Birthplace of America’s National Anthem
The date is Tuesday September 13, 1814. You are a soldier stationed at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. It is just about dawn and you just came off guard duty. As you clean up and prepare to get some morning chow, you hear a loud commotion. Suddenly, in the distance, you hear a loud boom. A moment later, an explosion rocks the ground. You grab your gear that you just took off and head back outside as you hear the words, “The British are here!”
This is the part of the Battle of Baltimore that inspires Francis Scott Key to write the poem “The Defense of Fort McHenry”. Later, the first verse of the poem would come to be known as our National Anthem and be called “The Star Spangled Banner”. The British ships bombarded Fort McHenry for 25 hours only slightly letting up twice during those hours. It was estimated by the commanding officer of Fort McHenry, Major George Armistead, that between 1,500 and 1,800 shells were fired against the fort. Amazingly, of the 1,000 men stationed at the fort, only 4 were killed and 24 wounded.
Fort McHenry is a star-shaped fort built from 1798-1800 on the original site of Fort Whetstone. The fort is situated on the west bank of the entrance to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It was named after James McHenry, who was a delegate from Maryland and also a signer of the U.S. Constitution. He also served as Secretary of War from 1796-1801.
The flag that was flown during the bombardment was the Star Spangled Banner itself. It was a 30 feet tall by 42 feet long garrison flag. The design of the flag included 15 star and 15 stripes. The U.S. Government commissioned Mary Young Pickersgill to make the flag for $405.90 (the equivalent to $4,976 in 2015). Mrs. Pickersgill was assisted by her daughter, two nieces, and an African-American indentured servant.
Fort McHenry was also used in three other wars. During the American Civil War, Fort McHenry was used as a military prison for Confederate soldiers and politicians accused of being southern sympathizers. During WWI, the U.S. Army took over the entire facility and turned the grounds around the fort into a hospital for soldiers returning from the European conflict. Then during WWII, it was used as a Coast Guard station.
All of the buildings have since been torn down and removed and the entire facility resembles what it would have looked like during the War of 1812. The only other buildings on the facility are the Visitor’s Center and a Civil War powder magazine.
The majority of the grounds are free to anyone who wishes to visit. Many people come to walk along the water, run, or even have a picnic or eat lunch. There is even a dock for a water taxi that takes you to other parts of Baltimore’s harbor. Sadly, this was closed for the season, so I had to drive and park on the grounds. Inside of the Visitor’s Center is a small gift shop, a theater showing a short movie about the fort, and an exhibit that was closed for renovation when I visited. Paid admission is required if you wish to visit inside the fort, view the movie, and the exhibit.
After paying my admission, you exit through the rear of the Visitor’s Center into the water front portion of the park. Following the path up to the fort, you get a beautiful view of the Francis Scott Key Bridge that crosses the harbor near the location where Key would have witnessed the battle. Walking up the path, you also see the American flag flying above the fort.
As you enter the historical area of the park, the first thing you encounter is a battery of 4 canons that show how the area looked during the war of 1812. A large berm was built up, essentially hiding the canons and giving the soldiers a barricade to take shelter behind.
Walking through the entrance, also known as a sally port, you enter into the main yard of the fort. You see a total of five buildings and the flag pole. The five buildings are the commanding officer’s quarters/guard house, powder magazine, junior officer’s quarters, and two enlisted soldier barracks. Also, built into the sally port are two guard houses.
You have basically free roam of the fort, but you cannot enter the second floor of any of the buildings, and they ask you to stay on the brick pathways. Each of the buildings has various displays about the fort and it’s part in history. In the barracks, you get a chance to see just how rough living in the fort might have been during the era of War of 1812.
In the commanding officer’s quarters and guard house, you experience an audio presentation of some of the conversations that may have taken place. As you enter the commanding officer quarters, you are greeted by a life-size statue of Major George Armistead. He is standing with his hands down on a table. In the table is a screen that will play a short video accompanied by audio of a conversation that could have taken place in the moments leading up to the initial attack on the fort.
In the guard house, an audio conversation is played involving a new recruit. You hear a little about what the guards did during their shifts. These would most likely be the ones to sound the alarm when an attack began.
When you come to Fort McHenry, make sure you take plenty of time to walk around the fort and ramparts. Also, take the time to read all the signs and listen to all of the audio presentations. I have been to Fort McHenry probably 4 times in total. But every time I go, I discover and learn something new. If you are a history fan, then this is definitely somewhere to be on the anniversary of the attack. Any which way you look at it, if you are in Baltimore, make an attempt to visit Fort McHenry, I promise you won’t be disappointed.