Famous guests, including Presidents Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, loved to partake of tavern owner John Gadsby’s hospitality. The Englishman earned a stellar reputation for providing first class service, and operating the seaport’s finest dining and hotel establishment from 1796 to 1808.
Lesser known about Gadsby is his move to Baltimore in 1808, and his connection to Francis Scott Key and the War of 1812. In conjunction with Alexandria’s “Star Spangled Summer,” and the ongoing commemoration of the War of 1812 events, the good folks at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum have put together a small, but impressive set of items that tell this story.
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Francis Scott Key was inspired to pen those words after he witnessed the Battle of Baltimore on September 13-14, 1814. In the dawn’s early light, the 34-year-old Georgetown lawyer jotted down his initial thoughts on board the British vessel anchoring in the bay.
The exhibit picks up the story when Key disembarked and walked to a hotel in Baltimore. But first, a quick summary of what put Key in Baltimore 200 years ago.
In the late summer of 1814, dark storm clouds hung over the nation’s capital. Having terrorized much of southern Maryland, sacked and burned Washington, and brought Alexandria’s patriots to their knees, the British forces targeted Baltimore. In mid-September, Admiral Cochrane and General Ross sailed their fleet up the Chesapeake past Annapolis.
On board one of the ships was Dr. William Beanes, John Stuart Skinner and Francis Scott key. Two weeks earlier, the British had arrested Beanes, a friend of the Key family at Upper Marlboro, for arresting several British soldiers who had trespassed on his property. President Madison, who selected Key for his “polished gracious manner,” sent him to the British brass to ask for Beane’s release. Skinner went along to serve as the prisoner-of-war exchange officer.
General Ross agreed to free the good doctor, but since the three Americans knew of the British plans, their release would come after the battle.
On Tuesday September 13th, the British vessels began their pounding of Fort McHenry. All day and all night they fired, an estimated 1500 to 1800 shells. At midnight, the British army attack on the earthworks south of Ft. McHenry failed. The bombing resumed and lasted until the morning. Realizing a victory was not at hand, the British withdrew.
Key, who had also witnessed the burning of Washington and the Battle of Bladensburg, saw the battle from the truce boat that was anchored near present day Key Bridge. He pulled out a letter from his pocket and began writing down some verses. Historians believe Key then went to the Indian Queen Hotel.
As he had done in Alexandria, Gadsby turned the Indian Queen in Baltimore into the talk of the town. The hotel was located at the corner of Baltimore and Hanover, about three blocks north of Camden Yards.
I was pleased to see an image of the hotel, one I had not seen before.
The Indian Queen has long since been torn down and has been somewhat of a mystery for those trying to nail down Key’s movements. Previously, some historians thought he went to the Fountain Inn to catch up on sleep and revise and finish his poem. Adding to the confusion for researchers was the Indian Queen’s address. It was located at the corner of Hanover and Market Streets, but Market was changed to Baltimore.
Baltimore has dressed itself up right pretty and full with Key markers and monuments. I find it odd, however, that no one has put up a marker (or re-installed this one) at or near the Indian Queen site. The area does lend itself for these purposes but the job is incomplete without marking the place where Key wrote the poem, which by the way encompassed four stanzas.
A second display case exhibits archaeological materials excavated from a well used at the tavern.
All in all a nifty job that would have pleased John Gadsby.