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.



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.


Gills Club at The National Aquarium

One of the best pars about home schooling with a co-op is that you get to combine the resources of dozens of families all looking to push the boundaries of their child’s education. This often times brings to light unexpected opportunities that you as a parent may not have thought of. This past weekend M1 got the chance to participate in one such event, by attending the newly formed Gills Club at the Baltimore Aquarium.

Shark Tooth Identification.jpg

The Gills Club seeks to harness a girl’s “passion for sharks, nature and the environment by giving the opportunity to engage in projects focused on making a significant impact on the way sharks are perceived by the public.” Girls age 13 and younger can join the Club online and through monthly newsletters and hands-on learning at several locations across the United States. One of those locations is the recent is The National Aquarium in Baltimore, with two-hour classes being taught by female scientists.

Black Tip Reef.jpg

Our first class introduced Club members to the differences between fish species and sharks, different parts of a shark’s anatomy, and shark facts and myths. At the end of class, each girl was given the opportunity to identify a number of different sharks teeth and then choose one to make a necklace out of. Classes are free and afterwards, you can spend time in the Blacktip Reef. For more information, visit the Gills Club website or The National Aquarium’s Gills Club site where you can find meet-up dates that occur each month.

Downs Park & Crab Cakes

As I noted before, we love Five in a Row (FiaR), but we decided to stretch our curriculum over two weeks instead of the traditional one. This meant that we had an extra week to finish our unit on Jane Yolen’s All the Secrets of the World, by visiting Downs Park and having M1 make crab cakes for dinner. Downs Park affords great views of Chesapeake Bay, to include the shipping lanes featured in All the Secrets of the World. We even got to play with perspective, just like Janie. Any lesson on the Chesapeake though would not be complete without making crab cakes.

For the crab cakes, we used FiaR’s own Cook Book, which we altered a bit to include smoked paprika and a touch of garlic. Aside for the sticker shock of paying for a pound of lump crab meat, they turned out pretty good.

Downs Park sits on Chesapeake Bay between Bodkin Creek and the Magothy River. Given the park’s strategic location, it was considered a potential location for fortifications to guard the entrance to Baltimore. Instead, a series of families occupied Bodkin Neck, to include the Thoms, who purchased the land in 1913. The park was later transferred to Anne Arundel County.

The park has five miles of walking trails, a fishing pier, and playground. There are two beaches at Down’s Park, but swimming or wading is not allowed. The real highlights of the park are the Victorian-styled Mother’s Garden and the park’s visitor’s center. The Mother’s Garden was originally built by the Thom family who owned a farm on Bodkin Neck. The Friends of Down Park have recreated the garden and returned it to its original glory. The visitor center is also a fun place to beat the summer heat, with interpretive displays of flora and fauna found in the Chesapeake and the forests of the park. There are also hands-on displays of animal skulls, a small children’s play area and a fun animal matching board.

Know Before You Go: The park is well maintained and many of the trails are paved. Their are two boat launch points, one of which is designated for canoes and kayaks. Alcoholic beverages are prohibited.

Location: The park is located at 8311 John Downs Loop, Pasadena, MD 21122

Hours: Downs Park is open from 7:00am to dusk. Park is closed on Tuesdays. Check the websites below for special events, including the Summer Concert Series.

Admission: Entrance to the park is $6 per vehicle. Residents of Anne Arundel County can pay $30 for a year pass, non residents will pay $40 for an annual pass. The annual pass is also good at Ft. Smallwood, Kinder Farm and Quiet Waters parks.


Downs Park – Anne Arundel County

Friends of Downs Park

S.S. John W. Brown Liberty Ship


Project Liberty Ship [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

One of our favorite homeschool curriculums is Five in a Row, which seeks to develop a love for literature in children through in-depth study of an illustrated child’s book. Since we recently moved back to the mid-Atlantic, near Chesapeake Bay, we felt that Jane Yolen’s All the Secrets of the World was the perfect choice to start the school year. The story follows Janie, who moves to her grandparent’s house on Chesapeake Bay, after her father’s departure to fight in World War II. The story deals with a number of topics to include family, perspective in relation to distance and time, and the home front during the war. While playing with her cousin one afternoon, Janie spots a convoy of Liberty Ships leaving the Chesapeake, similar to the one her father departed for Europe on. The ships and the perspective of distance

Liberty ships were an important part of the Allied war effort. Built quickly and on the cheap, their role was to overwhelm the shipping channels between America and Europe with a steady supply of cargo and troops. These ships were crewed by Merchant Mariners, with a compliment of U.S. Navy Armed Guards to man each ship’s defensive weapons. During the war, over 200 ships were lost due to enemy action, fire or collision. The S.S. John W. Brown was one of these Liberty Ships.

Built in Baltimore, Maryland and completed in the summer of 1942. During World War II, the John W. Brown completed a total of 13 voyages, to include the the transport of soldiers to the European Theater of the war. During World War II, she supported the invasion of Italy on several voyages, carrying cargo and men across the Atlantic. Following the war, the John W. Brown was converted into a floating school in New York City. In the late 1980s, the ship was acquired by Project Liberty Ship. The John W. Brown has since undergone a process of restoration and acts as a living monument to the Merchant Marine and the sailors and soldiers who sailed on the ship.

The Blue Line Tour is the primary visitor circuit through the ship and hits nearly all of the high points. A brochure outlining the tour is available, allowing visitors to see the ship at their own speed. If arrangements are made in advance or if a crew member is available, guided tours are available. As this is a working ship and renovations are constantly being undertaken, there are plenty of crew members to ask questions along the way. The tour hits all of the primary points of interest on the ship, to include the fore and aft gun mounts, flying bridge, wheelhouse, crew and officers quarters and the galley. The tween deck has a number of collections outlining the history of the John W. Brown, Liberty Ships, the Merchant Marine and the U.S. Navy Armed Guards during the war. Of interest to those visiting the ship in connection to All the Secrets of the World, is a section of bunks and interpretive displays outlining life as a soldier traveling to the European Theater. Just like Janie’s father did.

In addition to Five in a Row, the ship can be used to study topics like the Merchant Marine, World War II (especially the home front), and sailing. Display areas in ship also feature topics like semaphore, knots and nautical terminology. In addition to the printout for the Blue Line Tour, young visitors can receive a Young Mariner Activity Guide.

Know Before You Go: The S.S. John W. Brown is a working ship requiring constant upkeep. Elevators are not available and passageways/stairs in the ship can be cramped an steep. Visitors should take care and watch their step when on the deck.

Location: When in port, the ship is located at 2020 South Clinton Street, in Baltimore Maryland. To park, turn onto the John W. Brown’s pier and proceed about 300 feet. The pier’s shed offers free parking.

Hours: Visits to the ship, when in port, can be made on Wednesday and Saturday between 9AM and 2PM. Check the ship’s website or call 410 558-0646.

Admission: Admission is free, but donations are highly recommended. There is also a ship’s store where memorabilia can be purchased.