History of Fort McHenry

A painting depicting wooden ships firing bombs at a star fort.
The bombardment of Fort McHenry.

NPS/Harpers Ferry Center

During the American Revolution a small earthen star fort known as Fort Whetstone was constructed at the end of the peninsula that led to the entrance of the Baltimore harbor. Although the fort was never attacked during the American Revolution, military experts saw the importance of coastal defenses around the young United States’ third largest city and one of its vital ports. In 1798 construction began to expand upon Fort Whetstone with brick and stone masonry to create a new, more permanent, structure. The new fort was dubbed Fort McHenry, named after George Washington’s Secretary of War, and Baltimore native, James McHenry.

 
A historic painting depicting british ships firing on Fort McHenry.
Artist's depiction of the bombardment of Fort McHenry.

NPS

The War of 1812

After its completion in 1803 Fort McHenry had a brief period peace which allowed the fort to be an outpost for the small standing army of the United States, and the country’s first light artillery unit was organized there. On June 18, 1812 the United States declared war on England following several disputes around “Free Trade & Sailor’s Rights.” Fort McHenry’s role became even more vital in 1813 when British forces entered the Chesapeake Bay and began a campaign of terror in the region. In August of 1814 disaster struck the American forces when they were humiliated at Bladensburg and British forces captured and burned Washington D.C.

With the nation’s capital fallen, eyes then turned to Baltimore as the English forces’ next target became clear. In September of 1814 5,000 British soldiers landed North-East of the city and halted outside of hastily constructed earthworks. The British Navy was needed to come into the Baltimore harbor to support the attack, standing in its way was Fort McHenry and its 1,000 defenders. On September 13, 1814, the most powerful navy in the world sent a force of bomb and rocket ships dislodge the defenders from their fortifications. For twenty-five hours bombs and rockets rained on Fort McHenry but on the morning of September 14th, when the smoke and fog cleared, the defenders were still there forcing the British land and sea forces to withdraw, unable to take the city. A lawyer by the name of Francis Scott Key witnessed the bombardment and was so inspired that he wrote a poem called “The Defense of Fort McHenry” which was later put the music and renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

 
A painting depicting the fort during the Civil War. There are several buildings around the fort and lines of union soldiers.
An image depicting Fort McHenry's appearance during the Civil War.

Library of Congress

The Civil War (1861-1865)

In the years that followed the War of 1812, Fort McHenry went through a series of changes and improvements. Buildings were expanded, outer defenses were added, and an Army colonel by the name of Robert E. Lee oversaw the construction of Fort Carroll to add to Baltimore’s coastal defenses. When Civil War broke out in 1861, Fort McHenry’s defensive role was once again prominent, with its large cannons not only pointed towards the water to defend the city from coastal attack, but also pointed towards the center of Baltimore to intimidate its pro-secession population into remaining in the Union.

The fort also served as a prison during the war seeing major surges of activity following the battles of Antietam (1862) and Gettysburg (1863). Some of the most prominent prisoners to come through Fort McHenry during this time, however, were not soldiers but Maryland citizens who had expressed pro-secession sentiments. Following President Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in the state, these private citizens could be arrested for expressing such beliefs. For its role in housing political prisoners during the years of the Civil War some called Fort McHenry “The American Bastille.”

 
A black and white photograph of nurses sitting on the large rodman cannons around Fort McHenry.
Nurses of General Hospital No. 2 on the large Rodman cannons that surround Fort McHenry.

NPS

20th Century

Following the Civil War, Fort McHenry declined in strategic importance. Its structures and defenses were outdated for modern machines of war. However, when the United States entered the First World War in 1917 the site found new purpose. The grounds surrounding the fort were transformed into a massive 100 building and 3,000 bed hospital. General Hospital No. 2, as it was called, existed from 1917 to 1925, and marked the busiest time period in Fort McHenry's history.

Following the closure of General Hospital No. 2, the U.S. Army began restoring the fort to its mid-nineteenth century appearance. In 1931 “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the National Anthem of the United States, breathing new life into the need to preserve Fort McHenry. In 1933 the site was transferred to the National Park Service. In 1939 the site was re-designated as a National Monument and Historic Shrine, the first and only of its kind. Fort McHenry was briefly called back into service in the Second World War as a training site for the United States Coast Guard. Following the conclusion of the war in 1945 the site returned to the NPS. Today Fort McHenry is still the only National Park Service unit, out of 421 units, with the designation of being a “Historic Shrine.”

 

Last updated: November 19, 2020

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