Fort McHenry – Battle of Baltimore

Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore Harbor, sits among some of the most hallowed ground in America. Although not notable for the loss of life (only four defenders were killed) like Gettysburg or Pearl Harbor, it is far more famous because what its defense inspired among a still very adolescent nation.

The action at Fort McHenry was part of a much larger Battle for Baltimore that occurred in mid-September 1814. Following the Battle of Bladensburg and subsequent burning of Washington, Maj. General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane’s invasion fleet moved further up Chesapeake Bay to attack the city of Baltimore. On September 12th, Ross landed the main British army at North Point and was met by an advance guard of American soldiers and militiamen along the North Point Road. In a sharp action that day Ross was killed, but the British carried the field, forcing the Americans back to the defenses protecting Baltimore. Prior to the larger attack on Baltimore, Col. Arthur Brook took command of the British ground forces and marched within two miles of the city.

To augment the ground campaign, an attack by the British Navy was necessary. What stood in the way was Fort McHenry and a number of smaller works protecting the entrance to the harbor. The British bombardment of Fort McHenry commenced early on 13 September and lasted some 25 hours. Maj. George Armistead, the fort’s commanding officer, estimated that somewhere between 1,500 and 1,800 shells and rockets were fired by the fleet. Because of the types of weapons used by the British, the bombardment fleet could sit well outside of the effective range of the fort’s guns. A sortie of British landing craft were sent under the cover of darkness to attack Fort McHenry, but they were driven back by a combination of American guns, defective barges and poor reconnaissance.

The bombardment continued throughout the early morning until 7AM on September 14, when the British fleet departed. Aboard a truce ship in the harbor was a Washington lawyer named Francis Scott Key who was seeking the release of a friend captured at the Battle of Bladensburg. Key was able to view the hoisting of the Fort’s garrison flag in the morning light. This inspired him to write a poem entitled “Defence of Fort McHenry,” which was published three days later and soon set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heave.” Later, the poem and tune would become the America’s National Anthem.

Much like other fortifications along America’s East Coast, Fort McHenry has undergone significant changes in its history. The 1814 Upper and Lower Water Batteries have been moved closer to the Fort and bristle with Civil War-era Rodman canons. A reconstructed Water Battery does provide some insight into the outer defenses of the fort. The Sally Port has been strengthened with a brick guardhouse instead of the wooden walkway extending that extended to the ravelin. At the time of the bombardment, the barracks were only one-story and not the two-story structures that you see today.

Some of the places of interest throughout the National Monument include:

  • Visitor’s Center: The visitor’s center has been recently renovated and incorporates a number hands-on activities for children. Kids can compare their heights to the size of Star Spangled Banner, find their favorite version of the National Anthem, examine a reproduction of a Congreve Rocket, learn about some of defenders of the Fort, and follow the history of Francis Scott Key. The highlight is a ten minute video (shown on the hour and at half past) on the Battle and the authoring of National Anthem.
  • Shore Battery Reconstruction: Although many of the cannon at Fort McHenry are from the period of the Civil War, the reconstructed shore battery provides a glimpse into the types of cannons used to defend against the British Navy.
  • 1814 Barracks: One of the primary stops for the Junior Ranger badge is the 1814 Barracks, which houses displays on the history of the fort through the ages, a multimedia overview of the Battle of Baltimore, and a reproduction of the living quarters for the common soldier defending the fort. Unfortunately, only tables and bunks populate the barracks.
  • Powder Magazine: Although enlarged after the battle, the powder magazine is stocked with powder barrels. Outside there are a number of canons that children can view.
  • Commanding Officer’s Quarters and Guardhouse: The Officer’s Quarters features a mock-up of Maj. George Armistead’s quarters, with an electronic map focusing on the Battle of Baltimore. Visitors then move through the barracks where they can view a presentation on the making and history of the Star Spangled Banner after the battle. Before exiting, you are taken past the guardhouse, where a reproduction of the flag is stored.

Junior Ranger:

Both M1 and M2 took part in the Fort’s Junior Ranger program, which is for 5 to 13 year old students. The Fort McHenry Activity Booklet is broken up into easy, medium and difficult program. We decided to go with the easy portion, which is still pretty difficult and may require the assistance of parents to assist in answering many of the questions in the visitor center. The NPS provides black and white copies of the booklet, which can be difficult to read. I would recommend printing out the required pages at home an bringing them along. You can determine the required pages, by looking at the top of the page red for easy, white for medium, and blue for difficult.

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Pre-Prep:

There are a great number of resources available for students to take advantage of prior to visiting Fort McHenry. Their is a great overview of the Bombardment of Baltimore in the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast. There are also a number of children’s books that focus on Francis Scott Key and the authoring of what would become the National Anthem. Among them are Step into Reading’s Francis Scott Key’s Star-Spangled Banner and Rebecca Jones’ The Biggest (and Best) Flag That Ever Flew, which recounts the story of the flag’s maker Mary Pickersgill. 

Know Before You Go: The majority of the grounds are accessible via paved or brick walkways. There are bathrooms at the visitor center and inside the center barracks in the fort. A gift shop that sells some of the books listed above is located in the visitor center. A number of living history (seasonal) and talks are provided by the park staff, so check the site’s calendar before heading out.

Location: Fort McHenry is located at the tip of Locust Point at 2400 East Fort Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21230. Baltimore Bus #1 is the only public transportation option and stops at the main gate. From there it is about a 100 yard walk to the Visitor Center.

Hours: The Park is open daily, with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Hours are from 9:00 to 5:00 PM.

Admission: Admission to the park is $10 for those 16 years and older. Children 15 and under are free. Purchase of admission allows free entrance to the site for the next seven days. A yearly pass is available for $40 and provides admission for three adults. Educational groups can seek a waiver to the fee.

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