Fort McHenry

Above photo courtesy of the National Park Service

For many, the War of 1812 is a forgotten conflict. It’s stuck between the Revolution and the Civil War, both of which receive far more attention. But for the residents of Baltimore, that war was their city’s finest hour. 

The British had burned Washington D.C. and were marching north. The fate of the newborn nation rested upon a small fort manned by just 1,000 men with 20 guns. They were up against the most powerful navy in the world. Their bravery and sacrifice played a pivotal role in the American victory and the enormous flag they flew over the fort became the subject of America’s national anthem…

Nestled on a small grassy peninsula in southern Baltimore sits an edifice of brick and iron called Fort McHenry. The earthworks surrounding its ramparts bristle with cannons, and though those guns have long fallen silent this place has quite a story to tell.

Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine is easily accessible from highway I-95. It’s right next to Baltimore’s historic Locust Point neighborhood which is packed with culture and restaurants for you to enjoy after your visit to the fort.

The parking lot is relatively small, so you’ll want to arrive early. The park’s normal hours are 9:00am to 5:00pm every day.

Upon arrival, you’ll first be drawn to a thoroughly modern brick and steel structure. That’s the welcome center and it’s where your journey back in time to the fateful days of September 13-14th, 1814 begins.

Once you enter the welcome center you’ll have to get in line and buy a ticket, it’s just $15 for anyone over the age of 16 and free for anyone 15 and younger. I’d also advise using the restroom now as there aren’t any in the fort itself.

The staff are all U.S. Park Rangers and from my experience they’re very friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable about the history of the fort. Many of them have a history background or are re-enactors and they’re usually more than happy to geek out about American history with you.

There is also a gift shop that sells various patriotic nick knacks ranging from cannon models to copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. It’s nice to peruse but can get pricey. I’d also recommend buying anything you want on the way out, otherwise you’ll be carrying it for several hours.

After you’ve paid the entrance fee, you walk into a small exhibit on the history of the Star-Spangled Banner, America’s national anthem. It was written by Baltimore native Francis Scott Key about the bombardment of Fort McHenry which he witnessed from the deck of a British ship. He had gone to negotiate the freedom of William Beans, a physician who had been captured earlier in the war.

The exhibit is sleek and modern, it details the history of the song and how it became America’s anthem. It gives a brief history of the Fort but it’s obvious this is not the main event. It merely puts you in the right mindset to explore one of the United States’ formative moments. It shouldn’t take longer than twenty minutes or so to see everything it has to offer and leave through the back of the welcome center.

The park surrounding Fort McHenry that you’ll walk out to is gorgeous in the spring and summer. And I would recommend spring or early summer to take your trip. Baltimore summers are notoriously hot and humid and once you leave the visitor’s center there’s no air conditioning.

Fort McHenry
PHOTOGRAPH BY National Park Service

It’s tempting to make a beeline for the fort, which should be visible in the distance from the welcome center. But you’ll want to take a walk along the water first. The path is lined with trees so there’s ample shade. From the park you’ll enjoy an incredible view of Baltimore’s inner harbor and skyline. A pleasant breeze rolls in from the water and you’ll smell a crisp saltiness in the air. This is a great place to eat lunch if you’ve packed one.

The Fort was designed to protect Baltimore, then one of America’s largest ports, with as few resources as possible. From its peninsula and with the aid of a line of sunken ships, the fort was able to hold off enormous naval invasions.

In the Battle of Baltimore, the fort held off 19 Royal Navy ships led by Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane while the combination of 1,000 regular troops 1,000 infantry militia, and 8,000 local militia traded blows with the 5,000 men of the British First, Second and Third Brigade.

Any ship foolish enough to enter the narrow inlet to the harbor would be subject to a close-range bombardment from the fort. Firing back would have been a hopeless endeavor, Fort McHenry is a short, stout five-pointed star fort surrounded by earthworks to blunt the impact of any cannonballs. It was built to withstand the worst that any vessel of the early 19th century could throw at it.

Speaking of the earthworks, that’s where you should go next. You’ll receive another great view of the harbor from the low earthworks and gun emplacements that surround the fort on its southern side. You may even get to see the odd ship rolling in. Baltimore is still a major port of entry for cars, coffee and other goods.

The guns that bristle from the earthen ramparts are impressive, but they’re not the original cannons. These are Rodman Guns from the Civil War era when Fort McHenry became a Union prison. Several Confederate sympathizers were held here without trial in violation of their Habeas Corpus rights.

Rodman Guns from the Civil War era
PHOTOGRAPH BY Bohemian Baltimore

Baltimore was a town divided during the Civil War and the Union had to occupy it to prevent it falling to the Confederacy. Fort McHenry’s guns were turned towards Baltimore itself, ready to open fire should the city fall. The fort, once Baltimore’s shield, was now a sword pointed at the heart of the city.

Once you’ve had your fill of the earthworks, it’s finally time to enter the fort itself. Walking through the great wooden doors is like stepping back in time. The heart of the fort remains relatively untouched since the Civil War.

To your left you’ll see a stairwell down into a small vaulted room, many people think this was a prison of some sort. In reality, it’s one of the few additions to the fort made after the Battle for Baltimore. It’s a bombproof, basically a bunker.

The defenders suffered 28 casualties, 24 wounded and 4 dead. This room was added to make future bombardments more survivable. It’s also quite cool if the weather’s warm so it’s a nice place to take a rest before exploring the rest of the fort.

Once you walk out of the entry hallway into the courtyard you’ll see five short, long brick buildings arranged around a walkway, facing a flagpole flying a replica of the 15-star 15-stripe flag flown during the battle.

Replica of the 15-star 15-stripe flag
PHOTOGRAPH BY Smithsonian Institution

The original was commissioned by Lt. Colonel Armistead, the fort’s commander, and General John S. Stricker and Commodore Joshua Barney. Armistead wanted a flag large enough that “the British would have no trouble seeing it from a distance.

It was stitched by Baltimore native Mary Pickersgill, and it measured 30x42 feet. It still exists but it’s been moved to the Smithsonian American History Museum in Washington D.C. The 200-year-old flag is fragile, and the Smithsonian keeps it in a special display to preserve it.

You’ll want to turn to your left and enter the guardhouse next to the gate. This is one of the newest parts of the fort, built in 1834. It served as the prison for the Union during the Civil War.

You can visit and even enter the three small cells where prisoners of the Civil War era like Baltimore Mayor George William Brown, and Police Commissioner George P. Kane were held, along with Francis Scott Key’s grandson, Francis Key Howard.

Once you’ve seen the guardhouse you can tackle the remaining buildings in any order you like. They each cover a different aspect of the Fort’s history.

If you head to your right out of the gatehouse, you’ll enter building A which was the Commanding Officer’s quarters. Originally two separate buildings, the Army decided to join them together and add a second floor in 1829.

This was Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead’s quarters during the Battle of Baltimore. A statue of the man stands over a small table, eternally contemplating the plans he labored over for 18 months in case of a British attack on his fort. Baltimore’s earthwork defenses and militia were too formidable for the British to overcome without the help of the Royal Navy. Fort McHenry had to hold the harbor, if it fell the city would soon follow. Armistead’s defense had to be perfect.

The next room is threadbare, just a stone floor and brick walls. It’s dedicated to the symbol of the nation that was made at Fort McHenry. You can watch a video here that gives the history of all the flags that flew over the fort, including the famous “Star Spangled Banner” that inspired the song.

The mighty 18, 24, and 32 pounder guns
PHOTOGRAPH BY National Park Service

The final room in building A is a re-creation of Armistead’s sleeping quarters and it’s pretty spartan by modern standards. The Lieutenant Colonel was in his early thirties in 1814 but even for a young man the squat wooden bed would have been awful for the back.

You’ll leave out the back of Armistead’s quarters and move on to the most unique building in the courtyard; a small rounded structure – the fort’s magazine.

In this cramped space, McHenry’s defenders kept the powder and shot that fed the mighty 18, 24, and 32 pounder guns that belched smoke and hurled lead at the Royal Navy during the battle.

At the time of the Battle for Baltimore, more than 300 barrels of powder, flints, fuses and bullets were stored here. Not to mention the crates of cannonballs. You can almost smell the powder more than 200 years later.

From the magazine continue moving to your right and you’ll enter the Junior officer’s quarters. Here, the fort’s captains and lieutenants lived, work, ate, drank and partied separate from the riff raff in the enlisted men’s barracks.

Back in the 19th century, the officers and enlisted men lived very different lives. These aren’t barracks, they’re quarters. They were plush and the food was a considerable improvement, fresh meat, fish and vegetables. Much better than the hard, salty fare of the enlisted men.

Right next door was one of the two enlisted men’s barracks and It houses two of the coolest exhibits here. On the right is an archaeological history of the Fort. Inside, you can peruse the artefacts Fort McHenry’s many occupants over the years left behind. They range from an officer’s badges of rank to some things an enlisted man might have carried on his person to remains of the Battle of Baltimore itself.

Next to those displays is the original brace of Fort McHenry’s flagpole, these colossal beams held the Star-Spangled Banner defiantly upright through the whole of the British bombardment. Nearby, you can see the only remains of the tavern that once sat on the grounds of the national park.

It served as a place for the soldiers here to blow off some steam and supplement their alcohol rations. There were three separate digs at the site of the old place. Once in 1958, again in 1978 and finally in 1988. Each time bits and pieces of the past were extracted, shards of plates and mugs, silverware, coins, etc. and they’re all here for you to see.

Next door to the archeology exhibit is a glimpse into another era of the fort’s history. In the early 20th century, the fort served as the largest military hospital in the country. Thousands of wounded came here from Flanders’ fields and were treated by the military doctors and nurses who had replaced the soldiers that once held this place. This room is a reconstruction of one of those hospitals, or rather one of its offices. Though, none of the hospital buildings remain today.

The furniture here is decidedly more modern. Something you might have seen in a grandparent’s house. A bit more familiar to modern eyes. On the walls, you can see photos of a military installation turned hospital and some of that unmistakably World War I era propaganda, Colombia, Uncle Sam, and rosy cheeked children asking passersby to do their part.

Leaving the first enlisted men’s barracks, move to your right to the only remaining building, this too served as living quarters for the Fort’s enlisted defenders. But today there’s more here than soldiers in cramped quarters and body odor. The first room is a timeline of the Fort’s history, from the Battle of Baltimore to the Civil War. Glimpses into the hospital of WWI and the Coast Guard training grounds of WWII. Fort McHenry had a long service life of almost 150 years and this room has it all in miniature.

Next door is a room dedicated to the battle that made this place famous. Here you can watch a video that details the heroism, not just of Fort McHenry’s defenders but the civilian militia of Baltimore and the regulars who served alongside them in the skirmishes with the British on land as well as the women who assisted in the background, running water to keep the cannons cool and supplies to keep the men in fighting shape. You can also see recreations of the flintlock muskets carried by the fort’s defenders and the cannons they used to shell the British fleet.

The next and final room to see is a recreation of what this building once looked like. It’s a room crammed full of stiff wooden beds and tables. It was in conditions like these the defenders of Baltimore lived. Men from all walks of life, young, old, career solders, men serving a stint for glory and adventure, even men running from something either their past or in the case of escaped slave turned soldier William Williams, something more sinister altogether.

Being here, you can almost hear the men laughing, drinking singing and dancing around a warm fireplace and warmer friendships. It’s things like that that made those uncomfortable sleeping arrangements bearable, the camaraderie of those select few men whose job it is to fight and die for a cause greater than themselves.

Before leaving the fort, you should take the chance to walk the ramparts atop the wall. The view is breathtaking from up there. Again, you can see the whole of the harbor and the city this fort once protected.

You can look out over the water and imagine what this place looked like with gun smoke clouding the air and making it reek of sulfur, cannons flashing as shot was launched into the distance, the red glare of British rockets illuminating the night and the thunderous bursting of bombs deafening the fort’s defenders. But through it all, the Star-Spangled Banner flew high even as shell and rocket took their toll on it.

Take time to walk around the entire fort, there are plenty of great views of the city and the water from the top. On your way out be sure to check out the George Armistead statue, it will mean more now that you know who he was and what this place means to Americans and to the city of Baltimore.

If you can’t wait for the quarantine to be over to visit Fort McHenry (it is closed at the time of writing), the park has an excellent website that features a great virtual tour. Learn more here - https://www.nps.gov/fomc/index.htm

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James Renegade

James is a research report writer for the Oxford Club, a financial publishing company. He is a native of Baltimore and graduated from Towson University in 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in history. He runs a podcast and blog called Renegade Historian, which explores various topics ranging from Medieval history to World War II. The current podcast series is called “Between the Crescent and the Cross” and it delves into the history of the Crusades. Learn more on Twitter @H_Renegade_ and on Facebook.