American Portraits

The Dawn’s Early Light: The Defense of Fort McHenry and Courage

In this lesson, students will learn about the courageous efforts of Major Armistead and the soldiers at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. They will also think about ways in which they can be courageous in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.


At 6:30 in the morning of Tuesday, September 13, 1814, as the sun was rising over Baltimore Harbor, Major George Armistead and Captain Joseph Nicholson peered through their spyglasses at five British bomb ships swinging into position one and a half miles from Fort McHenry. Armistead was the commander of the fort, and Nicholson was the commander of the Baltimore Fencibles, a volunteer artillery company who joined in the defense. The 1,000-man garrison comprised of army regulars and volunteer troops was up and preparing the 36 guns for the defense of the fort and Baltimore. They sweated due to the heat of the late summer day, and their nerves were stretched to the limit….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How does having the courage to persevere in the face of hardship help us fulfill our purpose?

Virtue Defined

Courage is the capacity to overcome fear in order to do good.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the courageous efforts of Major Armistead and the soldiers at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. They will also think about ways in which they can be courageous in their own lives.


  • Students will analyze the courageous actions of Major Armistead and the soldiers at Fort McHenry.
  • Students will understand the virtue of courage and how they can be courageous in their own lives.
  • Students will apply their knowledge in making courageous decisions.


The War of 1812 began after Congress declared war on Great Britain for repeated violations of American sovereignty. The British were stopping American ships and impressing U.S. sailors into the Royal Navy. The war was primarily fought at sea and in Canadian and American territory around the Great Lakes. In August 1814, however, a British fleet sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and disembarked 4,000 British redcoats, who routed the Americans in an embarrassing defeat at Bladensburg, Maryland. This opened the way for the British to enter Washington, D.C. and burn the U.S. Capitol and White House in retaliation for the American burning of York (modern-day Toronto) in Canada.

The British forces then plundered Alexandria, Virginia before sailing off to leave American shores. British Admiral Alexander Cochrane was reluctantly persuaded by his officers to next assault Baltimore. In the early morning hours of September 12, the British troops disembarked at North Point on the Patapsco River for a fifteen-mile march on Baltimore led by General Robert Ross. The Royal Navy detachment meanwhile prepared to sail up the river, level Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, and contribute to the bombardment and burning of Baltimore. On September 13, the British naval forces moved against the garrison at Fort McHenry, and the British redcoats marched on Baltimore. Both were dedicated to defeating the Americans and burning the city. The courageous Americans prepared for the assault.


  • Impressing
  • Retaliation
  • Plundered
  • Disembarked
  • Detachment
  • Bombardment
  • Spyglasses
  • Baltimore Fencibles
  • Mortars
  • Cacophony
  • Parapet
  • Distressing
  • Tremendous
  • Shell-shock
  • Smithereens
  • Miraculously
  • Barrage
  • Deluge
  • Nor’easter
  • Torrential
  • Shelling
  • Barges
  • Intermittent
  • Veracity

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

Visit Their Website


Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Major George Armistead? What was his role at Fort McHenry?
  • What was Major Armistead’s purpose during the battle?
  • What courageous actions did Armistead and his men take during the battle?
  • How did Major Armistead and the soldiers at Fort McHenry fight for freedom for themselves and others?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Lord, Walter. The Dawn’s Early Light. New York: Norton, 1972.
  • Molotsky, Irvin. The Flag, the Poet, and the Song: The Story of the Star-Spangled Banner. New York: Plume, 2001.
  • Vogel, Steve. Through the Perilous Fight: From the Burning of Washington to the Star-Spangled Banner – The Six Weeks that Saved the Nation. New York: Random House, 2013.

Give Feedback

Send us your comments or questions using the form below.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.