Sunday, September 7, 2014

Our Visit to The Star Spangled Banner and Fort McHenry

Our so-called "American History Grand Tour" began with a visit to Fort McHenry in Baltimore Maryland.  It was a perfect first stop for us.  Geographically, it was about halfway between home and our hotel in Hagerstown, Maryland, but it provided a historic bridge for Luke.  He had studied the War of 1812 in the spring, and the bulk of our trip was going to plunge us into the Civil War.  Fort McHenry served as a Union artillery training site during the Civil War.  It was also used as a prison during the Civil War, housing Confederate soldiers and sympathizers, including Francis Key Howard, the grandson of Francis Scott Key, witness to the Battle of Baltimore and author of what would become the American National Anthem.   Our tour began with the museum at the Visitor's Center.

 A 10-minute film entitled "The Battle of Fort McHenry" is shown every half hour.


By September 1814, the War of 1812 had been raging on for over two years.  Britain was not taking the lost of the American colonies gracefully, and the United States found itself being tested.  By the summer of 1814, the British had defeated Napoleon in France and reassigned these troops to fight in the United States and began their assault on the Chesapeake Bay.  In August 1814, they set the city of Washington, DC on fire, burning all of the public buildings.  After decimating the city, they began to march and sail to Baltimore, Maryland.   Two hundred miles inland, home to shipping merchants and clippers, Baltimore was a coveted city; if they British controlled Baltimore, they could effectively cut the nation in half.  In addition, the Baltimore based clippers were laying siege to the British ships.  Privateers raid merchant ships, raising the prices of goods; a brigade of these ships blockaded London.  As they worked their way north to Baltimore, the angry British gave the upstart Americans an ultimatum: relinquish the city, or every building would be burned to the ground. 

The American city, however, was not going down without a fight.  Fort Whetstone, which had guarded Baltimore during the American Revolution, was replaced by Fort McHenry, a new star-shaped fort perched on the banks of the Patapsco River.  This new fort provided a defense on five sides, not just the waterfront.  General George Armistad defiantly orders a flag large enough to be seen by the British; the largest American flag in the country - 30 feet long by 42 feet wide and crafted of (ironically) British wool by Baltimore seamstress Mary Pickersgill- is raised over the fort and can be seen by the British fleet eight miles away in the Chesapeake Bay.  The stage is set, and on September 10, the city settles in for a fight. On September 12, 1814, the British begin their assault in the area around Baltimore.  An American sniper kills British commanding officer Major General Robert Ross, sending the troops advancing on North Point into a tailspin.  Instead of being an assault on both sides, it is now up to the British navy to take the city by sea.

With daybreak on September 13 comes the opening shots.  The British have sailed up through the Chesapeake Bay and are within two miles of the city.   They unleash 150 pound canon balls on the fort, and the bombardment at Fort McHenry has begun. There is nothing the Americans can do but wait for the ships to come closer - they remain out of the American cannonade's range.  It rages on through the day, and into the night, and can be heard not only 40 miles away in Washington but 100 miles away in Philadelphia.  Rain begins to fall, yet the fight rages on.  Two canonballs strike the fort; one kills a gun commander and wounds several soldiers; the other is a direct hit on the fort's main powder magazine, which houses the 250 thousand pounds of powder to supply both the fort and the soldiers defending the outskirts of the city  The Americans are on the receiving end of a bit of luck; the bomb does not ignite the powder.  The British continue fighting into the night, through severe thunderstorms complete with lightning and pouring rain.  An order passes around to the civilians in Baltimore: extinguish all candles and lanterns so the British cannot find buildings to aim towards. Those remaining in the city of Baltimore continue their overnight vigil from attic windows and rooftops; who will prevail?  In deference to the weather, a the large flag is taken down and a smaller "storm flag" is raised over the fort, and the Americans begin to counter the shelling.

Through the night, despite the storm, the battle rages. The British officers attempting to overtake Hampstead Hill send a flotilla of British barges toward the west side of the fort, but the Americans are not distracted.  They fight off the diversion, and in the waning hours of darkness, what remains of the flotilla retreats.  Dawn breaks, and the British continue the bombardment.  Eventually, the British realize they are running out of ammunition, and a cease fire order is given around 7:30 am.  In the smoky mist, the British weigh anchor and turn towards the ocean.  Major Armistad quickly lowers the storm flag, and the battle flag is re-run up the pole, mocking the British the entire way out to sea.

Beyond the fighting in the Chesapeake Bay - eight miles out - is an American truce vessel.  A Georgetown lawyer named Francis Scott Key went there to negotiate the release of a friend, and is trapped aboard the ship when the battle begins.  He paces the deck through the night; like the citizens on land, he strains to see what flag was flying above the fort.  The sounds of the continued fire fight reassure him -- it means the Americans have not been defeated.  When dawn breaks on the morning of September 14, the overcast skies and thick smoke keep him from seeing the flag.   For three more hours, he watches and waits, until the sounds of war fade and silence settles over Baltimore harbor.  But what flag flies?

The smoke clears and Key continues to anxiously peer upriver.  He finally sights Armistead's flag -- that star spangled banner -- waving triumphantly over the city.

Prior to the battle, Key's patriotic feelings could be described as lukewarm at best.  Having weathered the trial, Key is overcome with emotion and pulls a letter and pen from his pocket.  He writes a few lines of verse.


At this point, the background music of the film begins to swell.  The projection screen is raised, showing a wall of windows, and this image emerges:

Because we had a stroller and smaller children we were holding so they could see, we had stood in the back of the theater.  As the National Anthem began to play, the visitors rose, and at the end of the film, a Park Ranger invited us to tour the fort itself, as well as to attend a short seminar about the flag.

We headed outside to the lawn for the presentation.  The ranger shared with us a number of facts about the flag in the early 19th century:
  • In 1814, there were now 15 states.  The flag that flew atop Fort McHenry had 15 stars and 15 stripes.  For a flag to reach 30 feet long, the stripes were still two feet wide.  By 1817, there were now 20 states, and the more regular-sized flags were in danger of their stripes being reduced almost to pinstripes.  In 1818, President Monroe signed the law that created the flag design the United States still uses today: 13 alternating red and white stripes, to signify the 13 original colonies, and a field of blue with a star for every state in the nation.   (He also asked who knew when were the last stars were added. The answer: 1959, when Alaska and Hawaii joined the country.) 
  • Ironically, the flag that flew over the fort during the battle was made from British wool.  The American cotton industry hadn't yet reached anywhere near its antebellum peak, so British wool was more prevalent in the north than cotton.
  • Armistead's wool flag weighed 42 pounds (about 19kg). The flag used in the presentation was made of nylon.  The original flag was lighter than the reproduction, due to it's looser weave; the nylon flag weighed 60 pounds (over 27 kg).
  • The flag was made with appliqued stars.  Each white star was applied to the face, and then the blue backing was carefully snipped away.
  • Armistead's family kept the flag after the war.  Eventually, they donated it to the Smithsonian Institution. Caretakers there have repaired it and placed it on display.  We saw it when we visited last winter.
  • On Pearl Harbor Day (December 7th), the flag that flew over Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack is flown from Fort McHenry.  As time has gone on, the end frayed and was trimmed so many times that it became illegal to fly it. The options were to either dispose of it properly (burning) or to repair it.  No one was willing to let it be destroyed if it could be repaired, so the end was reconstructed.  When the flag is flying, you can't see the mending, but up close, you can see where the flag has had several inches sewn back on.  This ranger was particularly proud of the ladies who restored that particular flag - one of them was his wife.
Then they pulled the flag out and the group unraveled it.  It was a decent sized group, and the wind was very calm.  The ranger related a story when the garrison flag needed to come down and nearly everyone had left -- there were only a handful of rangers around.   They got it down, rolled and stowed, missing dropping an end to the ground by less than an inch.  Whew!

After everyone got a firm grasp of the edges, he said, "Yeah, go all know what you want to do...on the count of three..." and counted.  After a few moments, everyone had the "must wave the flag" impulse under control and he continued on.

 You can see how wide the stripes are - bigger than an adult - in order to reach Armistead's grand proportions!

Afterward, we walked up to the fort itself, and were able to explore.  We saw the magazines, the quarters, and the Civil War prisoner exchange house.  We also got to walk up along the ramparts (what a view!) and then below in the earthworks that protected the soldiers.

Each of us had a favorite part.  Jude liked the cannon in the museum, while Luke and Matthew enjoyed exploring the magazines.  Celia liked being part of the flag unfurling.  My favorite was when the Star Spangled Banner was revealed and everyone stood in near-unison for the National Anthem.  From where I stood, I could see elderly men remove their veterans' caps and stand as straight as they did when they were enlisted; next to them stood grandsons who were clearly Boy Scouts; I looked over and saw Luke shift Damien on his other hip, then guide Damien's right hand into place over his heart. It's very difficult to not be affected with a patriotic pride when visiting the sites that are part of the National Parks system, and this was a perfect day trip to start our history tour. 

If you go:

Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine is operated by the National Park Service.  Operating hours are seasonal, with Summer Hours in place from Memorial Day until September.  Unlike most parks, the grounds are not open until dusk and close about an hour after the fort and visitors' center.  There is an admission fee of $7 for all visitors 16 and older; this gives you a seven-day pass.  Annual and Interpark Passes are available; accredited schools may apply for a fee waiver.  Group programs are available but require advance notice.   Although we did not compete the activity, Fort McHenry NM participates in the NPS Junior Ranger program.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing with us on Pintastic Pintesesting Party Link up. So much history in this lesson.


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