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Welcome to the second of the Park Avenue group's features on the National Parks. Today's feature is by JenS about Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.


When our nation got fed up with the press-ganging of our sailors by the British Navy and declared war on England in 1812, we had forts ready to defend our coastal cities. One of the most famous is Fort McHenry which sits at the south side of the entrance to Baltimore Harbor.  And it’s famous because of a poet and an English drinking song.

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I’ve been involved with a Civil War re-enacting group for most of my married life (going on 25 years). My husband plays Eb coronet with the   Band of the California Battalion  here in So Cal, and I got to go on a summer road tour with the band. So why I am going to share a National Historical Site associated with the War of 1812, located on the East Coast with you all? For the same reason we all stand to begin sporting events—The Star Spangled Banner.

The Band begins every performance by playing an arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner as it was played for President Lincoln’s inauguration, and the director gives a short spiel about the writing of the poem that became our anthem.  We were excited to get the chance to visit the actual site of it all.

Somehow we managed to leave a California enjoying prolonged spring-like temperatures and landed in the middle of a record breaking heat wave in Baltimore. Thanks Climate Change.  To escape the heat and humidity we got tickets for the Inner Harbor Water Ferry and started making our way around the various landings. Fort McHenry can be reached by road, but it was a fantastic trip to come in by the Water Ferry, and gave us a better feeling for its original purpose-- to defend the City of Baltimore from naval attack. An earthen fort—Fort Whetstone-- had been built during the Revolutionary War in case the British attacked Baltimore, but never saw hostile action.  In 1794 the federal government authorized a series of forts to protect the coast and Fort McHenry was constructed on the site and named after the second Secretary of War.  
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Now, for our poet and his inspiration…In August of 1814 the British had burned Washington DC and were moving against Baltimore.  Dr. William Beanes had stayed in his nearby town of Upper Marlboro when the invading British came through. The doctor even sold the soldiers supplies and treated some of their wounded. When he and others detained some British stragglers that were looting homes, the British commander took the doctor  prisoner and threatened to hang him for treason (because the good doctor was born in Scotland and the British general considered him British).  Francis Scott Key, local lawyer and good friend of the doctor, was sent with the American negotiator with letters of support from the British soldiers the doctor had helped and the British General Ross agreed to release Dr. Beanes.  BUT the general would not let the three Americans return to Baltimore until after his attack fearing they would reveal the British plans.  So there they sat in their own boat, under guard by British Marines, and watched the British fleet bombard Fort McHenry on the evening of September 13, 1814. And knowing the words to our national anthem, we all know how that turned out.

Key quickly wrote a poem "Defense of Fort McHenry" which his brother-in-law took to a printer with the note at the bottom "Tune: To Anacreon in Heaven". It seems that Key was familiar with a particular English drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven” because he had set another poem to the tune, and even appropriated some of those lines to use in the new poem. “To Anacreon in Heaven” is originally a drinking song written by a gentleman’s club in London—The Anacreontic Society—with the recurring line:  to intwine the myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.


Now I don’t know about you, but I find it deliciously ironic that our National Anthem is set to a bawdy drinking song.  

The “star spangled banner” that Key saw by dawn’s early light had been specially commissioned  from Mary Pickersgill, a flag maker in Baltimore. She was asked to make the biggest garrison flag ever flown,  measuring 30’ x 42’. It was made of wool and had 15 stars and 15 stripes, for the 15 states in the union at that time.  This is the flag that is now on display at the Smithsonian. We were fortunate to be able to see the flag when it was still exposed at 15 minute intervals in the rotunda of the museum.  I haven’t been to Washington DC since the restoration of the flag was completed, but I understand it is inside a glass room and laying flat instead.  I also read that the main contaminant that had to be removed from the flag was denim fibers. We are a blue jean nation.
Star Spangled Banner exhibit

Apart from the exceptional part in American history played out here, my favorite part of the entire monument is the fort itself.  
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Visitors are able to walk along the battlements of the star fort, go inside some of the magazine and touch the cannons and stacked munitions.
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The guns are enormous, as are the cannon balls. I stood there, looking out over the water and imagined all the British ships flinging fire and destruction onto the grounds, and brave Americans running shot and powder from the magazines out to the guns all night long.
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 Call me Boehner, but I get teary eyed and choked up considering the bravery and dedication offered up by our soldiers.  If Fort McHenry had fallen, Baltimore would have been burned to the ground as was the capitol a few days before. Maybe we’d be singing “God Save our Gracious Queen” instead of “The Star Spangled Banner”.

During our visit there were re-enactors sweltering in their wool jackets and breeches showing how the big guns worked. There were some other living history volunteers under a tent that I didn’t get to see because our youngest chose to hide deep inside a powder room to escape the heat and we had to enlist the park ranger to find him.
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 Rooms in the fort building have various exhibits about the life and times of the fort with more re-enactors simulating barrack life. My husband says these were very fine musicians, playing historically accurate tunes on fifes and simple drums. I understand that every May area school kids are invited to help make a living Star Spangled Banner on one of the lawns.

Many times the physical historical part of a monument has been lost to time and neglect. We get a marker or an interpretive center to show how and where things used to be.  But here, the fort itself has been put to many military uses—as a Civil War prison, a WWI army hospital, as a Coast Guard training facility, so the land itself has not been developed as is the case with many civil war battlefield sites.

At the time of our visit, the visitor center was small, cramped and inadequate. They have since razed that poor building and finished the new center which coincidentally opens today, March 3. But I’m hoping the Park Service will include the film we saw. It is a 20 minute film using actors to describe the tribulations of Dr. Beanes and his friend Mr. Key.  It felt somewhat like the social studies films we used to watch (or nap through) in school and I was prepared to be bored. But it was actually fascinating and informative. When the film ended and the curtains pulled back so we could see the new flag that flies over the fort, I actually got choked up.   It’s easy to demonize the other side for their ideology, but really, all we all want is what’s best for our country, even if we don’t agree what that is. And to see the sun shining on that great huge flag, flapping over the bright green grass, it was very easy to be proud to be an American.
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You can visit the NPS page here: NPS Fort McHenry


Thanks for reading and thanks to JenS for contributing this.

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Next week's feature will be by Phoenix Rising on Capitol Reef National Park. So join us again each Thursday at 11:30am ET/8:30am PT for our park features.

Originally posted to Park Avenue on Thu Mar 03, 2011 at 08:30 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for the background (7+ / 0-)

    I'd always heard the story that Key was trying to secure the release of a doctor, but had never heard the backstory of why and how the doctor had been taken in the first place.

    Several of forts in the old coastal network of forts that provided the defense for the U.S. in the early years are now protected by the Park Service, Fort McHenry chief among them, but Fort Jefferson, Fort Sumter, Fort Caroline, Fort Pulaski, etc. They are great treasures looking back at how America was defended in the War of 1812 and the Civil War.

    "So it was OK to waterboard a guy over 80 times but God forbid the guy who could understand what that prick was saying has a boyfriend."--Jon Stewart

    by craigkg on Thu Mar 03, 2011 at 08:48:20 AM PST

    •  Those are not War of 1812 guns (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      rb608

      There is one War of 1812 cannon outside the fort.  The cannons then were quite small.  The big guns were from the Civil War to the 1880's.  The date is marked at the end of each barrel.  

      I live in Baltimore just a few miles away, in Mount Washington.  A few years ago I took a class on Baltimore in the Civil War, and the professor said that Mount Washington was pro-slavery pro-secession.  Many of the residents then owned slaves.  One day the commander at Fort McHenry invited the ladies from Mount Washington to the fort for tea.  He then showed them the cannons, told the ladies that his guns could reach all the way to Mount Washington and they should go home and tell their husbands not to make any trouble.  Ironically, a Confederate raiding party in 1864 burned down Mount Washington, so our oldest home was built after the war.

      I haven't been to Fort McHenry since the new visitors center was built.  I disagree with you about the film.  They've had the same film for at least 30 years, I'm quite sick of it and would hope they make a new one!

      "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

      by Navy Vet Terp on Thu Mar 03, 2011 at 05:25:46 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Well, I've only seen it once (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Navy Vet Terp, rb608

        Maybe it's like the films in the Disneyland Main Street or America the Beautiful--been there, seen that! (and both of them are gone now)  
        For us, it was new although definitely old fashioned, just like high school history class.
        I did read about the Civil War era and how the fort was used to persuade Marylanders to stay Union, but for me the fascinating part was the shelling by the British, the flag and the anthem.
        The East Coast is fortunate to have so much American history available to visit.

        The road to excess leads to the palace of Wisdom, I must not have excessed enough

        by JenS on Thu Mar 03, 2011 at 06:39:37 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Hope you made it to Antietam (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          rb608

          During your visit to our state.  Probably our best preserved Civil War battlefield, and arguably the most critical battle of the war.

          "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

          by Navy Vet Terp on Thu Mar 03, 2011 at 06:46:14 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  We did! (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Navy Vet Terp, rb608

            We were privileged to hear a talk by a decendent of one of Antietam's fallen who became a NPS ranger because of his family history. Very moving.

            The road to excess leads to the palace of Wisdom, I must not have excessed enough

            by JenS on Thu Mar 03, 2011 at 07:12:38 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  According to this morning's article (0+ / 0-)

              in the Baltimore Sun, hopefully linked  here, they do have a new movie.  (I'm having linking issues since they changed the format).

              "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

              by Navy Vet Terp on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 05:58:11 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  Ha! I've linking issues beat (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Navy Vet Terp

                I can't "post a comment" STILL. I have to change computers and browsers.  
                RE: the movie. I like that they kept the ending dramatic sweeping the curtains aside to see the flag on the hilltop. That was the most emotional part for me.

                The road to excess leads to the palace of Wisdom, I must not have excessed enough

                by JenS on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 10:19:48 AM PST

                [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks Jen! (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    craigkg, rb608, JenS, arizonablue

    I too, knew Key was aboard the ship working for a friend's release, didn't know 'The rest of the story".

    I've visited a few ACW battlefields;  Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain and Kennesaw Mountain.  The quiet contemplation of what these men and boys endured, the carnage they must have seen and their dedication to their cause is overwhelming.  

    Not sure if it's really appropriate to turn what America was about 150 years ago into the latest emporium for cheap Chinese goods made with slave labor.......

  •  We've visited various battlefield sites (5+ / 0-)

    and I always get choked up thinking about the many individual acts of bravery that we will never know about. Not to mention the tragedy of misunderstandings that lead to war in the first place.
    The NPS does a great job of telling the stories for us. We were at Antietam this past summer also, and the ranger who gave the battlefield talk was a great-(great?)-grandson of one of the fallen there. It was very moving to have him talk about his family's sacrifice in such a personal way.  That is part of the sorrow of seeing Wal-Mart on the old battlefields.  We lose our history and its lessons and then we're doomed to repeat the mistakes.  Let the people see just what "Second Amendment remedies" really are about and why no one should even consider letting matters go that far.

    The road to excess leads to the palace of Wisdom, I must not have excessed enough

    by JenS on Thu Mar 03, 2011 at 11:08:47 AM PST

  •  The flag is back on display (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    markdd, rb608, birdbrain64, JenS, arizonablue

    at the National Museum of American History on the National Mall in Washington. I saw it there on one of my last trips to DC for a professional meeting, I can't remember whether it was last August or a year ago February. Regrettably, they don't allow photography in the exhibit, so I don't have pictures to share, though I did have my camera with me on that visit.

    It's not exactly in a "glass room," but rather a large glass-fronted viewing space. It's not displayed flat, but on a slant, so people can see the size of the thing as it stretches upward into the gloom (they keep the lights low to preserve the colors and the fabric). You can also see some of the battle damage and places where previous repairs have been undone.

    The exhibit itself is pretty cool. There are plenty of other associated artifacts on display along with the flag, including the original bag in which it was stored, which is itself a bit of a sewing/engineering feat, considering the size of the flag itself.

    And of course, the museum itself is well worth a visit for, among other things, the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Archie and Edith's chairs from All in the Family, the "curtain" dress that Carol Burnett wore in her "The Wind Done Gone" skit, and much, much more. I was a little disappointed with Julia Child's kitchen--I think they need to give it more space and reconfigure the way it's set up. But the Massachusetts house exhibit is way cool.

    •  Dim recollections if it was that Museum (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      birdbrain64

      or the one next door.  I entered from the street side, one floor below the mall level.  It was 1979, There was a 10th anniversary display about Sesame Street (OMG it's that old??).  But what really floored me was when I made a detour into the men's room and found that most of the free space had been turned over to a history of plumbing. hehehehe

  •  Beautiful diary (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    markdd, rb608, birdbrain64

    and beautifully written.

    Thank you so much.

  •  I visited the Fort a few years ago, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rb608, birdbrain64

    It truly is amazing.

    I walked the national; mall and saw all the monuments there...  Fort McHenry was better.

    Thank you for an excellent diary!

    GOP = "We spent a ton of money and now we want You to pay it back.... because well... You ARE the little people..And we don't pay for anything.

    by Nebraskablue on Thu Mar 03, 2011 at 05:10:34 PM PST

  •  Kudos for a great write-up (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Navy Vet Terp, JenS

    As a Baltimore native, I'm impressed with how well you described our little gem.  I don't visit as often as I could, but your diary is a fine tribute.

    The only local knowledge I'd add is that the location is an excellent place for flying kites.  It's the most wide open space with unobstructed breezes in the city.

    You can't spell CRAZY without R-AZ.

    by rb608 on Thu Mar 03, 2011 at 05:23:27 PM PST

    •  The breeze was my FAVORITE part of the day (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      rb608

      We were sweltering every day on the East Coast, Baltimore, Cape May and NYC. Then we went to Gettysburg and sweltered in wool and corsets.

      The road to excess leads to the palace of Wisdom, I must not have excessed enough

      by JenS on Thu Mar 03, 2011 at 06:41:56 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Our National Anthem (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rb608, JenS

    Every once in a while you hear someone proposing we change our National Anthem.  Usually two big reasons are cited:  One, that the existing song is too hard to sing, and the other, that it's tune is based off an old English drinking song.

    The second objection always puzzled me.  After all, if a bunch of drunken Englishmen can sing the tune, why can't we...?

    "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

    by quarkstomper on Thu Mar 03, 2011 at 05:23:28 PM PST

    •  It's the lyrics (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      rb608

      of the old drinking song! Drunken Englishmen, you know.

      The road to excess leads to the palace of Wisdom, I must not have excessed enough

      by JenS on Thu Mar 03, 2011 at 06:42:59 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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