washington. Famous Canadian saying “No one burns like Cockburn!” (not really)

Less than a day after the beginning of the assault, a sudden and very heavy thunderstorm extinguished most of the fires and a passing tornado put an end to the 26-hour occupation. The British reported one soldier killed and six wounded.

The majority of Britain believed that the burnings were justified following the wonton attacks that Canada had suffered at the hands of the United States forces. Adding that the Americans had been the aggressors, having declared war and initiating aggression towards Canada. Reverend (and eventual Bishop) John Strachan, Rector of St. James Church and future founder of Trinity College, had managed to save the City of York from American soldiers intent on looting and burning it. Strachan had seen firsthand the acts of the American soldiers. He wrote to President Jefferson stating that the damage to Washington “was a small retaliation after redress had been refused for burnings and depredations, not only of public but private property, committed by them in Canada.

Paintings of King George III and Queen Charlotte Sophia taken from the defeated Washington and now hang in Bermuda’s Parliament.

On returning to our sister-country, Bermuda, the British forces arrived with four trophies from their campaign, portraits of the Mad King George III and his wife, Queen Charlotte Sophia. They were found in a warehouse on August 24 or 25, 1814 where they may have been stored since the Revolution. The spoils now hang in Bermuda’s Parliament with a pair in the House of Assembly and a pair at the Cabinet Office of the Bermuda Government.

This was the only time since the Revolutionary War that a foreign power captured and occupied the United States.


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