The True Story of the Fort McHenry Rooster

The origin of this story is found in the November 24, 1814 issue of the Baltimore Patriot under the title “ODE TO A ROOSTER”, and relates to a similar occurrence during the naval engagement on Lake Champaign two months earlier. In September of 1814, a rooster perched himself on the rigging shrouds of the American Brig Saratoga and crowed several times. The sailors considered it “a propitious omen” to the American victory.

Likewise, during the bombardment of Fort McHenry when the “bombs were bursting in air,” a rooster mounted the fort’s parapets and crowed its defiance at the British fleet. The Niles Weekly Register (Baltimore) related the following: “During the bombardment of Fort McHenry, at a time when the explosions were the most tremendous, a rooster mounted a parapet and crowed heartily. This excited their laughter and animated the feelings of all present. A man, who was severely indisposed and worn down with fatigue, declared that if ever he ever lived to see Baltimore, the rooster should be treated with pound cake. Not being able to leave the fort, the day after the bombardment he sent to the city, procured the cake, and had fine sport in treating his favorite rooster.”

Even 19th century popular author-illustrator Benson J. Lossing continued the legend in 1858 with his own sketch of the infamous bird in his monumental work Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812. The story was resurrected in the 1874 publication of Colonel J. Thomas Scarf’s The Chronicles of Baltimore: Being A Complete History of “Baltimore Town” and Baltimore City that reiterated the Baltimore Patriot story.

The story resurfaced yet again in 1932 during the annual September anniversary of Defenders’ Day that commemorates the Battle for Baltimore. The [Baltimore] Evening Sun related that a Henry Barnhart (1786-1873) served during the defense and that the commander of the Fort, Major George Armistead, “had a chicken cock that he prized very highly. A fragment of a bursting shell, which struck the rooster on his foot, causing it, from alarm or pain to fly up to and light upon the flagstaff.” “Offers Proof That Cock Did Crow At Ft. McHenry.”

The rooster died shortly thereafter. It is not known if he died from the bomb fragments or perhaps the cake itself. The story of a rooster at Fort McHenry is considered true. Today roosters are considered barnyard fowl, but in the early 19th century were commonly found in urban areas and on military posts. Henry Barnhart did serve as a private in Captain William H. Addison’s U.S. Sea Fencibles in the Marine Batteries of Fort McHenry and soon afterwards an unknown artist, skilled in maritime scenes, provided a c.1814-15 watercolor of the bombardment scene in full color, and on the ramparts of the fort – in rather a large visual display – was the Rooster!

– By Scott Scheads