Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Star-Spangled Fourth of July at Fort McHenry

Every so often our vacation plans align with the calendar in such a way that what would have already been an incredible experience becomes extraordinary due to the perfect alignment of date and place. Such was the case with our Veterans Day trip to Normandy, which included stops at Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery; it was a somber and emotional experience which has given new meaning to our Veterans Day remembrances. Our recent trip to Baltimore coincided with the 4th of July, and I immediately realized this would be another one of those occasions; Fort McHenry is the birthplace of the American anthem!

Many people don’t realize that “The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t written during the American Revolution, and fewer still can name the war that inspired the words we all know by heart. It was the events of the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812 that prompted Francis Scott Key to write the poem that is today our National Anthem, and the Fourth of July was the perfect day for a visit.

Star-shaped Fort McHenry in center, visitor center next to red pin

A week before the battle, a young lawyer set sail from Baltimore along with Col. John S. Skinner, US Commissioner General of Prisoners. They were on a mission to gain release of a prisoner, Dr. William Beanes, and reached the British fleet on September 7th. After a few days of negotiations on the waters of the Chesapeake they had arranged for Beanes to go free, but because during this time they had learned of the British plan to attack Baltimore, they were detained.

View from bastions over harbor, Francis Scott Key Bridge on right in distance

Washington had already burned, but Baltimore was better prepared due in large part to Fort McHenry’s defensive position guarding the entrance to the harbor. The British attacked the Fort from the water at dawn on the 13th, simultaneous to an attack on the east side of Baltimore. 25 hours later, after some 1,500-1,800 shells and rockets, the bombships withdrew down the river. As the British sailed away the Americans fired the morning gun, hoisted the Star-Spangled Banner and played Yankee Doodle.

Fort McHenry served as an active military post for the next 100 years, although it would never again see enemy fire. A temporary prison for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War and a hospital for WWI veterans from 1917-1923, the Fort became a national park in 1925. Today it is a national monument and historic shrine, the only park in the United States to have this distinction.

The Fort is accessible by harbor ferry, but we opted to drive, passing through Federal Hill and out through Locust Point. We had sailed past Fort McHenry in the dark a few nights ago on our Spirit of Baltimore cruise, a journey that brought us all the way to Francis Scott Key Bridge, the approximate location Key would have watched the bombardment from (about 4 miles out). Fun fact; the British had a range of about 2 miles with their mortars, while the Americans were effective only 1 ½ mile with the Smoothbore artillery. However the Americans only suffered two casualties – a result of a direct hit on the southwest bastion.

Start your tour of Fort McHenry in the Visitor Center. After paying admission and picking up Jr. Ranger booklets we headed into the museum where the film soon started. This was one of the highlights of our visit; as the movie ended the Star-Spangled Banner sounded out from the speakers, the enormous screen rolling up to reveal the Fort with American flag flying proudly directly behind. The words of our anthem came to life, watching the fort and flag revealed in a similar fashion to what Francis Scott Key would have seen in the early hours of September 14th. After jotting down notes aboard the truce ship, Key returned to Baltimore and wrote a poem titled "Defence of Fort McHenry." Published the next day, it was soon sung to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven" and is now known as "The Star-Spangled Banner." 

From the Visitor Center we headed out into the heat of the day to explore the fort. During the bombardment the guns were manned by 60 artillerymen – the remaining 70 were sick, had deserted, or were under military guard. We entered through the Sally Port, passed the Civil War guardhouse, and one by one explored the barracks, the officer’s quarters, the powder magazine and finally the bastions under the flag waving crisply in the harbor breeze. The original flag (which measured 42 by 30 feet) that inspired Key was made by Mary Pickersgill, and today is displayed in the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

A second highlight of the Fort McHenry trip was watching reenactors fire a cannon. As commands were issued and orders followed, the whole firing process was explained to the spectators. Afterwards visitors could get an up-close look at the weapon and ask questions. We continued our tour by descending to the sea wall, circling the peninsula and enjoying the view of the harbor, before finally returning to the visitor center and starting our journey back to South Carolina.

The Fort had a special schedule of activities on our visit in honor of Independence Day, but normal summer activities include daily flag changes, interpretive programs, living history features and of course, the self-guided tour of the star fort and grounds. Fort McHenry is also on the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail (which tells the story of the events, people, and places that led to the birth of our National Anthem), and is located in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network and the Baltimore National Heritage Area. For more information about the fort, operating hours, special events, fees and more, visit the official Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine website.

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