There is no record of when the men first raised their new colors over Fort McHenry, but they likely did so as soon as Pickersgill delivered them: a sizable British flotilla had just appeared on Baltimore's doorstep, sailing into the mouth of the Patapsco River on August 8. The city braced itself, but after the enemies eyed each other for several days, the British weighed anchor and melted into the haze. They had surveyed the region's sketchy defenses and concluded that Washington, Baltimore and environs would be ripe for attack when springtime opened a new season of war in 1814.

That season looked like a disaster in the making for the Americans. When summer arrived in Canada, so did 14,000 British combatants ready to invade the United States across Lake Champlain. On the Chesapeake, 50 British warships under Vice Adm. Sir Alexander Cochrane headed for Washington, where, in August 1814, the invaders burned the presidential mansion, the Capitol and other public buildings. The British then headed for Baltimore, in part to punish the city's privateers, who had captured or burned 500 British ships since hostilities erupted two years before.

After maneuvering their ships into position and testing the range of their guns, the British opened the main assault on Baltimore on September 13. Five bomb ships led the way, lobbing 190-pound shells into Fort McHenry and unleashing rockets with exploding warheads. The fort answered—but with little effect. "We immediately opened Our Batteries and Kept up a brisk fire from Our Guns and Mortars," Major Armistead reported, "but unfortunately our Shot and Shells all fell considerably Short." The British kept up a thunderous barrage throughout the 13th and into the predawn hours of the 14th.

During the 25-hour battle, says historian Sheads, the British unleashed about 133 tons of shells, raining bombs and rockets on the fort at the rate of one projectile per minute. The thunder they produced shook Baltimore to its foundations and was heard as far away as Philadelphia. Hugging walls and taking the hits wore on the defenders. "We were like pigeons tied by the legs to be shot at," recalled Judge Joseph H. Nicholson, an artillery commander within the fort. Capt. Frederick Evans looked up to see a shell the size of a flour barrel screaming toward him. It failed to explode. Evans noticed handwritten on its side: "A present from the King of England."

High winds and rain lashed the city throughout the night, as did the man-made storm of iron and sulfur. Fort McHenry's fate remained undecided until the skies cleared on September 14 and a low-slanting sun revealed that the battered garrison still stood, guns at the ready. Admiral Cochrane called a halt to the barrage about 7 a.m., and silence fell over the Patapsco River. By 9 a.m. the British were filling their sails, swinging into the current and heading downriver. "As the last vessel spread her canvas," wrote Midshipman Richard J. Barrett of HMS Hebrus, "the Americans hoisted a most superb and splendid ensign on their battery, and fired at the same time a gun of defiance."

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Key, Col. Skinner, and Dr. Beanes watched the battle with apprehension. They knew that as long as the shelling continued, Fort McHenry had not surrendered. But, long before daylight there came a sudden and mysterious silence. What the three Americans did not know was that the British land assault on Baltimore as well as the naval attack, had been abandoned. Judging Baltimore as being too costly a prize, the British officers ordered a retreat.

Waiting in the predawn darkness, Key waited for the sight that would end his anxiety; the joyous sight of Armistead's great flag blowing in the breeze at the Fort. When at last daylight came, The Flag Was Still There

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