On a warm summer night, a guy in a heavy metal T-shirt sits out on the stoop of his Baltimore rowhouse with a beer and a guitar. He is our Narrator, and he's going to tell us the story of "The Battle of Baltimore"--the heroic tale of how his humble hometown stood up to the British in the War of 1812. At least, as best as he can remember it.
An instrumental interlude ("The Fugueness of King George") signals a shift in the scene to the Maryland countryside of August, 1814, where a raw mob of Republican lawmakers are urging their countrymen to press on in the two-year old conflict with Great Britain ("War Hawk!"), which is so far not going well. The arrival of British Rear Adm. George Cockburn and his Redcoat henchmen has the ill-prepared Americans beating a hasty retreat, and the cocky admiral boldly announces that that he'll quickly extract final vengeance on the American aggressors ("Too Rockin' To Lose").
As the invading British forces approach Washington, D.C., First Lady Dolley Madison remains behind at the White House, rallying the White House staff to save the celebrated portrait of George Washington ("I'm No Cupcake") before joining the other federal officials who've fled the capital. Adm. Cockburn commands General Robert Ross, commander of the British ground troops, to make an example of the city, and together they put several federal buildings to the torch ("Burning Down the White House"). The Narrator returns to ruefully observe the smoking aftermath and turn the audience's attention north, to Baltimore ("Narrator Interlude #1), where the invaders are poised to strike next.
Meanwhile, Major George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry, pays an urgent visit to Mary Pickersgill, a local seamstress. He tries to convince her to make a gigantic American flag, to inspire his defenders when the British attack comes ("Big Ass Flag"). Across town, General Sam Smith, crusty Revolutionary War veteran and leader of the city's civilian militia, implores his fellow townspeople to take up arms ("Black Powder") and defend their city.
The battle begins: The British fleet moves into position just off Fort McHenry, and General Ross lands his Royal Marines and Army troops at North Point, marching toward the city. Beset by doubts about the wisdom of the plan, Ross nevertheless pledges to take the city by nightfall ("Baltimore of Hell"). Unaware that American snipers are moving into position in nearby woods, Ross pauses to confess his fears and tell his wife back in Ireland that this will be his final battle ("Empire of Love"). Suddenly, two American teenagers emerge from the trees and target the British commander ("Killing the General") before themselves dying in a hail of return fire.
The Narrator explains that the British land assault was turned back after Ross's death ("Narrator Interlude #2"); now it's Cockburn's turn to try to take the city by water ("The Bombardment"). Cockburn faces off against Sam Smith and the other Americans in a vocal duel; after a ferocious sing-off, Cockburn is unable to break the Baltimore defenses and is forced to withdraw.
As the British fleet departs, Major Armistead raises his flag and joins Sam Smith, Mary, and Dolley in leading the city's celebrations ("Run the Flag Up the Pole [And See Who Salutes]"). The Narrator returns one last time, to remind us that time can play tricks on the myths of our past ("The Battle of Baltimore [Reprise]") and to lead the entire company in a final salute to their hometown's resilience ("I'll Hold My Ground") and "Big Ass Flag [Reprise]").