O Say Can You See Fort McHenry

Fort McHenry, Baltimore, MD

We’re spending the summer in the United States this year!  One 8-hour flight and a few 4 a.m. wake-up calls later (thank you 6-hour time change), we’re getting settled here and operational.  As one of our first stops, we visited the ‘Birthplace of the Star-Spangled Banner,’ Fort McHenry.  Fort McHenry is located in Baltimore, Maryland.  Built in 1798, the star-shaped fort came to prominence in the War of 1812.

Often referred to as the Second American Revolution, the War of 1812 (1812-1815) again opposed the United States, now a nation, against the British Empire.  During the Battle of Baltimore in 1814, Frances Scott Key, detained aboard a British truce vessel, watched British forces attack Fort McHenry as part of their plan to capture Baltimore.  The fort resisted the British bombardment which lasted throughout the night from 13-14 September 1814.  “By the dawn’s early light” Keyes saw the American flag still flying and was inspired to write the Star Spangled Banner, the American National anthem guaranteeing the Fort its place in history. Today, the Fort now designated a “National Monument and Historic Shrine,” the only such place in the US, watches over a peaceful harbor and local boaters.

Cannon Looking out from the Star Fort

You can visit the Fort by water taxi from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor or by car.  We chose to drive to the Fort.  Free parking is available for visitors within the park.  All visitors must start their visit at the Visitor Center.  The Center still feels brand new; it was inaugurated in 2011 in preparation for the bicentennial of the War of 1812.  Adult visitors pay $7, children under 15 are free.  (The pass is good for a week as long as you keep your receipt.)  A gift shop and bathroom facilities are also available here.  Once inside, you can watch “The Battle of Fort McHenry,” a  presentation/movie which attempts to explain the Fort’s role in the War of 1812 and the British Invasion of Maryland in as succinct and clear a form as possible.  The brief introduction draws to a close with Francis Scott Key’s words and the screen lifting to reveal the American flag still flying over the Fort today.  At this point, you can either walk to the fort which sits directly behind the center or peruse the displays inside.  You can learn about the history of the Star Spangled Banner from its inspiration during the battle through its official designation as the US National Anthem years later in 1931.  You can also listen to a variety of ‘covers’ of the Anthem.  I think this was the girls favorite part.  Exhibits also cover the War of 1812 and the history of the fort through the ages.  Depending on how much time you want to spend looking at the exhibits, you could be on to the Fort in anywhere from 10-25 minutes.  Once you leave the Visitor’s Center there is no more shade!  Bring a hat, sunglasses and water with you.  It was ungodly hot while we were visiting and keeping the girls hydrated was an issue for us.

The American Flag

Flags are very much a part of the American landscape.  In comparison to France where flag displays seem to be limited to government buildings and (unfortunately) far right party rallies, Americans of all political persuasions fly their flag.  The first thing we saw upon exiting the Customs/Immigration section of the Philadelphia airport was an immense American flag hanging in the International Arrival hall.  Simply driving to the fort, we passed American flags hanging from highway bridges, displayed in front of people’s homes and decorating innumerable businesses.

Fort Barracks

The flag that Francis Scott Key saw is now on display in the Smithsonian Institute.  In 1813, a year after the war’s beginning,  Lt. Col. George Armistead ordered two flags for the fort from Mary Pickersgill, a local Baltimore flag maker.  The larger of the two flags and the one flown defiantly during the British bombardment measured 30 by 42 feet (9.1 by 13 m).  A replica of this flag is still flown at the park from time to time.  Park Rangers are steeped not only in the history of the fort but of the American flag and national anthem as well.  Flag programs are part of the daily park activity schedule.  We were fortunate enough to listen to a Ranger talk about the battle and the flag during our visit to the fort.  When a new American flag is designed, for example when Alaska joined the Union thus adding a star to the flag, it is first flown at Fort McHenry.  We also encountered costumed reenactors within the Fort who were more than happy to talk about life in the fort and in Baltimore during the war.Exhibits are also located in the fort barracks.  You can learn about the lives of both officers and enlisted men during the War of 1812.  Other rooms cover the fort’s role as a prison during the Civil War, a hospital during WWI, and as a Coast Guard base in WWII.  While these exhibits are worth briefly looking at (the girls enjoyed the soldier’s quarters more than I did), it’s the Ranger talks and reenactors who truly bring the fort and its history to life.  Talks and walks occur regularly throughout the day and Rangers are often on hand for general questions outside of their talks.  You can also walk the entire star-shaped fort and enjoy the harbor views.  Cannon reflect the different wars and eras of the fort’s history.  You can also visit the powder magazine and learn more about how ammunition was stored at the fort.

For those visiting with children, your experience will depend on their ages.  Older school-age children can work towards a Junior Ranger badge and complete activities while visiting the fort.  Smaller children risk being bored.  To be honest, Laura and Elise tolerated our visit.  They had moments of fun (the soldiers display and running around the cannons for example) but the visit is not designed for toddlers and pre-schoolers (your baby won’t care one way or the other).  Depending on your speed and interest, plan on spending around 1.5-2 hours at the fort.

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