Summary: Just as Key saw that the darkness is intense before the dawn, that during battle we see enough to know that our freedom is won, and that we are at our best when we claim freedom for others, so also at the empty tomb we learn of our freedom from sin.
At 9 o’clock the firing from the ships anchored in the harbor slackened and then stopped. It seemed as though the siege of the city might be over for the night.
But an hour or so later 20 small beats set out, under cover of darkness, with a driving rain pelting down. Their oars muffled, they slipped past the strong walls of the fort on the shore and approached the smaller battery on the other side.
At one o’clock in the morning the attack ships out in the harbor opened fire again, longer and louder than before. What could it mean that they would do so in the middle of the night? Why now, why such ferocity?
Despite the roar of the bombs and the thunder of the ordnance, sailing master Webster thought he heard another sound as well, the unmistakable sound of oars dipping the water. His eyes swept the river and finally caught sight of 10 or 11 dim shapes some 200 yards offshore. By two o’clock he was sure that the enemy had been trying to send a tactical group to surprise the fort. So Webster ordered his battery to fire at those dim shapes.
Several hundred yards upstream, the fort on the other side of the water responded and began firing as well. Then the great fort out on the point joined in. Now from every spot in the harbor where the enemy had anchored any kind of vessel, the night sky was filled with bombs and smoke, fire and heat.
Mr. Webster and his men, who had fired the first shots after seeing the silhouettes of the enemy boats, were soon exhausted. Handling the artillery, loading the shot, wrestling with balky gunnery, it was all taking its toll. Webster sent a young officer to the rear to get a contingent of 30 men to reinforce his efforts.
The word came back shortly: we cannot release thirty men to you. We will need them to protect you when you have to retreat, for retreat you will have to do. Webster and his efforts were net regarded as successful; the fort would surely be lost and the city would be next. It was only a matter of time before this tremendous enemy firepower, which was already shaking every building in town, would be turned against its rooftops, and the city would have to surrender or be destroyed. Not even Webster’s own comrades in arms believed that there was any chance of success.
By contrast, there was general hilarity in the enemy’s encampment on the hill. As the soldiers were roused from their fitful sleep about 3 o’clock, they assumed that their leaders were about to march them into the city, where they could pillage and burn at will. They enjoyed their last few moments before the marching orders came writing sarcastic notes on the walls of the houses they had commandeered for the night.
Then came the order to march. To their astonishment and dismay, they were ordered to march away from the city, away from their prize, away from the pillage and plundering. Their officers, incredibly, had given up the cause and had decided not to fight, although anyone would have said that they had every chance of success. Back to their ships they went, locking for safety and security rather than a fight.
As for the boatmen, those who had tried to slip by Webster’s fort but who had been seen by his sharp eyes ... the boatmen turned their weary way back to the harbor also, pausing only long enough to send up a signal flare to alert their admiral that they were returning. By 4 o’clock the whole blazing, tumultuous night seemed over; and in the predawn darkness who could know what had happened?
Who could know that the defenders, most of whom had believed that their cause was lost, had actually won? And who could know or imagine that the attackers, so superior in power, with the situation theirs for the taking, had simply walked away from victory?
On a small ship, some eight miles down the bay, well out of the fight, three men had been watching throughout the night, training their telescopes on the harbor and the fort. They had been reassured, in a measure, by the bombs going off and the rockets firing ... reassured, because if the fighting continued, it meant that the forts had not surrendered. The noise and the fire of the night gave them hope, but the quiet and darkness of the early morning gave them anxiety. What did it mean? Who had won and who had lost? Was the city still in our hands, or had the enemy taken it by now? And was our cause still alive, or had everything for which we had fought now been shattered? The men paced the deck of the ship and strained to see something, anything.