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Fort McHenry – Birthplace of a National Anthem

Updated on September 16, 2019
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Flag over Ft. McHenryGun batteries at Fort McHenryBaltimore Harbor from Fort McHenry.Baltimore Harbor from Fort McHenryAn officer's quarters at Fort McHenry.
Flag over Ft. McHenry
Flag over Ft. McHenry | Source
Gun batteries at Fort McHenry
Gun batteries at Fort McHenry | Source
Baltimore Harbor from Fort McHenry.
Baltimore Harbor from Fort McHenry. | Source
Baltimore Harbor from Fort McHenry
Baltimore Harbor from Fort McHenry | Source
An officer's quarters at Fort McHenry.
An officer's quarters at Fort McHenry. | Source

Visitor's Information

Fort McHenry is on East Fort Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland. Admission is $15 for people 16 and over and free for everyone under 16. Fort McHenry opens at 9:00 am. The Star Fort and Visitor Center close at 5:45 pm from the Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. Other times it closes at 4:45 pm. The parking lot and grounds close 15 minutes after the Visitor Center. The park is closed on Christmas, New Year’s, and Thanksgiving.[i] The park does have special events.[ii]

The Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine is a pet-friendly park. There are rules regarding pets in the park.[iii] Leaving pets unattended in a vehicle is illegal in Maryland.

There is a promenade close to Fort McHenry that gives a picturesque view of Baltimore Harbor.


[i] Fort McHenry web site, Operating Hours & Seasons, https://www.nps.gov/fomc/planyourvisit/hours.htm, last accessed 9/1/19.

[ii] Fort McHenry web site, Calendar, https://www.nps.gov/fomc/planyourvisit/calendar.htm, last accessed 9/1/19.

[iii] Fort McHenry web site, Pets, https://www.nps.gov/fomc/planyourvisit/pets.htm, last accessed 9/1/19.

Fort McHenry

The entry is through the Visitor’s Center. The Visitor’s Center shows the film, “The Battle of Fort McHenry”. The Fort has a courtyard and support buildings that have artifacts of the Fort’s history from The Battle in 1814 to its deactivation in 1945.

Inside the Star Fort there are the magazines. The steps can be difficult and the portal into the magazine is low. The magazines look like empty cellars. The cannons in the Star Fort are Civil War vintage.

Fort McHenry’s Other History

Fort McHenry was built in 1798 and remained in operation until 1945. When the Civil War broke out Maryland was one of the slave states that didn’t secede. Maryland had many Confederate sympathizers. The Confederate Army had 8 Maryland regiments. President Abraham Lincoln suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus as a measure to prevent Maryland from joining the Confederacy. This gave the U.S. Army permission to arrest anyone without charge and hold them as long as they pleased. Maryland Governor Thomas H. Hicks ordered Lieutenant John Merryman of the Maryland State Militia to burn railroad bridges north of Baltimore. This was to prevent trains from moving Union troops through the city. On May 25, 1861 U.S. Soldier arrested Merryman at his home and held him at Fort McHenry. He was neither charged nor allowed legal counsel. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger B. Taney[i] issued a Writ of Habeas Corpus to Fort McHenry’s commanding officer, Major General George Cadwalader. Major General Cadwalader refused the writ and cited military orders from the President. Taney cited Major General Cadwalader for contempt and ordered the U.S. Marshal to serve an attachment order on Major General Cadwalader. The U.S. Marshal could not serve the attachment since he was denied entry to the Fort. President Lincoln refused to honor Justice Taney’s writ.[ii]

Fort McHenry served as a transfer prison throughout the war. Confederate sympathizers and prisoners of war were held at Fort McHenry before they were sent to prisons up north. In February 1861 there were 126 prisoners at the Fort. After the Battle of Gettysburg there were 6,957 prisoners at the Fort. In September 1865 there were 4 prisoners at the Fort. Only 15 prisoners died at Fort McHenry. There were 3 known executions at the camp. A Union soldier was executed for murdering an officer and another Union soldier was executed for desertion and attempting to murder civilians. A Confederate sympathizer was executed for murder two civilians. One of the Fort’s prisoners was Francis Key Howard, Francis Scott Key’s grandson.[iii]

In 1917 the U.S. Army began construction on U.S. Army General Hospital No. 2. The hospital consisted of over 100 structures that covered 40 acres of land. The staff consisted of about 200 doctors, 300 nurses, 300 medical corpsmen, and 100 civilian hospital aides. Doctors developed many new surgical techniques at Fort McHenry during World War I. The Fort also advanced occupational therapy. Many patients learned vocational skills at the Fort.

During the 1919 flu pandemic 300 patients and staff at Fort McHenry contracted the disease. Over 100 of those who contracted the disease at Fort McHenry died. The hospital closed in 1923.[iv] The War Department made Fort McHenry a National Park in 1925.

On May 15, 1942 the United States Coast Guard (USCG) began operations at Fort McHenry. The training was in port security. The USCG graduated their last class at Fort McHenry in September 1945. The USCG trained 28,053 people at Fort McHenry.[v]


[i] Chief Justice Taney wrote the infamous Dredd Scott Decision. The decision ruled that since Dred Scott was a slave, therefore not a citizen, and could not sue in a federal court.

[ii] National Park Service, Fort McHenry web site, https://www.nps.gov/fomc/learn/historyculture/the-writ-of-habeus-corpus.htm, last accessed 9/8/19.

[iii] National Park Service, Fort McHenry web site, https://www.nps.gov/fomc/learn/historyculture/the-baltimore-bastille.htm, last accessed 9/8/19.

[iv] National Park Service, Fort McHenry web site, https://www.nps.gov/fomc/learn/historyculture/world-war-i-hospital.htm, last accessed 9/8/19.

[v] National Park Service, Fort McHenry web site, https://www.nps.gov/fomc/learn/historyculture/coast-guard-training-station.htm, last accessed 9/8/19.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Bombardment of Fort McHenryThe flag that flew over Fort McHenryFort McHenry 1861
Bombardment of Fort McHenry
Bombardment of Fort McHenry | Source
The flag that flew over Fort McHenry
The flag that flew over Fort McHenry | Source
Fort McHenry 1861
Fort McHenry 1861 | Source

Birthplace of the National Anthem

In retaliation for the Americans burning York the British decided to march on Washington, DC. On August 24, 1814 the British Army under Major General Robert Ross, possibly the best general in the British Army, easily routed the Americans at Bladensburg. Anyone of significance had flew Washington ahead of the British Army. With no one to negotiate a ransom British troops entered Washington, DC, and set fire to the White House and some other public buildings. A big rainstorm limited the fire damage. The storm also hindered the British troops. There was some sporadic resistance from individual and small bands of Americans.

Besides being the American capital Washington, DC had little value. A real prize was Baltimore. Baltimore was a major seaport. The people of Baltimore knew the question was not if, but when the British would attack Baltimore. General Ross and his troops landed at North Point on September 12. This was the beginning of the “Battle for Baltimore”. The British encountered a militia unit. A sharpshooter mortally wounded General Ross. The sharpshooter may have been Private Daniel Wells or Private Henry G. McComas. These privates were also killed in the skirmish.[i] An unanswerable question is if the loss of General Ross what caused the ground invasion to run out of steam? American militia units stopped the British Army advance at Godly Wood. The British moved their fleet to support the British Army. The fleet’s major obstacle was Fort McHenry.

Major George Armistead was Fort McHenry’s commanding officer. He hoped “to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” Major Armistead received two flags the Great Garrison flag measured 30x42 feet (10x13 meters), the "storm flag," measured 17x25 feet. (5x8 meters).[ii] Major Armistead had about 1,000 troops. Other batteries were in position to support Fort McHenry.

Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane couldn’t use his heaviest ships because the waters were too shallow. Cochrane sent five bomb ketches, the rocket vessel HMS Erebus, and 10 smaller warships to bombard the fort.[iii]

While the British were preparing to bombard Fort McHenry Francis Scott Key and Colonel John Skinner approached the British fleet under a flag-of-truce. Their purpose was to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes. The British released Dr. Beans but the three men were forbidden to return to Baltimore until after the bombardment.[iv]

At 6:30 AM on September 13 the Royal Navy opened fire. They fired rockets from the HMS Erebus and mortars from the other ships. This was outside the range of Ft. McHenry’s guns. At 2 PM a British shell killed Lieutenant Clagget and wounded a few soldiers. The shell also dismounted a cannon. Three British ships moved to within firing range of Fort McHenry’s guns. The Fort McHenry guns opened fire and after about ½ an hour these British ships moved out of range. The bombardment continued until 1 AM the next morning. The British detached 1,250 men to storm Fort McHenry. The Fort McHenry, Fort Covington, and other nearby batteries opened fire on the British. After 2 hours the British troops withdrew with heavy casualties. The British continued their bombardment until 7 AM. The attack significantly damaged two buildings and slightly damaged two others.[v] One round penetrated a magazine but failed to ignite.

The bombardment killed 5 people and wounded 24. Those killed included Sergeant Clemm and Private William Williams. Private Williams was an escaped slave who joined the American army.[vi] A woman, who was carrying supplies to the troops, was also killed in the attack. The British casualties were 330 killed, wounded, or captured.

The morning after the bombardment Fort McHenry raised the Great Garrison flag. The sight of this flag over Fort McHenry inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem, “Defense of Fort McHenry”. “Defense of Fort McHenry”, as were other poems, was set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven”. The song was called “The Star-Spangled Banner”. The United States didn’t have an official national anthem until 1931. The song chosen was “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

[i] Army History.org, Battles That Saved America: North Point and Baltimore 1814 by Command Sergeant Major James Clifford, USA-Retired, July 16, 2014, https://armyhistory.org/battles-that-saved-america-north-point-and-baltimore-1814/, last accessed 9/15/19.

[ii] National Park Service, The Great Garrison Flag, https://www.nps.gov/fomc/learn/historyculture/the-great-garrison-flag.htm, last accessed 9/12/19.

[iii] Thought.com, War of 1812: Battle of Fort McHenry, by Kennedy Hickman, January 2, 2019, https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-battle-fort-mchenry-2361371, last accessed 9/15/19.

[iv] National Park Service, Francis Scott Key, https://www.nps.gov/fomc/learn/historyculture/francis-scott-key.htm, last accessed 9/15/19.

[v] Official Account of the Bombardment of Fort McHenry, letter sent from Lieutenant Colonel G. Armistead to Secretary of War James Monroe, September 24, 1814, https://amhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/pdf/TRANSCRIPT%20Official%20Account%20of%20the%20Bombardment%20of%20Fort%20McHenry.pdf, last accessed 9/14/19.

[vi] National Park Service, William Williams, https://www.nps.gov/people/william-williams.htm, last accessed 9/12/19.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Robert Sacchi

Comments

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    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 weeks ago

      Yes, it was. A great singer, such a loss.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      3 weeks ago from USA

      Those are interesting details about the anthem! Last night I ran across a traditional men's choir/band on YouTube singing the extended version of the national anthem, but Whitney Houston's rendition after 9/11 will nearly give you chills her voice I so stunningly perfect for this song.

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 weeks ago

      I don't know about heated contention. I learned in my high school class there was some opposition since the tune was from an old drinking song. I read a pre-1931 book that talked about there was no official national anthem but here were some de facto national anthems, among them "America the Beautiful".

      One of the stanza has been retired because it was no longer consistent with American policy.

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      3 weeks ago from USA

      This is a terrific description of how we acquired the anthem. I wasn't aware that we waited until 1931 to settle on one! I've heard the song go on and on with extra stanzas and figured that must hark back to the original poem somehow. It's a hard song to sing well given all those high notes. I'd love to visit here since it's not that far from where I live and my family has exhausted all the nearby historical sites over the decades. I wonder if there were any other songs in heated contention for the national anthem?

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 weeks ago

      Thank you both for reading of commenting,

      Peggy Woods - Yes, Houston is important to U.S. space history.

      Mary Norton - These historic places are good for learning what isn't taught in history books.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      3 weeks ago from Ontario, Canada

      This is a very good lesson on U.S. history. It is interesting how places change in importance as time goes on. Another point is the creativity that comes out of a crisis. I love history and I wish teachers can make it more interesting.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      3 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      I agree, Robert. There is much history in many parts of our country including where most of us live. Histories may be short or long, but almost always interesting.

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 weeks ago

      Thank you all for reading and commenting.

      Pamela Oglesby - In the peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War the document identifies King George as being the king of France among other places.

      Elijah A. Alexander Jr. glad you found it of some interest.

      Peggy Woods there is also a lot of history around your parts as well. You're about an 8 hour drive from New Orleans, the other famous battle site of the War of 1812.

      Liz Westwood - Yes it is odd that it took that long to decide on a national anthem. Then again when I was at a dinning-in we had some RAF personnel in attendance. Someone suggested the RAF sing their service song. The RAF didn't have one. That was in 1976. I wonder if the RAF remedied that situation.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      3 weeks ago from UK

      This is a fascinating article. You give a lot of information about the fort. I did not realise that the National Anthem only goes back to 1931.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      3 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      There is so much history on our east coast and you have certainly filled in some historic details regarding Fort McHenry and the inspiration behind our national anthem. Thanks!

    • The0NatureBoy profile image

      Elijah A Alexander Jr 

      4 weeks ago from Washington DC

      Thanks for the history lesson, Robert, Although I was in Vietnam war has never been of any interest to me so I never sought what was the circumstances behind the Anthem. You did a superb job with the explanation.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      This is a very well-written article about Fort McHenry. I recently watched a Netflix show called "Turn", which is a series about the spy ring during the Revolutionary War. The Brits really did not want to give up control of any area of the US. Now here they are shooting at the fort about 50+ years after the end of the war.

      The fort sure hed strong during that attack you described. I would like to visist this fort as it sounds so interesting Thank you for this information.

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