We call it the War of 1812, and it’s notable for the British torching of the White House in 1814 and Andrew Jackson’s battle in New Orleans two weeks after the Treaty of Ghent allegedly ended hostilities that December. But perhaps its most famous battle occurred in Baltimore on September 13 and 14 in 1813.
We know it from the poetic lines: “The star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave… O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!” Francis Scott Key, a Washington lawyer, had been aboard a British ship negotiating the release of Dr. William Beanes, a civilian prisoner of war, and witnessed the now famous bombardment.
I had the chance recently to revisit Fort McHenry, site of the battle in Baltimore’s inner harbor. I say revisit because, having grown up in Baltimore, I took part in numerous school field trips and have taken friends there from time to time. The fort is like an old friend, someone who doesn’t change even though years go by from encounter to encounter.
Fort McHenry guards the narrow, northwest branch of the Patapsco River, leading to the heart of downtown. It was of strategic importance in the 19th century, when Baltimore was a major shipping port, something it hasn’t been since World War II.
Designed in 1798 by Frenchman Jean Foncin, the five-point, star-shaped fort, surrounded by a dry moat, was constructed on the site of Fort Whetstone, which had defended the city during the Revolutionary War. Fort McHenry was named after early American statesman James McHenry, a Scots-Irish immigrant and surgeon-soldier who was a delegate to the Continental Congress from Maryland and a signer of the Constitution.
Over the fort flew a storm flag, measuring 17 by 25 feet. It was there the morning of September 13, 1813, when British warships under Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane began a bombardment that lasted 25 hours. British guns had a range of two miles and their rockets had a range of one and three-quarter miles, although neither were very accurate.
Americans answered with 18-, 24-, and 32-pounder cannons. They had also strung a chain of 22 sunken ships across the narrows to prevent the British from reaching the city.
Poor accuracy on both sides resulted in little damage, with only four killed and a few wounded. When the Brits had depleted their ammunition, they ceased their attack on the morning of the 14th.
Meanwhile, Key was onboard the truce ship in the harbor watching. At dawn, the Americans struck the storm flag and raised their garrison flag. It was bigger — 30 by 42 feet. They wanted to be sure the British knew they had indeed been victorious. The sight of the ensign inspired Key to write the poem Defence of Fort M’Henry, which later was set to the tune To Anacreon in Heaven, the official song of the Anacreontic Society, a London gentlemen’s club. We know that tune and poem as The Star Spangled Banner, our national anthem.
Fort McHenry’s use didn’t end with the War of 1812. It served as a military prison during the Civil War. The Union incarcerated both Confederate soldiers and a number of Maryland political figures suspected of being Southern sympathizers. Among those detained were Baltimore’s mayor, its police commissioner, members of the Maryland General Assembly, and several newspaper editors and owners. Ironically, Francis Scott Key’s grandson, Francis Key Howard, was among the political detainees.
During World War I, a hundred buildings were constructed on land surrounding the fort, converting the facility into an army hospital. (They’re all gone now.) It also served as a Coast Guard base during the Second World War. Interestingly, U.S. law authorizes Fort McHenry’s closure to the public in the event of a national emergency for use by the military. Hopefully, Baltimore will never again see warships sailing toward it.
The fort was made a national park in 1925 and, in 1939, it was re-designated a “National Monument and Historic Shrine,” the only such doubly designated place in the country. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
As I have on other visits, I climbed to the revetment overlooking the harbor. Here are the gun emplacements that fired on the British ships. Among the weapons are cannons with 10-foot-long barrels. They sit on tracks that allow soldiers to roll them sideways for loading, while remaining below the protective berm. They are silent now but still invoke a sense of power — that “Don’t tread on me” attitude Americans have exhibited from time to time. There are earth-covered magazines that could sustain a direct hit and not blow men and fort to smithereens.
And above it all — on a lofty pole — flies the flag with its 13 stripes and 15 stars. The original was sewn by Mary Pickersgill for $405.90, mostly to cover the cost of the 400 yards of fabric required in its construction. That flag today resides in the National Museum of American History in Washington. A replica files over the fort daily.
Traditionally, when a new star is added to the flag, that new banner is first flown over Fort McHenry.
On one of my visits — not the current one — I was there when park rangers began closing up for the day. One of them asked those of us who remained if we’d like to fold the flag and, when she asked if any of us knew how, I quickly raised my hand and said, “I do!” I wasn’t a Boy Scout for nothing.
Now, I’m as patriotic as the next person — often taking my country for granted — but on this last visit, as I watched the Stars and Stripes flutter in the breeze, my heart swelled in remembrance of that day I got to fold Old Glory for safe keeping until the next day. I can imagine that must have been how Francis Scott Key felt when he penned — “Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light … What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?”