Fort McHenry - Baltimore's National Monument and Historic Shrine

Outer Walls of Fort McHenry

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Fort McHenry, Baltimore's National Monument and Historic Shrine is located on Locust Point at the end of Fort Avenue. Popular with local walkers and joggers, Fort McHenry is a beautiful place, offering excellent water views along with a level walking path. (See map at bottom of page)

Best known for its defense of Baltimore, a significant port city during the War of 1812, Fort McHenry is the home of The Star Spangled Banner, our National Anthem. The song was written by Francis Scott Key during and just after the Battle of Baltimore.

June of 2012 will be the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and September of 2014 will celebrate the anniversary of the writing of The Star Spangled Banner. Special events are planned around around these historic bicentennials.

Fort McHenry - Early History

On Whetstone Point, just below Baltimore, at the confluence of the Northwest and Ferry Branches of the Patapsco River, the area now known as Fort McHenry was first in the hands of Charles Gorsuch. In 1601, the land was sold to James Carroll, who, in 1702, named the area Whetstone Point for the mineral deposits found there.

In 1727, the land was sold to a British commercial operation. The nearby city of Baltimore became a mecca for ship building, agricultural processing, the manufacture of gunpowder, and iron works.

In 1775, Maryland confiscated Whetstone Point from the British and by February of 1776, established a shoreline gun battery and wooden barracks to protect the entrance to Baltimore's harbor. During the Revolutionary War the fortification increased in size and by 1778 hosted 38 cannons, military barracks, and a hospital.

On March 20, 1794, congress provided funds for the defense of ports and harbors up and down the coastline from New England to Georgia.

Fort McHenry

James McHenry was a Marylander who represented the state at the Constitutional Convention, and sat for the Maryland Senate and State Assembly. As Secretary of War under George Washington, McHenry employed several foreign engineers to design and build a fort of Whetstone Point.

The federal government increased funding for coastline fortifications between 1778 - 1800 after France began to seize American vessels suspected of trade with Great Britain. In March of 1799, Jean Foncin was hired as the new project engineer. His design was approved at an estimated cost of forty thousand dollars.

January 24, 1800 is the date the name Fort McHenry first appeared in print. Foncin, who had taken rooms in a nearby house, used the term Fort McHenry in the details of a rental document. By that summer, the 5 bastion pentagon shaped fort enclosed a powder magazine, 2 barracks for soldiers, and 2 officers' quarters. An additional $67,000 was spent in the process.

In 1802, the project was completed and the post commanded by Captain Staats Morris.

The fort protected the harbor channel while a dry moat at the base of the fortification protected the fort itself. The pentagon shape offered protection, covering all angles of the exterior walls.

Barracks at Fort McHenry

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Click to enlarge | Source

The War of 1812

In the early part of the 19th century, England began to board US vessels to prevent trade with France. As France and England established naval blockades of each others' ports, American merchant ships and crews were seized by the British. During the Napoleanic Wars (1799 - 1800), thousands of American sailors were captured and forced to serve the British Royal Navy.

On June 22, 1807, the American frigate USS Chesapeake left the harbor in Norfolk VA to be intercepted by the British ship, HMS Leopard. A boarding party, sent to look for British deserters was refused by the American commander, and the Leopard fired her guns at the American sip. The USS Chesapeake surrendered.

America was insulted and enraged and on December 22, 1807, passed the Embargo Act to defend US neutrality rights and keep American vessels out of European wars. This prohibitions of commerce with Europe deeply affected the economy of American coastal towns and cities, all but destroying the export trade and causing loss of income to seamen, merchants, and the farmers who exported goods to Europe.

The embargo did bring about an increase in the US textile business, but was repealed and rewritten in 1809 to exclude trade with Britain and France.

As the British Navy began to sail the Great Lakes and Atlantic coasts without opposition, President James Madison declared war in June of 1812. Congress quickly approved. By July 17, British troops captured Fort Mackinac which stood at the Straits of Mackinac, connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The early part of the war was fought at or near the Cannadian border, and it was not until later that the East Coast of the US became involved.

Baltimore - A Nest of Pirates

Privateers authorized by the government to capture British vessels and their goods provided Baltimore ship builders with increased business. The Baltimore Clipper was a small schooner with 2 racing masts built by Fells Point ship builders. The capture of 1338 British vessels incited the London Times to refer to Baltimore as a "nest of pirates."

The Royal Navy entered the Chesapeake Bay early in 1813 and began to occupy and burn towns up and down the Bay. The British menaced places like Fredricktown, Havre de Grace, and Saint Michaels, establishing naval bases on Tangier and Kent Islands on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

Major George Armistead took command of Fort McHenry on June 27, 1813 and posted recruitment notices in local papers.

British forces landed in Benedict Maryland on the western shore of the Patuxent River and went on to trounce American forces in the Battle of Bladensburg. The emboldened British marched to Washington DC, the new capital, with the intent to cause enough damage to hurt American morale. Their intention was not to occupy the new capital, but to cause as much destruction as they could in a short period. At the time, Baltimore with its ship building and commerce, was more strategically significant. British troops set fire to the yet incomplete Capital Building, the White House (then called the Executive Mansion), the Library of Congress, some private homes, and warehouses.

Thunderstorms extinguished the fires set during the 24 hour siege of August 24, 1814.

The Battle of Baltimore and The Star Spangled Banner

Early on Septemeber 12, 1814, British troops landed 10 miles from Baltimore at North Point with the intent to capture the city. Maryland militia blocked the advance of the British troops and British General Ross was killed by American sniper fire.

On September 13th, a flotilla of British warships and barges advanced toward the entrance of the Baltimore harbor, dropping anchor two miles from the mouth of the harbor.The harbor itself had been blocked with a line of sunken ships.

Throughout the day and night guns from Fort McHenry and nearby forts Babcock and Covington responded to the British bombardment.

Meanwhile, a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key was aboard a truce ship, negotiating for the release of an elderly doctor named William Beanes. On the morning of September 14, as the bombardment ceased, the great 42' X 30' flag was again hoisted, replacing the smaller 17' X 25' storm flag that flew during the battle The morning gun fired and the band struck up Yankee Doodle at 9:00 AM.

Francis Scott Key, inspired by the Battle of Baltimore, penned a poem entitled The Defense of Fort McHenry which appeared on September 20 in the Baltimore Patriot and Evening Advertiser. The immediately popular poem was set to music, to the tune of an older song and later called The Star Spangled Banner.

It was not until 1931 that Key's poem became the National Anthem.

Battle of Baltimore

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Baltimore Flag House - Mary Pickersgill's House

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Click to enlarge | Source

The Flag

Mary Pickersgill designed and sewed the famous 42' X 30' foot flag as well as the smaller storm or siege flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. For six weeks, Pickersgill, her daughter Caroline, and several assistants stitched and assembled the flag out of 40 yards of bunting. The size of the flag demanded more space than her house provided and was assembled at a nearby brewery.

Commissioned by Major George Armistead then commander of Fort McHenry, each of the 15 stripes was 2 feet wide. Each of the 15 stars were 2 feet across. The 15 stripes and stars represented the 13 original colonies as well as Vermont (1791) and Kentucky (1792). The Flag of 1818 reduced the stripes to 13, while the number of stars would change to represent each state as added.

Armistead acquired the Star Spangled Banner Flag, leaving it to his family who later cut off pieces to give away as souvenirs. What remains of the original flag (as well as fragments) is now on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington DC.

Mary Pickersgill's house, called The Flag House can be seen and visited at 844 East Pratt Street.

Fort McHenry After the War of 1812

On April 19, 1861, a train carrying federal troops arrived at Baltimore's President Street Station and was met by an angry mob for what proved to be the first clash of military and civilians in the Civil War. Fort McHenry, under the command of Captain John C. Robinson, prepared for an attack. On May 6, federal troops entered Baltimore to occupy Federal Hill overlooking the Inner Harbor.

Fort McHenry became a Union hospital and prison. After the Battle of Gettysburg, 7,000 Confederate prisoners were sent through Fort McHenry. As the fort was so overwhelmed, Point Lookout Hospital in Southern Maryland was quickly established as one of the Union's largest prison facilities.

1914 - The Flag that Flew at Fort McHenry During the Battle of Baltimore

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Fort McHenry in the 20th Century

  • On July 21, 1912, the evening gun fired, the flag lowered, and Fort McHenry closed its gates for the last time.
  • September 7, 1914 - The National Star Spangled Banner Centennial in Baltimore offered picnics, parades, concerts, and the arrival of the USS Constellation in a week long series of events and festivities to commemorate the Battle of Baltimore.
  • September 12, 1914 - 6500 school children created a living flag and sang the Star Spangled Banner.
  • 1915 - 1917 - After Congress leased Fort McHenry to Baltimore to used as a municipal park and beach with mixed swimming for 5 cents.
  • July 1917 - US War Department revoked the city's lease in order to bring fort McHEnry into service during World War I
  • 1917 - 1923 - Fort McHenry operated as a military hospital and supply depot and offered classes for recovering military personnel. In 1919, the Red Cross opened a facility that offered dances, movies, and vaudeville acts for patients.
  • 1925 - 1933 restoration of the historic fort included tree plantings and the installation of historic plaques.
  • 1931 - The Star Spangled Banner became the National Anthem.
  • 1933 - Fort McHenry transferred from the War Department to the Department of the Interior to be operated by the National Park Service.
  • 1939 - Fort McHenry became a National Monument and Historic Shrine

Map - Zoom In or Out Feature at Top Left

Works Consulted

Information on the Embargo Act of 1807http://www.maritime-executive.com/article/this-day-in-maritime-history-embargo-act-of-1807

Information on the Napoleanic Wars and Americahttp://history.state.gov/milestones/1801-1829/NapoleonicWars

Information on Fort Mackinac, Michiganhttp://vm.mackinacparks.com/toolbox/index.phtml?id=3

Info on the War of 1812 - http://www.history.army.mil/books/AMH/AMH-06.htm

Information on the Star Spangled Banner and the War of 1812 :http://www.si.edu/Encyclopedia_SI/nmah/starflag.htm

Star Spangled Banner Project; National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Instituion 2004

Fort McHenry by Scott Sheads; Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company; Baltimore Maryland 1995

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