fort mchenry & returning home from baltimore before the pandemic

My last morning in Baltimore, I headed straightaway to Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine. A British naval attack against this fort was repulsed on September 13, 1814, preventing the capture of Baltimore.  The battle inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star Spangled Banner,” which is now the National Anthem of the United States of America.

From 1793-1815, England and France were involved in a series of wars called the “French Revolutionary Wars” and the “Napoleonic Wars.” Maritime trade was vital to both nations, turning a European war into a global struggle across the seas. Both countries confiscated American merchant ships and cargoes to prevent supplies from reaching enemy ports. Americans thought this violated their rights as neutrals. The British forcibly drafted (“impressed”) American seamen, and President Madison and the “War Hawks,” a group of southern and western Congressmen, demanded the U.S. annex British Canada and Spanish Florida. The War Hawks pressed for a declaration of war against England on June 18, 1812, to preserve “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights.”


American sea trade gained in importance

Known as the “War of 1812,” the conflict lasted almost three years between 1812 and 1815. Sometimes called a “forgotten war” of American history, neither side could claim outright victory.  For the young United States, however, it strengthened a sense of national identity and enhanced the country’s status on the world stage.

In mid-August, after Napoleon’s defeat in April 1814, a British force of some 5,000 army and navy veterans sailed up the Chesapeake Bay, intent on giving the Americans “a complete drubbing.” They did that at the Battle of Bladensburg and went on to burn Washington.

At the time of the battle, George Armistead was 34 years old, a husband of four years, father of a two-year-old daughter, and a combat-tested veteran.  Born to a wealthy Virginia family, Armistead’s military career began at age 19 when he joined the U.S. Army as an officer in the 7th U.S. Infantry Regiment. He then served eight unexciting years at various frontier posts, transferred to the U.S. Artillery and earned the rank of Captain. The War of 1812 offered him an opportunity to prove himself. His role the following year in capturing Fort George in British Columbia earned him a promotion to Major and a reassignment to Fort McHenry.

In a small room at Fort McHenry, George Armistead worked for long hours under extreme stress for over 18 months.  Meeting with engineers, city leaders, and the War Department, he planned the fort’s defenses. By 1814, the fort boasted over 60 cannons and 1,000 defenders.

Baltimore was better prepared for the invaders than Washington had been. Defenses were erected, arms and equipment laid in, and troops trained.  Fifteen thousand men, mostly Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia militia but also a few regular army units and several hundred sailors were called to duty. Fort McHenry, the key to the harbor, was defended by 1,000 men. Its guns and those of two batteries along the river’s edge dominated the channels leading to the city.  A line of gunboats and sunken hulks across the mouth of Northwest Branch also obstructed entry.

Baltimore’s defenses were designed to ward off attacks from both land and sea. Local citizens dug a mile-long entrenchment to protect the eastern side of the city from land attack and a number of smaller forts protected various points along the Patapsco River on the city’s southwest side.

Gunpowder for the fort was kept in the Magazine. Perhaps the most important building at Fort McHenry, over 30,000 pounds of explosive black powder could be stored in this small room – the rough equivalent of over ten tons of TNT.

On September 12, British troops landed at North Point and marched toward Baltimore. Americans were compelled to withdraw. The next morning, the British waited two miles from the city for the results of a naval attack before assaulting the Baltimore defenses.

The British attacked Fort McHenry at dawn on the 13th.  The assault lasted some 25 hours. An estimated 1,500-1,800 shells and rockets were fired at the fort. Protecting Baltimore was a mix of regular soldiers and sailors plus militia.  Troops came from Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia, as well as from Maryland. African-Americans were among Baltimore’s 15,000 defenders. Citizen-soldiers from the city itself were defending not only American soil, but also their businesses, homes and families.

Bombships continued their bombardment until 7:00 a.m. on September 14, then withdrew down the river.  As the British sailed away, the American soldiers fired the morning gun and hoisted the large flag that would later become known as the “Star Spangled Banner,” while the musicians played “Yankee Doodle.”

The British sailed off to invade New Orleans. There on January 8, 1815, an American frontier army under General Andrew Jackson defeated the British. This was the last important battle of the War of 1812; it took place as a treaty negotiated in Ghent, Belgium was making its way across the Atlantic.


Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine

Above all, the War of 1812 saw the rise of a new sense of American national destiny.  The U.S. never again attempted to conquer Canada, but obstacles to American westward expansion were removed, as the British abandoned their treaties with American Indians in the northwest. The participation of a number of Indian nations as allies of the British provided a ready-made excuse for the U.S. government to speed up the forced removal of eastern tribes to lands beyond the Mississippi River once the conflict ended.


Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine

The war proved the need for better communications, spurring road and canal building. Military spending increased to build up the army, navy and coastline defenses. Foreign policy became bolder.


Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine


Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine


Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine


Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine


Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine

Fort McHenry never again came under enemy fire but continued as an active military post for the next 100 years. During the Civil War, it was used as a temporary prison for captured Confederate soldiers, southern sympathizers, and political prisoners.

A display at the fort discusses this turbulent time in “Abraham Lincoln: Hero or Dictator? The Price of Security.” In 1861 Abraham Lincoln became the only American president to face the crisis of a civil war. Southern states formed the Confederacy in February of that year.  Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, and a week later, a riot in Baltimore erupted with an attack on the 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and resulted in the killing of federal soldiers and Baltimore civilians. The cutting of telegraph lines and burning of railroad bridges between Baltimore and Washington further isolated the capital from the rest of the country.

On April 22, President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and placed Baltimore under Federal control. Over the next six months, Federal authorities shut down newspapers, replaced police officers with Union soldiers, and aimed cannons at the city and arrested hundreds of citizens and elected officials (including 23 members of the state legislature).  Many of those arrested were initially brought to the fort’s guardhouse.

The Maryland Legislature condemned Lincoln’s actions as “the overthrow of public freedom.. with color of lawful process or right.”

Many prisoners of state detained at Fort McHenry during the Civil War saw the American flag waving over the ramparts as a symbol of tyranny more than a representation of liberty.  During the first year alone, Federal authorities imprisoned over 250 people here for alleged Southern sympathies.  Some of those imprisoned were transferred to more secure forts farther north while others were released after only a period of days or weeks in confinement.

(*habeas corpus: a Writ of habeas corpus directs a person, government, or official to produce the prisoner and justify the prisoner’s deterntion.  In Latin, the term means “You have the body.”)


When the last active artillery unit left in 1912, the fort’s future seemed in doubt. Baltimore safeguarded the fort as a city park, until the army reclaimed it for use as a hospital during World War I.  One of the largest military hospitals in the country, it housed 3,000 wounded soldiers from the battlefields of France.  Over 1,000 staff worked in this facility.

From 1917 until 1923, U.S. Army General Hospital No. 2 served World War I veterans as a surgical center.  Medical staff made great advances in neurosurgery and reconstructive surgery.  It was one of the country’s first schools to reintegrate disabled soldiers into civilian life by offering special classes in typing, metal work, automobile repair and other trades.

In 1925, Congress made Ft. McHenry a national park; 14 years later, it was redesignated a national monument and historic shrine, the only park in the country to have this double distinction.

“The Star-Spangled Banner”

Francis Scott Key effectively dramatized the bombardment during the Battle of Baltimore, the flag, and much of the feeling of the day in verse.


“The Star-Spangled Banner”

A week before the battle, Key, an influential young Washington lawyer, set out with Colonel John S. Skinner, U.S. Commissioner General of Prisoners, on a mission to the British fleet. They sought the release of a friend, Dr. William Beanes.  Sailing from Baltimore on September 5, they reached the British fleet in the Chesapeake Bay on September 7 and in a few days of negotiations had arranged for Beanes to go free. But because they’d learned about the British plan to attack Baltimore, they were detained until after the assault for fear they would alert the city’s defenders.

Key, Skinner and Beanes witnessed the bombardment from the deck of a U.S. truce ship on September 13th.

Key later described how he felt when he saw Fort McHenry’s flag waving on the morning of the 14th. Key jotted down notes and finished the poem upon his return to Baltimore the evening of the 16th. He showed it to his wife’s brother-in-law, Joseph Nicholson, who immediately delivered it to the offices of the Baltimore American and Commercial Daily Advertiser.  The first printing under the title “Defence of Fort McHenry” was a broadside sheet, handed out in the streets. It stated the song should be sung to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a song written around 1770 by two Englishmen for a gentleman’s social club in London.  It was common at that time to put new words to existing tunes.  Key almost certainly had the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven” in mind when he wrote the lyrics.  He had already written an earlier song to this melody, as had 80 other authors by 1814.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” is a potent symbol that has long provoked intense debate. Although widely regarded as a national song after 1814, it took 117 years to become the official National Anthem. Opposition was just as passionate in favor of other contenders, including “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “America the Beautiful,” and “Hail Columbia.” (“America the Beautiful” is my favorite). After World War I, pacifists argued that Key’s lyrics were too warlike. Opponents alleged that its music was inappropriate, claiming it was an English drinking song.  It was, in the words of opponent August E.. Stetson, “born of intense hatred of Great Britain and wedded to a bar-room ballad composed by a foreigner.”

However, the song was already the official choice for military ceremonies, and the weight of its popular appeal proved overwhelming. On March 3, 1931, President Hoover signed a bill making “The Star-Spangled Banner” America’s official National Anthem. Nevertheless, many people continue to question the song’s meanings and ask how and for whom America is the “land of the free.”


The flag still flies after the British bombardment

Major George Armistead, commander at Fort McHenry commissioned a flag a year before the British attack.  Aware of Fort McHenry’s vital strategic and symbolic importance, he asked for a flag so large “that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.”

The flag measured 42 x 30 feet and was made by local seamstress Mary Young Pickersgill. The flag was so large it had to be assembled on the floor of a brewery near Mary’s workshop. Her total fee of $574.44 was a very large sum of money at the time and included the production of a smaller flag, which may have been the “storm flag” flown during the night of the British bombardment in 1814.  The large flag, carefully kept dry throughout the stormy night, was hoisted the morning after the bombardment as a special act of defiance and symbol of perseverance.

The flag is now displayed in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in D.C.

In 1848, the U.S. Army began carrying the flag into battle, and during the Civil War, the Stars and Stripes was a highly visible symbol of the hope for a reunified nation.

In the 1890s, new patriotic organizations promoted flags for schools, the introduction of the Pledge of Allegiance and regulations against “misuse” of the flag. In their eyes the flag was a bulwark against threats to American identity from mass immigration and organized labor.

By the 1960s, the American flag was seen by some to reflect a narrow and exclusive vision of American identity. In protest, they burned or defaced flags, prompting Congress to criminalize such behavior in 1968.  This legislation was repealed after the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that flag burning was an expression of freedom of speech. These struggles over the flag’s meaning are testaments to its enduring power as a national symbol.

(Information about Fort McHenry comes from signs and brochures by the National Park Service).

*Steps: 6,841; 2.9 miles*

*Sunday, February 23, 2020*


I wrote about my trip to Baltimore in a number of posts:

  1. call to place: baltimore, maryland
  2. anticipation & preparation: baltimore, maryland
  3. the baltimore museum of art
  4. the walters art museum in baltimore & dinner with an old friend
  5. baltimore: the american visionary art museum
  6. baltimore: cross street market, federal hill, the inner harbor & fells point


When I got home from my trip at 1:30 Sunday afternoon, I found our youngest son asleep and the sink piled with dirty dishes. I was irritated because I felt that when we weren’t home to “babysit,” he seemed to go off the rails. (Mike was in Ohio with his high school friends over the weekend.) Our son had quit his yoga practice and had started eating erratically during a dog-sitting gig earlier in the week, signs that things were unraveling.

On Monday morning, I went to Ortho Virginia and got a tall Genesis walking boot to wear for two weeks. Luckily I hadn’t broken any bones when I fell at the Walters Art Gallery, but an x-ray showed a bone spur on my left heel and some arthritis in my left ankle.  It seemed I had sprained several ligaments around my ankle.

On March 1, my sister-in-law came over for a belated birthday dinner for Mike’s 66th birthday.  My youngest son also celebrated with us. On March 5, I didn’t feel good, like I had a chest cold coming on.  I had trouble breathing and was feeling depressed and hopeless about our son who was isolating himself and barely speaking to us. Several days later, our son told us all signs were pointing to an apocalypse; he wanted to join like-minded people.  He said his Vipassana retreat might be cancelled because of the Coronavirus. Several days later, we got into a huge fight.

By Wednesday, March 11, COVID-19 was shutting down the economy and the stockmarket was crashing.  People were in panic and toilet paper was vanishing off grocery store shelves. Several days later, our son informed us he was going to Costa Rica to join a community.  He wanted to get out of the U.S. because he thought all signs were in place for the apocalypse. He informed us he would be taking a flight out of BWI on Sunday night because of possible flight and travel bans. I told him he needed to get all his mess cleaned and sorted and disposed of from our basement because he could not come back here to live. That was the last time we saw him in person and he is now living in Nicaragua.

Since then, we’ve been reduced to stay-at-home orders, masking and social distancing. I was happy I had this last excursion before the virus descended and wiped out our ambling lives.

I enjoyed my trip to Baltimore and discovered lots of interesting places to visit. Since the city is only a little over an hour from my home, I would like to make more efforts to visit in the coming years.