O Say Can You See: Fort McHenry National Monument

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming…O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave. Words we all know by heart and have heard thousands of times. But do you know the history behind our National Anthem? Who was Francis Scott Key? Why Baltimore? And what happened to the original Star-Spangled Banner? You can learn all this and more at the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine

The Rockets Red Glare, the Bombs Bursting in Air

On the tip of a little peninsula jutting out into the Baltimore Harbor sits Fort McHenry. The American military built the fort in 1803 when they realized the coastal cities needed protection. During the War of 1812 Fort McHenry was reinforced as Baltimore was considered a prime target of the British. Americans knew that to protect the city, and ultimately their country, they needed to protect the harbor and prevent the British from capturing Baltimore.

In late August of 1814, the British attacked Washington, D.C., burning the city including the White House and U.S. Capitol. A few days later they sailed for Baltimore, hoping to capture that city, as well. The British considered Baltimore more important due to its strategic location on the east coast and its port. 

Beginning at dawn on September 13, the British bombed Baltimore Harbor and Fort McHenry. The British fired more than 1,800 rounds of bombs and cannon balls on the Fort. The bombs were known as mortar shells. When the mortar’s fuse burned down it set off the gunpowder inside the shell, resulting in the bomb exploding, or “bursting in air”, raining down shrapnel over the Fort. 

For over 24 hours the soldiers manning Fort McHenry fought back, firing their own cannons out into the harbor. The Americans cannons were not powerful enough to reach the British ships two miles away. However, they were able to keep the ships from sailing closer to land, preventing them from firing directly on the Fort. Miraculously, there were only a handful of American casualties, considering the number of shots fired. By the morning of September 14, the British determined they would not capture Baltimore, called off the attack, and sailed away. (You can read a much more detailed description of the Battle here.)

View of Baltimore Harbor from Fort McHenry

O’er the Ramparts We Watch’d

So, you might ask, where does the Star-Spangled Banner come in? 

The author of our national anthem, Francis Scott Key, was a prominent young lawyer. He had been sent a few days prior to the battle to negotiate the release of an American hostage on one of the British ships. While the negotiation was successful, by the time Key was done negotiating, the British had decided to invade Baltimore. To prevent Francis Scott Key and his companions from warning Baltimore of the attack, the British held them on what’s known as a treaty ship, and kept them stationed out in the harbor. For the duration of the bombardment, Key watched the entire attack on Baltimore from this ship. 

On September 14, by the dawn’s early light, Key watched as the Fort Commander hoisted the giant 30-foot x 42-foot American flag over Fort McHenry to signify victory. This inspired Francis Scott Key, not only a lawyer but a well-known poet, to compose a few lines recognizing the significance of this event. That poem, “The Defense of Fort McHenry” was printed in the local papers. It became very popular, and was eventually put to music and renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner”. In 1931 it became our official national anthem. 

Inside Fort McHenry

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave?

Today at Fort McHenry the Star-Spangled Banner is always flying, but it is not the original flag that Francis Scott Key saw. Amazingly, that flag still exists. It is housed a few miles down the road at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. where it is kept safe in environmentally controlled conditions. It is a sight to behold should you get the chance to visit. 

Instead, the Fort flies a replica flag 24 hours a day. Actually, it flies four different sizes of flags depending on weather and wind conditions, and the number of staff on hand. For special occasions, the Fort hoists a full 30’ x 42’ flag with 15 stars and stripes. On most days, a smaller replica flies over the Fort. During rainy conditions and at night a small, modern 50-star flag is flown.

Visiting Fort McHenry

Today, you can visit Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine and imagine yourself fighting against the invasion of the British. While the Baltimore skyline and harbor look a bit different than in 1814, you can see where the British ships would have been in the harbor. You can walk around the ramparts, see replicas of where the cannons once stood, visit the powder magazine, and explore the barracks.  

But is any of the Fort original, or is it a replica? Per the National Park Service the answer is both yes and no. Fort McHenry was reused multiple times following the Battle of Baltimore, including during the Civil War and both World Wars. This meant multiple changes, improvements, and expansions to both the earthen ramparts, the brick walls, and the interior buildings. 

Today, the original earthen foundations still create the Fort’s signature star shape. Portions of the original barracks remain. Outside the fort walls you can see the outline of the foundation of an old tavern and army hospital. Other buildings are reconstructions or replicas demonstrating what life was like, such as what the officer’s quarters looked like. 

Both inside the Fort and in the visitor’s center are educational displays that tell the history of the Fort. Visitors can see hundreds of artifacts and items that have been uncovered during archaeological digs, such as buttons, gun shells, silverware, dishes. You can learn more about Francis Scott Key’s life, the War of 1812 and the shaping of America. 

The signature item on display inside the Fort is one of the original cross beams that held the flagpole upon which the Star Spangled Banner flew during the battle. It was uncovered during an archeological dig 16 feet below ground. The beams were buried so deep in order to support the massive pole and giant 30-foot by 42-foot garrison flag that flew over the Fort.

Tips for Visiting Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine:

  • $15 entrance fee to tour the inside of Fort McHenry. National Park Passes are accepted. 
  • The Visitor’s Center and outside grounds are free to explore.  
  • Visitors are welcome to bring food and enjoy it at designated picnic areas and benches. Vending machines are available.
  • There is very little shade; hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and water are recommended during the hot summer months.

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