Carroll County Times Opinion

Dana Dembrow: Battle a Key moment in history

Many may not realize that Francis Scott Key, one of our nation's most illustrious historical figures, resided on a 2,800-acre family estate in what is now Carroll County. In commemoration of the bicentennial of the writing of "The Star Spangled Banner," this column recollects his place in time 200 years ago.

The bravery exhibited during the bombardment of Ft. McHenry witnessed by Key in Baltimore Harbor on Sept. 13, 1814, secured that date as a great moment in American heritage. But to put that date into context, it is essential first to recall that only three weeks prior, there occurred also in Maryland, 200 years ago this coming August 24, what remains our country's most catastrophic military defeat.


Imagine a foreign army and navy landing on our soil, marching to Washington, D.C. and burning the White House, U.S. Capitol, Navy Yard, Library of Congress and Supreme Court. As unimaginable as that may seem today, it is exactly what happened in late August 1814.

The Battle of Bladensburg was a colossal failure, as the American militia allowed an outnumbered party of British soldiers to land in Maryland and march through Prince George's County, entering our capital city virtually unencumbered and defenseless, forcing President James Madison to flee the White House for safety in Brookeville, which thus became our country's only "capital for a day." Besides Madison, future president and then Secretary of State James Monroe was also on hand at the battlefield prior to the first shots being fired, though most of the blame for the debacle should fall upon Secretary of War John Armstrong and U.S. Commander Gen. William Winder.


Surely it was the terrible treatment of Washington that inspired the people of Baltimore a short time afterward to rise to the defensive demands of their day. They fully understood that if Baltimore fell to the Brits, it would likely be burned to the ground. Baltimore was a major port and our nation's third largest city at the outbreak of the War of 1812. The shipbuilders of Fells Point were especially despised by the British, who counted 58 privateer vessels emanating from boatyards there, one-third of the entire fleet harassing British ships.

America itself was surely at risk of an early demise, if Baltimore also fell to the British, as had just occurred in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, our nation was spared by the vigor of populist courage and commitment of the people of Baltimore who rallied to the defense of their town and nation in September 1814. That is the reason that the words of a lawyer who hailed from a corner of Carroll County when that area was a part of Frederick County, immortalized their success in his popular song, "The Star Spangled Banner."

Francis Scott Key was eyewitness to the vital bravery of thousands of ordinary citizens who refused to allow our nation to die on a fateful September day 200 years ago.

Dana Dembrow writes from Sykesville.