Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Through the Per'lous Fight

Good Morning, Baltimore

We've all just been through the 9/11 tenth anniversary weekend, so there's probably quite a bit of patriotism fatigue this Tuesday night. September 13th, though, is the anniversary of another attack on America that we commemorate, but strangely do not remember the date.

198 years ago yesterday, a rocket ship named Erebus arrived in Baltimore Harbor.  No, they didn't have Space Shuttles back then - - it was a British ship of war full of projectiles called Congreve rockets, and they were the state-of-the-art in weaponry during the War of 1812.

Slightly more than a decade previously, the British had taken quite a pasting while battling the natives of Southwestern India. The Indian leader Tipu Sultan invested heavily in his countrymen's latest invention, an ironclad projectile filled with black powder. This first rocket weapon killed British soldiers more than two miles from the rockets' launch sites, and spread a great deal of terror among the Redcoats' rank-and-file.

The British, freaking out over rockets in India.

I mean, holy cow  - here comes a near-silent projectile at 300 mph that bursts into a fog of shrapnel in a 20-yard radius from the impact zone. That's pretty darned scary. The British did two sensible and typically British things: first, they got the hell out of range of Tipu Sultan's rockets, and then they went home to Blighty and built BETTER rockets.

The British Press had a field day with the British retreat.

The guy who built the better rocket was a fellow in the Royal Ordnance division named William Congreve. Congreve figured out how to replicate the Sultan's rocket bodies, but then also figured out a cleaner mix of black powder propellent. The Royal Ordnance metal works cranked out tens of thousands of missile bodies, and the Royal Navy prepared to take on both Napoleon and the puny Americans with these new weapons o' doom.

Congreve's rockets weighed about as much as a bowling ball, and were built with a cylindrical metal body and a pointy (or sometimes knobby) "warhead" section. The rocket bodies were strapped to wooden staves that acted similar to kite tails, stabilizing their flight trajectories and providing a launch platform when stuck in the ground.

Napoleonic WMD

I have no idea what "E" does.

The British also figured out a brilliant tactic in rocket warfare that Tipu Sultan had missed: put a lot of rockets on board a ship, and then drive that ship up and down the enemy's coastline, taking random potshots at beach towns and harbors. The enemy would be as terrorized as the Redcoats were in India a decade or so before.

The plan worked, especially in the British attacks on American cities and towns. Royal Navy sloops, converted into flattop barges called rocket ships, were towed all over the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River. On September 9, 1813, the rocket ship Erebus shelled Alexandra, Virginia, during the land invasion of Washington, DC. Despite strong counterattacks by land-based American cannon batteries, the British managed to capture 22 prize ships in the Potomac River.

The following week, the Erebus joined several other ships in the attack on Baltimore Harbor. The main American defense of the harbor was a pretty substantial star-shaped redoubt called Fort McHenry. The fort's cannon ranges were slightly shy of the Congreve's 2 mile reach, but the cannons were more accurate at extreme range than the rockets - - especially if there were any winds, which tended to make the rockets act like badminton shuttlecocks turning into the wind.

The battle on the night of September 13th lasted all evening, with the British firing an estimated 3,000 rockets at the fort. The result? If you know the song, you already know the answer.

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.

The British ceased their attack as dawn approached, and slid down the Chesapeake, away from an unconquered Baltimore.

And the flag? 100 years ago this week it was displayed in downtown Baltimore, and it looked like this:

The failed rocket attack on Ft. McHenry affected American military opinion on rockets being useless as weapons for more than 125 years. More about that when another significant anniversary pops up very soon. Stay tuned!


  1. And now that flag's in the Smithsonian:


    Terrific history. Early V-2s. The distances and destructive power involved are pretty impressive. Thanks for the rocket-centric take on the event!

  2. Fascinating stuff, Jim. Thanks for directing me to this.