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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.