Fort McHenry, in Baltimore, Maryland, is a star shaped fort best known for its role in the War of 1812 when it successfully defended Baltimore Harbor from an attack by the British navy in the Chesapeake Bay. It was during this bombardment of the fort that Francis Scott Key was inspired to write "The Star-Spangled Banner," the poem that would eventually be turned into the national anthem of the United States, set to the tune of a British song "To Anacreon in Heaven".
Designed by Frenchman Jean Foncin in 1798 and named after James McHenry
, a Scots-Irish
immigrant and surgeon-soldier who became Secretary of War
under President Washington
, Fort McHenry was built after America won its independence to defend the important Port of Baltimore
from future enemy attacks. It was positioned on the Locust Point
peninsula which juts into the opening of Baltimore Harbor, and was constructed in the form of a five-pointed star
surrounded by a dry moat
— a deep, broad trench. The moat would serve as a shelter from which musketmen might defend the fort from a land attack. In case of such an attack on this first line of defense, each point, or bastion
, was fortified, so that the invading army would be caught in a crossfire of cannon and musket fire.
War of 1812
The only attack the fort ever received came during the War of 1812
in the naval portion of the Battle of Baltimore
. Beginning at dusk on September 13
, British warships continuously bombarded the fort for 25 hours under heavy rain. The American defenders had 18, 24, and 38 pound (8, 11 and 17 kg) cannons with a range of 1.5 miles (2.4 km). The British had a range of 2 miles (3 km), and their rockets
had a 1.75 mile (2.8 km) range, but they were not very accurate. The British ships were unable to pass Fort McHenry and penetrate Baltimore Harbor
because of defenses including a chain, sunken ships, and the American cannon. They were, however, able to come close enough to fire rockets and mortars on the fort. Due to the poor accuracy of the British weapons and the limited range of the American guns, little damage was done on either side, but the British ceased their attack on the morning of September 14
, and the naval part of the British invasion of Baltimore had been repulsed.
The Americans did suffer casualties, amounting to four killed and twenty-four wounded, including one African American soldier and a woman who was cut in half by a bomb as she carried supplies to the troops. At one point during the bombardment a bomb crashed through the fort's powder magazine. Fortunately for the defenders, either the fuse was extinguished by the rain or the bomb was merely a dud.
Star spangled banner
Francis Scott Key
, a Washington lawyer who had come to Baltimore to negotiate the release of a civilian prisoner of war, Dr. William Beanes, witnessed the bombardment from a nearby truce ship. An oversized American flag
had been sewn by Mary Pickersgill
for exactly $405.90 in anticipation of the British attack on the fort. When Key saw the flag emerge intact in the dawn of September 14
, he was so moved that he began that morning to compose the poem "The Defense of Fort McHenry" which would later be renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner
" and become America's national anthem
Fort McHenry served as the primary defense for the port of Baltimore until about 1848, when Fort Carroll was constructed further down the Patapsco River.
During the American Civil War
, Fort McHenry served as a military prison, confining both Confederate soldiers as well as a large number of Maryland
political figures who were suspected of being Confederate
sympathizers. Among the imprisoned were Baltimore Mayor George William Brown
, the city council, and the police commissioner. Ironically, Francis Scott Key's grandson was one of these political detainees. In an earlier coincidence, James McHenry's son had served in the defense of the fort during the Battle of Baltimore
During World War I
, an additional hundred-odd buildings were built on the land surrounding the fort in order to convert the entire facility into an enormous hospital for the treatment of troops returning from the European conflict. Virtually none of these buildings remain, while the original fort has been preserved and restored to essentially its condition during the War of 1812.
Coast guard base
During World War II
Fort McHenry served as a Coast Guard
base, helping to defend the port of Baltimore.
The fort was made a national park in 1925; on August 11, 1939, it was redesignated a "National Monument and Historic Shrine," the only such doubly designated place in the United States. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. It has become national tradition that when a new flag is designed it first flies over Fort McHenry. The first official 49 and 50 star American flags were flown over the fort and are still located on the premises.
The Fort has become a vital center of recreation for the Baltimore locals as well as a prominent tourist destination. Thousands of visitors come each year to see the "Birthplace of the Star Spangled Banner."
Every September the City of Baltimore commemorates Defenders Day in honor of the Battle of Baltimore. It is the biggest celebration of the year at the Fort, accompanied by a weekend of programs, events, and fireworks.
In 2005 the Living History volunteer unit, the Fort McHenry Guard was awarded the George B. Hartzog award for serving the National Park Service as the best volunteer unit. Among the members of the unit is Martin O'Malley, the former mayor of Baltimore, and current Governor of Maryland, who was made the unit's honorary colonel in 2003.
The flag that flew over Fort McHenry, the Star Spangled Banner Flag, is currently undergoing restoration at the National Museum of American History. It is in extremely fragile condition, but is expected to be put back on display in 2008. The restoration process can be viewed by the public.
- 2008 Photo Feature in www.coloradomagazineonline.com