Defense and Armaments


Harbor Defenses: Forts Covington, Look-Out, and Babcock & Lazaretto Battery

Fort McHenry was not the only fort that had "ramparts" or defended the city of Baltimore. There were others which contributed to the city's defense.

Fort Covington (1813-1832):

Named after Brigadier General Leonard Covington (1788-1813), a Marylander killed at the Battle of Chrystler's Field, Upper Canada, on November 11, 1813, this substantial brick and earth fortification was designed in a wedge-shape with walls 10' high and 185' long. The fort had a powder house, barracks, guardhouse, and a platform mounting ten 18-pdr. naval guns. Begun in 1813 and completed in the Spring of 1814, this battery was normally manned by the U.S. Sea Fencibles. During the battle, it was commanded by Lt. Henry Newcomb, whose 80 seamen from the USS Guerriere successfully repulsed a flanking manuever by British longboats. Dismantled in 1832, the fort's bricks were used in Fort McHenry's seawall. No marker identifies the site today; however, the new Baltimore Sun plant occupies the general area of the fort. Fort Covington can be seen in the far right of A. J. Miller's panorama painting in the Visitor Center.

Fort Look-Out (1813-1853):

Located on the present site of Riverside Park in South Baltimore (off Fort Road), this circular battery protected water approaches to Forts Covington and Babcock. The fort consisted of a circular earthen redoubt, 180' in diameter, enclosing a magazine in its center. It was the site where various militia companies performed tours of duty. Often referred to as Camp Look-Out, it became known as Fort Wood after the bombardment. This high promontory offered a panoramic view of Locust Point; it was from here that A. J. Miller painted his Bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1829. Remnants of the fort survived until 1853, after which the site became a city park.

Fort Babcock (1813-1815):

Named after Captain Samuel Babcock, U.S. Corps of Engineers, who designed this simple 6-gun earthen position, this shore battery on the Ferry Branch was defended by Sailing Master John Webster and 50 men of the U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla during the bombardment. In 1914, a monument was erected on the site which is now occupied by the BGE Gould Street Station.

Lazaretto Battery (1813-1815):

Located across from Fort McHenry, during the War of 1812 it served as headquarters for the U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla. The term "lazaretto" means "fever hospital" in Italian. In 1801, the State of Maryland erected such a hospital here. The hospital building survived until 1959.

Artillery at Fort McHenry:

From the summer of 1813 through Spring 1814, Major Armistead improved Fort McHenry's defenses and prepared the Fort to meet the British invasion. The following is a listing of the type and quantity of ordnance that defended the fort.

Star Fort:

Twenty-three cannon (18 and 24 pounders) were mounted on maritime and 3-wheeled wooden barbette carriages; four were mounted in each bastion. These positions were manned by the U.S. Corps of Artillery and Captain Nicholson's, 1st Regiment, Maryland Volunteer Artillery.

3-Wheel Garrison Carriage (mounted on bastion flanks)

Maritime Garrison Carriage (mounted on bastion faces)

Water Batteries:

In 1813, construction was completed on two tiers of earthen parapets known as the Lower and Upper Batteries. That same year, thirty-six naval cannon (18 and 36 pounders) were mounted. These had once belonged to the French warshipL'Eole, which had nearly been destroyed by a storm in 1808. Taken to Baltimore, the ship was broken up and sold; however, its ordnance of fifty-six guns (18, 24, and 36 pounders) was loaned to Fort McHenry by the French Consul. These guns would be the mainstay of the fort's defense. During the battle, they were manned by companies of the U.S. Sea Fencibles, U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla, and the 1st Regiment, Maryland Volunteer Artillery.

1st Regiment, Maryland Militia Artillery & Field Guns

"Field guns were the mobile pieces that could travel with the army and be brought quickly into firing position. They were lighter in weight than any other type of flat trajectory weapon." - American Artillerist Companion, 1809

Under the Militia Act of 1792, Maryland state citizens were required by Federal law to join either an infantry or artillery unit. President Jefferson continued this during his administration (1802-1809), emphasizing a naval and armed militia rather than reliance on a regular (and expensive) standing army. In the War of 1812, the Militia were known as Citizen Soldiers.

Maryland Militia Artillery:

Under the Act of 1811, the Maryland Militia was divided into three Divisions. The Third Division, composed of three brigades under the command of Major General Samuel Smith, was responsible for the safety of Baltimore. Within the division's 3rd Brigade was the 1st Regiment, Maryland Militia Artillery, commanded by Lt. Colonel Davis Harris.

Throughout the summer of 1813 and 1814, the ten companies of the Maryland Militia Artillery practiced at Fort McHenry in "the exercise of the great guns." Three of these companies were assigned to garrison the fort in August of 1814:

Field Guns:

In 1809, the U.S. Army adopted the Gribeauval System of Artillery carriages introduced by Jean Baptiste De Gribeauval, French Inspector-General during the late 18th century. He revolutionized artillery by developing a distinct system of light artillery drawn by horses, easily maneuverable in battle with interchangeable parts. Before this, field guns were actually large, heavy, and immobile siege guns which laid siege to or defended a fortification. During the War of 1812 such siege guns (12, 18, and 24 pounders) were used at Fort McHenry, Lazaretto, and other harbor defenses.

In 1808, the first U.S. Light Artillery was organized at Fort McHenry, commanded by Captain George Peter. The presence of 3, 4, 6, and 12 pounder field guns at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 is well documented. Such light field guns could quickly be brought to bear upon British infantry landing parties.

Early 19th Century Musket Fire

In the art of military science, strategy is the planning and directing of campaigns; tactics are the means by which field commanders carry out campaign strategy by maneuvering infantry, cavalry, and artillery against an enemy. Terrain, communications, mobility, and weaponry are important components that influence the tactics employed.

In the early 19th century, mass infantry formations were governed by linear tactics. In these, two or three long lines of soldiers were employed to provide for the greatest amount of concentrated and continuous firepower. An additional rank to the rear of the forward lines provided replacements for any casualties suffered.

Loading and firing, consisting of as many as twelve separate motions, was done by verbal command. Precision and discipline, as well as rapidity of fire, were important elements. A soldier was expected to load and fire a round every 15-20 seconds, a skill acquired only through constant and repetitive drill.

Because of the inaccuracy of the smooth-bore musket, casualties were generally not inflicted until an attacker reached a point of 80 yards or less from the line.

An 1814 British officer wrote:

"A soldier's musket, if not exceedingly ill-bored ... will strike the figure of a man at eighty yards; it may even at 100; but a soldier must be very unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded ...at 150 yards, provided his antagonist aims at him .... I do not maintain ... that no man was ever killed at 200 yards by a common soldier's musket by the person who aimed at him...."

At Fort McHenry, the six hundred U.S. infantry soldiers would have used similar tactics and had the additional advantage of firing from the dry moat. Utilizing the banquette (firing step), they could have provided a continuous volley of fire while, at the same time, being protected by the 5' counterscarp which forms the dry ditch.

Source: Red Coat and Brown Bess by Anthony Darling (Museum Restoration Service, 1981)

Hot-Shot Furnaces at Fort McHenry

In the summer of 1813, three brick furnaces for heating cannonballs, thus the name "hot-shot," were situated in the water batteries and the Star Fort. An engineer reported the need for such structures thusly:

"Platform the water batteries, commencing with the lowest, and mount cannon on them and place a furnace to every 12 cannon, and erect a furnace in Fort McHenry..."

We do not know where the Star Fort furnace was located; but, on September 10, 1814, an artillerist in the Fort noted; "We found the matches burning, the furnaces heated, and vomiting red [hot] shot, and everything ready for a gallant defense...."

A hot-shot furnace was a brick structure approximately 8' x 10' x 20'. The hot-shot allowed American artillerists to fire at British warships and, hopefully, set them afire. Once the furnace was hot, a 24 pound solid cannonball could be heated to a "cherry red" condition in 25 minutes.

At Fort McHenry, an illustration of a hot-shot furnace is provided on the wayside exhibit panel on the pathway next to the ravelin which leads from the Fort to the seawall path.

Hot Shot Furnace (Source: De Scheel's Treatise on Artillery, 1800)

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