Virginia 2015: Fort McHenry


Day 13: Friday, October 16, 2015

We all know the Star Spangled Banner, and if you are anything like me, you have sung it (badly) a million times, but have you ever thought about the song and what it represents?

The last stop on my whirlwind Virginia tour, before I flew home from the Baltimore airport was a brief stop at Fort McHenry, in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Fort McHenry

Fort McHenry

I headed out in the mid-morning from Chincoteague Island, and had about a three hour drive to reach Baltimore. I had a quick lunch, and that left me with just about an hour to visit the fort before I needed to head to the airport for the 5 pm flight.

Fort McHenry was built in 1798, the second fort at the site to defend Baltimore Harbor. It is a five point star shaped fort, an effective defense because any two points of the star can create a crossfire for attackers arriving by sea. It also has a dry moat to prevent attack by land. It is named after James McHenry, a physician who served as an aide to Washington during the Revolutionary War. He also was one of several foreign-born signers of the Constitution, while a member of the Continental Congress. He served as the Secretary of War for both the Washington and John Adams administrations.

The outside of the fort.

The outside of the fort.

During the War of 1812, on September 13, 1814 at 6:00 am, British warships began a 25 hour bombardment of the fort. Due to the defense provided by 22 ships the Americans had sunk in the harbor, the British could not continue further up the river, and very little damage was done on either side of the battle. Three soldiers and one civilian woman were killed in the fort; she was carrying supplies to the troops when she was cut in half by a bomb – 24 Americans were wounded. One British ship sustained light damage from cannon fire, and only one man was wounded.

The Entrance at Fort McHenry

The Entrance at Fort McHenry

The British gave up when they saw that their bombardment wasn’t having its desired effect – and they had that pesky problem of running out of ammunition… And here’s where the Star Spangled Banner comes in… Francis Scott Key, the author of the Star Spangled Banner, had been sitting on a ship behind the British line; he had been speaking with the British commanders before the bombardment began in order to get a prisoner exchange going. After they wrapped up their conversation, the British made Key and his colleague stay behind the British line until the battle ended.

When the smoke cleared the next day, Key looked up to see if the flag was still there, and was so moved to see it that he wrote a poem that he named Defence of Fort M’Henry. It was later set to music and became known as the Star Spangled Banner. Interestingly, although it was a popular patriotic song, it didn’t become our national anthem for another hundred plus years, in 1931.

The Powder Magazine and Fort Building.

The Powder Magazine and Fort Building.

After the Battle of Baltimore, Fort McHenry remained an active fort through World War II – used as a prison during the Civil War, and by the Army as a hospital for troops returning from the front in World War I. It transitioned to a Coast Guard Fort in World War II.

It became a National Park in 1925, but in 1939 was re-designated as a National Monument and Historic Shrine – it is the only site within the system to carry this double designation.

It is also the place where all newly designed American flags are flown first – the first 49 and 50 star flags are still located at the site.

The fort is preserved to look as it did during the War of 1812, and while I didn’t have a lot of time, I was able to explore the fort. It is hard to see the star shape from the ground, but it is very apparent in aerial photos. I was able to check out the living quarters, various store rooms, and the powder magazine, which had sustained a direct hit by a bomb during the battle – either it was a dud or the rain extinguished the fuse!

The Powder Magazine at Fort McHenry

The Powder Magazine at Fort McHenry

I also went up to the walls of the fort, to look out over the harbor. It is a little tough to imagine what the view would have been like over 200 years ago, as there is all sorts of industry and tall buildings on the other side of the harbor now.

The view from the top of Fort McHenry

The view from the top of Fort McHenry

I certainly enjoyed seeing such an integral part of our nation’s history!

But too soon, it was time to make our way back to the airport, return the car, and fly home. I had such a great time seeing so many historic sites on the trip, but it was nice to come home…

Driving Distance for Day 13: 181 miles – Chincoteague Island, VA – Fort McHenry – Baltimore Airport

Entrance Fee:  $10 per person or free if you have a National Parks Pass.

For the night: My own bed!

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