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Visiting Ft. McHenry

Satellite view of Fort McHenry.

FORT MCHENRY, NATIONAL MONUMENT AND HISTORIC SHRINE,  National Park Service (NPS), Baltimore, MD

I have lived about six miles from Fort McHenry for just over two years but only visited it for the first time today.  (Don’t judge me!  It’s been a hectic couple of years—a goodly chunk of it was spent in DC!)  I thought I would share some of the particulars about visiting the park.  I do this for a couple of reasons:  Firstly, in a couple of years we will begin the celebrations for the Bicentennial of the War of 1812the event that put Ft. McHenry on the map and that Francis Scott Key witnessed, stirring him to write the poem that is today our national anthem.  Secondly, it is precisely the sort of local flavor that I want to occasionally season the blog with.  Besides, it seems like the right sort of post as the summer boils away.

To start, I wanted to cover some logistical points.  Most weekends do have a planned event.  That said, we went on a Tuesday and there was hardly anybody there when we first arrived, which was kind of nice even though we failed to beat the heat.  Also, the changing of the flag ceremony (held at 9:30 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.—participation encouraged!) is one of the few events going on daily, weather permitting.  While parking is free, it is a $7 entrance fee for ages sixteen and up.  Technically, if you’d like to save the money, you can show up and simply walk around the fort, taking in the earthworks and the view from the point.  To get in the fort you pay at the visitor center and receive your sticker, which must be visible.  (Once purchased, they will give you two receipts, one of which is actually a seven day pass that is good for the subsequent six days.)  There is a small exhibit, a short film, a typical gift shop and restrooms.  From there you can walk out to the fort.  There is a small food stand with hotdogs, chips and beverages, but we packed a lunch and ate at the picnic tables in the shade right next to the parking lot.  Once you are on the fort grounds there is little cover from the elements, so come prepared for them—fortunately, we had some Gatorade in the house to slightly appease the group who had a smaller appetite than I for guns and fortifications under the August sun!

A model of the fort as it appeared during the War of 1812.

The fort itself was in use up through the twentieth century.  It was decommissioned after WWI, according to the volunteer answering my questions, and was temporarily used as a training site for the Coast Guard during WWII before it was returned to the city of Baltimore and became a National Park.  So, the fort, in its current design and construction, is not exactly as it was in 1814 when the British showed up to attack Baltimore.  In 1814, all of the fort’s buildings were single-storied and the outer works were not quite as built up as they appear today.   But, the star-shaped configuration had been paid for by the wealthy citizens of the city of Baltimore—particularly a man by the name of McHenry!  (As the guide told us, McHenry figured he put enough money and work into it the fort ought to have his name, thus, foreshadowing the process for naming stadiums all over America.)  The star-shaped design is critical for the fort’s survival.  The brick prongs are reinforced with the earth behind them.  Each prong is both pointed and sloped to reduce the effect of incoming projectiles—every hit is a glancing blow.  Eliminating a direct hit helps thwart enemy artillery (canons), but it also turns the ground around the fort into a nasty meat grinder for infantry (soldiers on foot) or cavalry (soldiers on horseback) because the approach is in between the prongs or over them, giving all the advantage to the defenders.  In the case of Ft. McHenry, it did not come to this.  Rather, the fort was only attacked by the British navy, which was forced to fire mortars and rockets from just beyond the range of the fort’s guns.  Both of these weapons had the advantage of sending their projectiles up into the air and then falling into the fort, but they did not succeed in defeating it.  In fact, according to the film only four men died, twenty-nine wounded.  The British gave up and sailed down to New Orleans only to come up short against Andrew Jackson (whose role in the victory would propel him into the presidency).

Maryland was a copperhead state during the Civil War (meaning the state, while positioned on the North’s side of the border, was sympathetic to the South).  Baltimore, in particular, was home to many influential residents who were leading the cause for southern sympathy.  Lincoln took preemptive action and arrested some of these secessionists.  In doing so, he suspended the right of Habeas Corpus along the military lines from Washington to Philadelphia.  (Habeas Corpus, a right predating the U.S. Constitution and originating in English common law, states that an individual cannot be arrested without being charged, to prevent unlawful seizure of citizens.)  At that time, the fort served as a prison.  Despite the Writ of Habeas Corpus issued by Chief Justice Taney, Lincoln and the U.S. Army held prisoners in violation of our country’s laws, such as Lt. John Merryman of the Maryland State Militia.  Merryman had sabotaged train lines to impede the Union army on his governor’s orders.  (http://www.nps.gov/fomc/historyculture/the-writ-of-habeus-corpus.htm and NPS volunteer, 8-11-2010)

Particularly at the flag changing, but also at other times and events,  the NPS Rangers don the military garb of the fort’s defenders.  On our visit we were given a musket demonstration, by one such historic interpreter dressed in the finery of the early uniforms, before the financial burdens of the war required a less adorned uniform of an artillery soldier (which the ranger said looked very similar to the Civil War uniforms of the North).  He explained the steps for firing his replica 1789 Springfield Musket, 65 caliber.  The first step is to cock the musket, then put powder in the pan, next put powder in the barrel, then the musket ball (which he did not include), pound it down with the ram rod and finally point and fire.  The musket, lacking any rifling on the inside of the barrel, is not terribly accurate, but when a volley is fired into opposing ranks it can have a devastating effect.   In response to my query, he affirmed that the U.S. military, like the British soldiers, trained with live rounds—one of the reasons the British had sometimes had an edge against the French in prior years.  Unlike the British, however, he explained that the elite Americans could only fire three rounds a minute, which, if accurate, is one shy of the vaunted elite of the Red Coats, especially those seasoned in the conflict against Napoleon!  (NPS Ranger, 8-11-2010)

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There is one final anecdote I want to relay.  Our last stop for the morning was actually returning to the Visitor’s Center as we had hurried to get to the flag ceremony.  The film, very typical of the NPS (produced in 1984-5, “The Defense of Fort McHenry”), is told from the viewpoint of Dr. William Beanes, who was captured by the British for his involvement in arresting British soldiers after promises had been secured from the invading officers.  According to the agreement his town’s homes and property would not be molested so long as the British force was left unmolested.  His point of view is unique because after his arrest he was held aboard a British ship until Francis Scott Key, the prominent Georgetown lawyer and also Beanes’ friend, would partake in the negotiations for his release.  The British, grateful for the medical care Beanes had provided to wounded British soldiers, agreed to the release following the attack on Baltimore to prevent them from warning the city.  The  British released Beanes and his negotiators to an American truce ship during the assault on Baltimore and Ft. McHenry.  The fight carried on well into the night, then all was silent and dark.  Beanes’ party waited shipboard through the dark hours before the dawn not knowing the outcome.  The waiting continued until the fort’s morning gun fired and the incredible Star Spangled-Banner was raised above the fort, inspiring Key to write the poem that would become our national anthem.  (The Star-Spangled Banner is an example of the second flag adopted by our country, with fifteen stripes and stars—the only flag with fifteen stripes as the next one would revert to thirteen stripes for the original colonies.)

The film concludes with a waving flag and the opening strains of our anthem.  At this point, dramatically, the blinds pull back and reveal the fort with the flag flying.  Everyone stood, many of us thinking that the film was at its conclusion and preparing to leave, but a slightly bossy septuagenarian had walked into the room and ordered us to turn, face the fort’s flag, put hand over our right heart and, “Sing along!”  I, at least, was unaware that the entire anthem was about to blaze forth.  What could have been a rather moving moment of patriotic warm-fuzzies was somewhat spoiled with feelings of having just been scolded by a grandfather or ordered by a drill sergeant.  Then he instructed us to follow him for a quick presentation in the exhibit space—which was perfectly enjoyable—but, I feel that this could have been a fully positive event if the film had included a disclaimer telling us at the beginning what they expected or that the presentation would end with the singing of the anthem. (“Please, join us in singing . . “)  I do not think the dramatic effect would have been lost, just the feeling that we’re doing something wrong or being bullied!

(In the YouTube link below you can see just how absurdly enormous the original flag was, or you can click on the hyper-link in the above paragraph to visit the Smithsonian’s website about their exhibition for the original Star-Spangled Banner.)
(Follow the below YouTube link to hear the entire national anthem with the lyrics. 2 min. 45 sec.)

Decorative relief from the Basilica of St. John, Ephesus, Turkey

musket

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Travel