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George Armistead

George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry during the British bombardment, emerged from the War of 1812 as one of its great popular heroes. He entered the U.S. military in 1799 and rose through the ranks, serving at multiple sites across the country.

During the early stages of the War of 1812, Armistead saw action along the US/Canadian border and distinguished himself during the American siege of Fort Niagara by capturing the British flags in May 1813. That summer, Armistead was sent to Baltimore and contracted Mary Pickersgill to create "a flag so large that the British would have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance."  This 42' x 30' fifteen-star, fifteen-stripe flag, would give inspiration to the defenders of Baltimore and inspire a new national song.

Armistead assumed command of Fort McHenry in early 1814. His command included the fort itself, the Lazaretto Battery directly across the channel, and a small flotilla of gunboats. In the days just prior to the British attack on 13 September, Armistead had little time for sleep as he organized his defenses. The entire garrison consisted of roughly 1,000 men. One regular company of U.S. artillery and a company of Baltimore militia manned the 21 cannon inside the fort itself. Two companies of sea fencibles and two companies of volunteer artillery manned the 36 guns in a series of outer earthworks just above the high tide water level. In between the outworks and the fort, about 600 infantry occupied a series of trenches. Fifteen of the guns in the outer positions were huge 42-pounders, on loan from France.

The British began their 25 hour bombardment of Fort McHenry on the morning of September 13, 1814. While the British ships sat out of range of the fort’s cannons and rained fire into the fort, Armistead did everything he could to increase the range of his guns. He tried the dangerous practices of overloading the powder charges and elevating the tubes beyond normal limits. Fortunately none of the tubes burst, but three of his guns tore their own carriages apart. By about 10:00 A.M., Armistead concluded there was nothing he could do but ride out the firestorm.

The firing continued throughout the night. The British made an attempt to launch a landing party against the fort under cover of darkness in order to take it from the rear, but the U.S. gunners spotted the British and drove them off before they could land. Finally, on the morning of September 14, the British stopped firing on the fort. Armistead then ordered the large garrison flag raised over the ramparts of Fort McHenry.  Lawyer Francis Scott Key, aboard a truce ship in Baltimore harbor, saw the flag and knew that the British forces did not take the fort.  He was so inspired by the moment that he wrote a poem that would later become the National Anthem.

Four years later, at the age of thirty-eight, Armistead died of causes unknown and was buried with full military honors by a grateful city.

Excerpts from Sheads, Scott S. “Maryland Online Encyclopedia.” and Zabecki, David. Encyclopedia of the War of 1812.” Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1997, pp 12-13.

Related Sites:
Fort McHenry National Monument
Maryland Historical Society
Star-Spangled Banner Flag House

George Armistead embodies the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission's theme of Preparedness: Marylanders excel at exectuing sound plans to ensure the security of the state and nation. Learn more about the Commission and its mission, goals and themes.

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