<- Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda, fortifications (aerial view)
After England lost its American colonies and seaports at the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, the world's greatest seagoing power at the time was left without a naval base between Halifax and the West Indies. The British Admiralty then began to develop naval facilities at St. George's in Bermuda, its island colony in the Atlantic Ocean 650 miles off the coast of North Carolina. As Britain's maritime interests expanded, construction of the British "North America Station" began at the Royal Navy Dockyards in 1809, where a larger anchorage for the fleet and an extensive supply depot were developed and would be known for the next 150 years as the "Gibraltar of the West".
During the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States, Bermuda was the staging area for the British attack on Washington and Baltimore in the summer of 1814. From Bermuda, the Royal Navy fleet set sail on August 1st for the Chesapeake Bay with 5,000 army troops and Royal Marines, commanded by Maj. General Robert Ross, for its invasion of the United States' capital and the strategic seaport of Baltimore.
<-British Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane
Led by Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane's flagship, the 86-gun HMS Tonnant, the fleet of 18 ships reached the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland on August 11th. British forces soon routed the disorganized American army at the Battle of Bladensburg and then marched into Washington, DC, burning down the White House, Capitol Building, and Library of Congress, the only time in American history since the Revolutionary War that a U.S. city was occupied by an invading army.
British forces then sailed up the Patapsco River in a two-pronged naval and land attack on Baltimore, spearheaded by the British army and marines who came ashore east of this major American seaport near Sparrows Point on Sept. 12th, advancing as far as present-day Patterson Park in Baltimore. There they encountered a large force of 10,000 Americans behind hastily-built fortifications. While the British forces engaged the determined American defenders on land for two days, British warships simultaneously drew closer to Fort McHenry, strategically located at Baltimore's harbor entrance. Beginning on the morning of Tuesday the 13th, the Royal Navy warships unleashed a heavy 24-hour bombardment by cannons and rocket batteries. All through the day and rainy night, the defenders of Baltimore withstood these land forces and the naval attack on Fort McHenry, knowing that surrender meant the same fate for Baltimore as the capital had suffered.
As the morning of the 14th dawned and the guns firing on Ft. McHenry fell silent, a Baltimore lawyer named Francis Scott Key, held prisoner on the HMS Tonnant a few miles away, anxiously peered through a spyglass at the embattled fort. Seeing the large American flag still flying above Ft. McHenry's ramparts, he knew that the gallant defenders had withstood the British assault and Baltimore was saved.
<-The 15-star U.S. flag at Ft. McHenry, as it appeared in 1814
So inspired by the sight was Francis Scott Key, as he gazed at the Stars and Stripes, that he began to pen some verses,
"Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light,Published shortly afterwards in the Baltimore American newspaper, Key's stirring poem, written on a British vessel from Bermuda in Baltimore Harbor on Sept. 14, 1814, would become the United States' National Anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner".
In the years following the end of the "War of 1812", Bermuda's Royal Naval Dockyards continued to be intertwined in the history of the once-warring foes. Colonel James Arnold, son of the infamous American traitor Benedict Arnold, became Royal Engineer and fortified the Royal Navy's "North America Station" in 1816 against possible attack by the U.S.
During the Civil War, Bermuda again figured in American history as a hotbed of blockade-running by Confederate ships, carrying munitions and goods between England and ports such as Wilmington, North Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina. Visitors to St. George's in Bermuda today can take a walking tour of the quaint World Heritage town and see the Globe Hotel, where Confederate agents openly operated between 1861-1865, now preserved as the National Trust Museum.
|<- Historic Clocktower Centre at Royal Naval Dockyard, now a shopping arcade|
In the 20th century, the Royal Navy Dockyard's strategic mid-Atlantic location was important for protecting the Allies' Atlantic shipping lanes against German U-boats during World War I and again in World War II. In the 1950's, the British finally decommissioned it as an active naval base.
©2014 Atlas Communications, All rights reserved. P.O. Box 42231, Baltimore, MD 21284