Fort McHenry as a Prison: A Soldier's Life
- Grade Level:
- Ninth Grade-Twelfth Grade
- Civil War
- 1 class period
- Group Size:
- Up to 36
- National/State Standards:
- American History, Social Studies
OverviewSoldier's writings will reveal the activities and living conditions at Fort McHenry during the Civil War.
Students will use primary source documents to understand the activities and living conditions of soldiers garrisoned at Fort McHenry during the Civil War.
History of Fort McHenry
(Adapted from Ft. McHenry Website https://www.nps.gov/fomc/historyculture/index.htm)
Fort McHenry's history began in 1776 during the Revolutionary War. The people of Baltimore feared an attack by the British, and wanted to build a fort for protection. Anticipating an attack at any time, a fort of earthen mounds was constructed quickly. Originally, it was call Fort Whetstone, because of the location on Whetstone Point.
The Revolutionary War ended without an attack on Baltimore, but
improvements to the fort continued. In 1798, a French engineer was directed by
the Secretary of War to draw plans for a new fort on Whetstone Point. These
plans were expensive, and it was difficult for the people of Baltimore to raise
money for construction. However, James McHenry, a well-known politician, was
instrumental in raising funds for the new fort. The fort was renamed "Fort
McHenry" in his honor.
At the time of the British attack on September 13, 1814, there were 1000
soldiers defending the fort from three fighting units. The first group of soldiers
represented the U. S. Army "Corps of Artillery". These men lived at Fort McHenry
and were paid eight dollars a month for their services. Another group of
defenders was the "Maryland Militia," private citizens who felt it necessary to aid
in the defense of the city. The third group were sailors from Commodore Joshua
Barney's Flotilla, which had been formed in 1813 to provide naval protection for
the Chesapeake Bay.
In the 1860's the United States was torn apart by the Civil War. Union troops
were stationed at Fort McHenry to help keep Baltimore out of the hands of those
who would have Maryland join the southern cause. The fort's guns were turned
toward the city. Fort McHenry was used as a prison where political prisoners
suspected of being Confederate sympathizers were held, often without trial.
Many confederate soldiers were imprisoned at the fort as well.
In 1917, the U.S. Army established General Hospital No.2, a 3,000 bed facility
to treat wounded soldiers returning from Europe. The hospital developed into a
major surgical center, specializing in neuro and reconstructive surgery.When the
war ended, the need for the hospital slowly diminished, and in 1925 the
temporary buildings were town down. Fort McHenry became a national park
which today is administered by the National Park Service as the country's only
National Monument and Historic Shrine. Exhibits around the fort will help the
visitor visualize life at Fort McHenry during the various stages of its history.
For this lesson, students will be asked to imagine the daily activities and living
conditions of a soldier garrisoned at the fort during the Civil War. They will read
primary source documents which will describe not only the soldier's work but also
his thoughts and emotions as expressed in letters that he wrote to his wife.
Worksheet (data gathering chart )
(Note: Format and spellings taken directly as written from primary document)
Primary Source Documents (Maryland Historical Society - MS2129)
#A Letters from Fort McHenry, 1864: Introductory Note
#1 Mankin's Woods near Baltimore, Sunday morning, July 31/64
#2 5th Mass V.M. Mankin's Woods near Baltimore, July 31, 64
#3 Baltimore Aug 5. 1864
#4 Baltimore Aug 7. 1864
#5 Fort McHenry Baltimore Aug 11th
#6 Fort McHenry Bal Aug 14
#7 Fort McHenry Aug 21. 1864
#8 Fort McHenerey 25
#9 Fort McHenery Aug 29
#10 Fort McHennry Sept 1. 64
Note: Additional pages of primary source document transcripts are included for
possible extension and enrichment activities.
1. Show a picture of Fort McHenry and one of a Union soldier. Ask students
to imagine that the soldier in the picture is garrisoned at the fort during late
summer and fall of 1864. Duplicate this chart on the chalkboard and
record students' responses to these questions: Where was the soldier
housed? What did the soldier eat? What were the soldier's daily activities?
2. Divide the class into several groups. Provide each group of students a
packet of letters and blank worksheet (duplicate of above). Have students
read the letters and complete the worksheets.
3. Have students report data collected during the group work. Revisit the
chart and correct any pre-reading misconceptions and add any new
information that was gathered during the reading of the primary
4. Ask the students, "Can we make any generalizations or assumptions
about the lives of Union soldiers during the Civil War?" Lead students to a
discussion that generalizations and assumptions can only be made about
other soldiers at Fort McHenry during this historical period. Conditions for
other soldiers at other forts or battle locations would possibly be very
5. Have students use the information about this soldier to write a newspaper
article describing his life at the fort during this period. Have students
include information provided in the letters that did not fit under the original
categories in the worksheet. (weather, friends or adversaries, emotions,
1. Accuracy of information used in the newspaper article.
2. Participation in group work and total group discussion.
Have students present their newspaper articles in the form of a writer's table
Extension:1. Have the students research living conditions at other forts or battle
locations during the Civil War. Compare those conditions to the ones
described by the soldier garrisoned at Fort McHenry.
2. Have the students research living conditions at Fort McHenry during other
historical periods (War of 1812 or World War I). Compare those conditions
to the ones described by the soldier garrisoned at Fort McHenry during the