What would you do for the country you love? How far would you go to see it succeed or, if it came down to it, to ensure its very survival? What would you sacrifice? Your life? Your future? Your family’s future? When the chips are down and America itself is at stake, would you give everything?
This is the forgotten history of the sunken ships.
The British were on the march. Just weeks after burning Washington, D.C. and seemingly weeks from winning the War of 1812, both the British Army and Navy set their sights on Baltimore—a strategic port city whose capture would all but assure victory.
Baltimore was America’s last stand. If it fell, so too might a nation still in its infancy and an experiment in liberty that had not yet been fully realized.
The British attack came first by land, and 5,000 troops marched toward a city whose defenses were not yet ready. A militia was mustered to at least hold the British regulars at bay until Baltimore could stand a fighting chance.
Five miles outside the city, the armies met at North Point and the fighting was fierce. Ultimately the Americans were forced to retreat, but they had succeeded in slowing down the invaders.
They would make their last stand at Fort McHenry.
As the British advanced, the entire city sprang into action. Soldiers, sailors, and citizens alike banded together to get the city ready for a battle that just might determine whether their nation would endure. The worst bombardment would come from the water, as the British Navy was by far the world’s strongest, and it sailing toward Baltimore Harbor.
If its cannons could get close enough, Fort McHenry didn’t stand a chance and there was nothing either American sailors or soldiers go do about it.
American citizens, though, could. And they did. Merchant sailors whose ships were docked in the Harbor sailed them to its opening and deliberately sank them to block British warships from entering. Dozens of men whose livelihoods and very lives depended on those ships sacrificed them so that Fort McHenry, Baltimore, and America could survive.
That night, the British arrived.
The bombardment was so intense that smoke from the cannons made it impossible to see anything except the giant American flag that flew proudly over the fort.
One young lawyer who was being held captive on one of the British ships wrote later that watched that flag all night, knowing that if it was lowered, it would mean that Fort McHenry had fallen and that Baltimore (and possibly America) were finished.
Eventually, the smoke grew too thick for him to see and he waited breathlessly for dawn to break.
At first light, the smoke cleared and there, tattered and torn but still flying, was the American flag over Fort McHenry. The attack had been repelled. The fort had not fallen. America would endure.
The young lawyer—Francis Scott Key—was so overjoyed that he wrote a celebratory poem entitled “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” which concluded with an ode to not only the brave soldiers who manned the fort, but the merchant sailors who sacrificed everything they had so that America would stay free:
O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov'd home and the war's desolation!
Blest with vict'ry and peace may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv'd 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.