The bombs and rockets that are commemorated in our national anthem were not the creation of Francis Scott Key’s imagination, in 1814, the bomb was the most potent weapon and the rocket the most spectacular in Britain’s naval arsenal. Another weapon used against Fort McHenry, which is not mentioned in Mr. Key’s song was the carcass shell. It was the fireball of Captain David Price’s bomb ship, HMS Volcano, one of five bomb ships employed by the British during the naval bombardment of Fort McHenry on September 13-14,1814.
Like the 13-inch bomb shell, the carcass was a hollow cast iron spherical shell weighing 190 pounds. It differed from the exploding “bomb bursting in air” in that it was intended to set buildings on fire. It also proved useful at night, as the projectile while burning, assisted in aiming other shells. Instead of one vent hole for a single fuse, the carcass had three openings, each two inches in diameter, filled with an incendiary composition that upon firing burned for eleven minutes after being launched from the bomb ship two miles distance from Fort McHenry. Its trajectory a mile into the sky, then on its downward plunge over the Fort would on impact upon a building and set it on fire.
In the late evening hours of September 13th, the final entry of HMS Volcano’s log for that day indicated the number of shells expended since 12 Noon:
“10 [p.m.] heavy rain with squalls, furled sails, firing at intervals. Midnight rain. Fired 72 13-inch & 70 10-inch shells & 4 carcasses”
With a total of 146 shells thrown in a twelve hour period, HMS Volcano alone had expended shells of 10 and 13-inch caliber, at intervals of one every five minutes. A survey of the other bomb vessels showed no entries of carcasses being fired. If the British had captured Fort McHenry and sailed past the Fort, the carcass would have been used to set many of Baltimore’s wooden structures on fire. During the centennial observance in 1914, one of the carcasses was mounted on a granite pedestal which may be seen today in the parks Visitor Center, serving as a reminder of what may have happened if the events of September 1814 had turned in favor of the British.