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Special Feature: The site of Fort McHenry, a United States military post, important during the War of 1812. The successful defense of this fort against a British attack, September 13-14, 1814, inspired Francis Scott Key to write the "Star Spangled Banner."

Fort McHenry
Fort McHenry as seen through the sally port.

FORT McHENRY NATIONAL PARK, bordering the busy water front of Baltimore, Md., was established by act of Congress approved March 3, 1925. It contains 47 acres, approximately 5 of which are covered by the fort.

During the American Revolution Baltimore was an important naval center and in the spring of 1776 a battery of 18 guns was erected on Whetstone Point to guard the entrance to its harbor. This was the beginning of Fort McHenry. However, during the 1790's, the depredations of Algerian corsairs and French interference with American commerce led Congress to authorize the construction of six frigates and the purchase of merchant vessels suitable for conversion into men-of-war. When in 1794 the Government began a general program of fortification for the defense of our coast, the battery at Whetstone was offered by the city of Baltimore to the Federal Government "as a fort, or an arsenal for public defense." Eight warships were built or outfitted in Baltimore, including the famous frigate Constellation, launched in 1797. Realizing the importance of proper protection for this important work, Baltimoreans urged the erection of a stronger fort. When told that the Federal Government could not expend more than $20,000 for this purpose, they raised funds to complete the present star fort, with walls 35 feet thick. It was named for Col. James McHenry, of Baltimore, who had been an aide to General Washington during the Revolution and was Secretary of War during the years 1796-1800.

Because of its advantageous location, Baltimore dominated the American trade with the West Indies, and developed a profitable commerce with southern Europe. When the War of 1812 was declared, one-third of the vessels in the United States Navy had been built in Baltimore and a large proportion of American exports was being carried in Baltimore bottoms. On the call from Congress for privateers, the shipowners armed their swift sailing vessels and sent them out against the enemy. In an attempt to keep these privateers from sailing, the British blockaded the Chesapeake and in April 1813 they sent their fleet of 15 vessels into the Patapsco River. The militia was ordered out and the people of Baltimore hastily subscribed another $500,000 to be used in strengthening the armament of Fort McHenry and building earthworks around the city. Seeing these evidences of preparedness, the British did not risk an attack until their fleet in the Chesapeake was heavily reenforced in the summer of 1814.

After capturing and burning the city of Washington, the British fleet of more than 50 sail came into the Patapsco during the evening of September 11, 1814. They planned a combined attack against the city by land and water. Their army was debarked back of North Point, while their bombing fleet moved up to force the narrow channel near Fort McHenry. Early in the afternoon of September 12 the Baltimore Brigade met the enemy on the North Point Road. Here the British General, Sir Robert Ross, was killed, and the veteran army, composed largely of Wellington's Invincibles, and of more than twice the strength of the American force, was held at bay for nearly 2 hours. Having well performed its mission of delaying the enemy, the Baltimore Brigade fell back for the more immediate defense of the city. The British Army then advanced to within 1 mile of the American earthworks, there to wait for its fleet to foree its way past Fort McHenry.

While the land attack of the British was being checked, Maj. George W. Armistead, in command of Fort McHenry, with a force of 1,000 men was awaiting the attack of the British fleet. On the morning of September 13, the enemy fleet moved up the Patapsco in an attempt to push its way past Fort McHenry. In addition to innumerable round shot and rockets, the British hurled more than 1,500 bombs weighing about 250 pounds each into the fort, but failed to create the havoc they had expected. The bombardment lasted continuously for more than 25 hours. The critical point of the struggle came at about 1 o'clock on the morning of September 14, when the British tried to land 1,250 marines, carrying scaling ladders, in the rear of the fort. This movement was discovered, however, and the converging cross-fire from the fort and shore batteries further up the river forced them to abandon the attempt.

Francis Scott Key. — It was during the bombardment of Fort McHenry that Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the "Star Spangled Banner." He had left Baltimore some days before on a ship carrying a flag of truce to intercede for the release of a friend, Dr. William Beanes, who had been captured by the British at Upper Marlboro. Key was detained by the British on board the small American vessel anchored in Old Roads Bay while the attack was launched. From this point he could watch the lurid spectacle of the British fleet throwing a continuous stream of shot, bombs, and rockets into Fort McHenry. At the first faint light of dawn he saw that our flag was still there, which meant that the attack had failed. In the exultation of the moment he wrote the song which has become our national anthem.

Fort McHenry, 1815-1918. — The history of Fort McHenry sheds an interesting light on the story of the development of the military policy of this country. During and after the Revolution, when the States had to protect themselves by their own forces of militia, it was under the jurisdiction of the State of Maryland. The Federal Government stationed a company of artillery there in 1799 and finally assumed full jurisdiction in 1816. After the star fort was completed, the force was increased to 2 companies, numbering about 100 men, supplemented by volunteer artillery units from Baltimore and men from Barney's flotilla. The existence of the fort made possible the checking of the British invasion in 1814, and so hastened the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on December 24 of that year. The Maryland Volunteer Artillery for the Mexican War was mobilized at Fort McHenry and it was from there that they embarked. By an irony of fate, Francis Key Howard, the grandson of Francis Scott Key, was imprisoned there in 1861 as a Southern sympathizer, and at one time in 1863 there were 6,957 Confederate and political prisoners confined there. The Maryland National Guard was inducted into the Spanish-American War by the officers of Fort McHenry, and before that service the Baltimore regiments were trained in rifle practice at the fort. When the art of war had become so changed by modern weapons and high-powered explosives that its usefulness as a fortification had passed, other forts were built further down the river. At the close of the World War the entire reservation was, for a time, turned into a large convalescent hospital and many barracks were erected for the treatment of wounded and disabled veterans.

Present condition. — The old star fort, with its officers' and enlisted men's barracks, its powder magazines, and sally port, is in an excellent state of preservation. The restoration of the interiors and the installation of heat in all the barracks have put them in readiness to receive museum and other displays of the period of the War of 1812.

The E. Berkley Bowie Collection, generally regarded as one of the most complete displays of American military firearms in existence, which recently was donated to the National Park Service by Mr. Allen Berkley and the Maryland Society of the War of 1812, already has been installed in one of the buildings.

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Last Modified: Thurs, Nov 23 2000 10:00:00 pm PDT

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