Escaped Slave Made the Ultimate Sacrifice at Fort McHenry

William Williams
William Williams’ display at the Fort McHenry National Monument includes a likeness based on his portrait.
Image: Craig B, O&P Business News. Reprinted with permission of the National Park Service.

Private William Williams fled bondage to join the U.S. Army in the War of 1812. He lost his leg to a British cannonball during the Battle of Fort McHenry, the famous fight that inspired Frances Scott Key to write “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Williams later died of his wounds. He was 21 years old.

Significant contribution

“All Americans can take pride in the contribution of Williams and other blacks whose names may be lost to history,” Scott S. Sheads wrote in “A Black Soldier Defends Fort Henry.” African Americans like Williams, he added, “…fought beside white defenders and helped save Baltimore during its time of crisis in 1814.”

Sheads is a staff historian at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore. “A Black Soldier Defends Fort Henry” is a park service publication.

Williams and the 1000 other soldiers at Fort McHenry helped prevent the British from torching the city, as they had burned Washington, D.C., the American capital. The British scorned Baltimore as a “nest of pirates” because the city was home to several U.S. privateers, ships that had been preying on His Majesty’s merchant vessels. Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, who commanded the British fleet that attacked Baltimore, hated Americans, suggesting that like “a naughty spaniel, they must be treated with great severity before you can ever make them tractable.”

Strength prevails

While Redcoat infantry battled American troops on land, British warships blasted red brick, star-shaped Fort McHenry, which guarded the city’s harbor.

For 25 hours, the attackers rained as many as 1800 shells – some also known as “bombs” – and rockets on the fort. But McHenry’s defenders refused to capitulate and haul down the fort’s large flag, which Key named “The Star Spangled Banner” in his immortal poem. The poem became the official U.S. national anthem in 1931. The fort’s 30-by-42-foot banner is preserved in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington.

The British sailed away from Baltimore after inflicting 28 casualties on the Fort McHenry garrison. Four soldiers were killed; another two dozen, including Williams, were wounded.

Overdue recognition

Williams’ sacrifice went unsung for many years. But his heroism is now commemorated in a special display at the thick-walled, moated fort. The exhibit features an image of Williams based on a portrait of him.

Born in Maryland, Williams ran away from his master shortly before he joined the army on April 14, 1814, according to Sheads. Williams was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry Regiment.

“Federal law at the time prohibited the enlistment of slaves into the army because they ‘could make no valid contract with the government,’” he also wrote.

The display includes a copy of a $40 reward notice from Williams’ owner. The notice identified Williams as “NEGRO FREDERICK” and claimed he “Sometimes calls himself FREDERICK HALL.”

Meanwhile, the officer who had enrolled Williams evidently thought he was white. The reward notice described Williams as “a bright mulatto…and so fair as to show freckles,” Sheads wrote. Like white recruits, Williams was paid a $50 enlistment bounty and $8 a month, the historian added.

When the British attacked Baltimore, the 38th Infantry was sent to Fort McHenry. They were supposed to help repel British troops who might try to storm the strongpoint.

The bombardment began on September 13 and lasted until September 14. Afterwards, the British fleet withdrew.

According to Sheads his right leg was “blown off by a cannonball.” “More likely, he was hit by a shell fragment and a surgeon amputated his leg at the fort,” he explained. Williams survived the operation, but died two months later in Baltimore Hospital, Sheads added.

Berry Craig is a correspondent for O&P Business News.

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