By C. J. Chase
With no territory gained or lost, America's War of 1812 would be all but forgotten but for one major consequence — “The Star Spangled Banner.” Enter the unlikely catalyst for America’s future national anthem.
Dr. William Beanes was born January 24, 1749 on a large estate in Prince Georges County, Maryland. He learned medicine by apprenticing with a local doctor and used those skills in the General Hospital at Philadelphia during the American Revolution. By the summer of 1814, the 65-year-old physician owned a gristmill, extensive property, and the largest house in Upper Marlboro, the Prince Georges county seat, where he served as an elected official.
On August 16, 1814, 22 British vessels invaded the Chesapeake Bay, the large body of water between the U.S. mainland and the eastern portions of Virginia and Maryland. Fear that the British would attack Maryland’s capital Annapolis prompted state government officials to move records inland from the city to Beane’s Upper Marlboro home, about eight miles east of Washington, DC. But the British bypassed Annapolis, instead targeting the nation's capital.
With the British army marching through his town, Beanes invited Major General Robert Ross to use his home. What better way to protect the state archives (and Beanes’ home) from a British bonfire than to have the general staying on the premises!
After routing the American forces at Bladensburg on the afternoon of August 24, the combined British army and naval forces entered Washington, DC, unopposed. Captain Thomas Tingey, the American in charge of the Washington Navy Yard, torched the supplies stored there lest they fall into enemy hands. The British soon copied his example, burning public buildings including the Capitol, the President’s House, and the Treasury building. A summer breeze carried the flames to nearby residences, sending homes up in flames. From forty miles away, Baltimore residents watched the fires light the night sky.
Capitol after the fire
Unable to hold the city and fearing an American counteract, Ross ordered his army to fall back to the Chesapeake Bay, once again passing through Upper Marlboro. But not all of them returned. Over 100 men vanished, many of them deserters who decided to remain in America rather than sail back to Britain. With some of these deserters now pillaging local farms, residents decided to act. Former Maryland governor Robert Bowie, Dr. Beanes, and several other men set about capturing the stragglers. They had imprisoned six of them in the county jail when one escaped and returned to General Ross.
An angry Ross sent a detachment to Upper Marlboro where the soldiers arrested Beanes, Bowie, and two others. A swap followed, with the British getting their deserters back in exchange for three of the Maryland men — all of them except Dr. Beanes. No one knows why Ross refused to release Beanes. Historians speculate Beanes may have offered Ross some sort of pledge during their earlier meeting. Whatever the reason, Ross had the old man detained in the brig of the HMS Tonnant.
Beanes' influential friends began to pressure the American government into negotiating for his release. But American General John Mason feared that exchanging the old doctor for captured British soldiers would encourage the British to take civilian hostages. With official channels moving too slowly for Beanes’ friends, his neighbor Richard West decided to try a new tactic. He asked the assistance of his wife’s brother-in-law — a Washington lawyer named Francis Scott Key.
Key and John Skinner, the American prisoner of war exchange agent, received President James Madison’s permission to negotiate for Beane’s release. General Mason organized their transportation and also compassionately arranged for them to deliver letters from wounded British prisoners. Sailing on the Royal Oak under a flag of truce, Key and Skinner reached the British fleet on September 7 and joined Ross on the Tonnant where they presented him with the letters from his soldiers and their petition for Beanes’ release.
Despite the Ross’s lingering anger with Beanes, he agreed to free the old doctor, in large measure to express his appreciation for the letters. However, the Tonnant was already enroute to the planned British assault on Baltimore. With the three Americans now aware of the impending attack, the British were understandably reluctant to release them until after the battle. And thus, on the night of September 13, 1814, Francis Scott Key, along with Skinner and Beanes, watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry from the midst of the British fleet.
Major George Armistead, commanding officer of Fort McHenry, had commissioned an extra-large flag – 30 feet by 42 feet – to fly above the garrison. From eight miles away, the three Americans waited for news. Would the British take Baltimore like they had taken Washington? On the morning of September 14, Skinner, Key, and Beanes saw that star-spangled banner by the dawn’s early light. Inspired that the flag was still waving, Key wrote the poem that became the American national anthem.
News of the American victory reached Europe during the peace negotiations in the autumn of 1814 and ended Britain's hope of gaining territorial concessions. Three months after the failed assault on Baltimore, the two countries finalized the Treaty of Ghent, which returned their relationship to status quo ante bellum.
After leaving the corporate world to stay home with her children, C.J. Chase quickly learned she did not possess the housekeeping gene. She decided writing might provide the perfect excuse for letting the dust bunnies accumulate under the furniture. Her procrastination, er, hard work paid off in 2010 when she won the Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Manuscript and sold the novel to Love Inspired Historicals. Redeeming the Rogue is an August, 2011 release. You can visit C.J.'s cyber-home (where the floors are always clean) at cjchasebooks.com