Fort McHenry

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Fort McHenry, a star shaped fort guarding Baltimore harbor, withstood the British naval bombardment on September 13th, 1814 and inspired the poetry that became the words to our National Anthem "The Star-Spangled Banner".

From Baltimore Public Library

Fort McHenry has played an active role in our nation's history from the founding of the nation through World War II:

Fort McHenry's history began in 1776 during the Revolutionary War. Originally an earthern star shaped fort, it was called Fort Whetstone because of its location on Whetstone Point. The site was an excellent location for two reasons. It was located far enough from Baltimore to provide protection without endangering the city, and it was surrounded on three sides by water. Constructing the fort on this site meant that enemy ships sailing into Baltimore would have to pass the fort first.

The Revolutionary War ended without an attack on Baltimore. However, improvements to the fort continued. In 1798, a year after Baltimore was incorporated as a city, a French engineer, Jean Foncin, was selected to plan a new fort on Whetstone Point.

James McHenry, the Secretary of War under President George Washington, was instrumental in providing support for its construction. The fort was renamed "Fort McHenry" in his honor.

The fort became famous in the War of 1812 when the British attacked on September, 1814. For 25 hours the British bombarded Fort McHenry from ships outside of Baltimore harbor in the Patapsco River. The fort's defenders held firm, and Baltimore was saved. It was the valiant defense of Fort McHenry by American forces during the British attack on September 13, 1814 that inspired 35-year old, poet-lawyer Francis Scott Key to write the poem which was to become our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner." The poem was written to match the meter of the English song, "To Anacreon in Heaven." In 1931 the Congress of The United States of America enacted legislation that made "The Star-Spangled Banner" the official national anthem.

During the American 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 rebellion. The fort's guns were turned toward the city. The fort was used as a temporary prison where political prisoners suspected of being confederate sympathizers were held, often without trial. Following the Battle of Gettysburg in early July, 1863 nearly 7,000 confederate soldiers were detained in the fort.

Fort McHenry continued its active military service to the country until July 20, 1912 when the last active garrison left the fort.

From 1915 to 1917 the City of Baltimore used the site as a city park and beach.

In 1917 the United States Army used the fort site to establish U. S. General Hospital No. 2 for returning wounded veterans of World War I. It was the largest military hospital in the United States with over 100 temporary buildings. Some of the earliest developments in the fields of reconstructive and neuro-surgery were made in that hospital. When the war ended, the need for the hospital slowly diminished and in 1925 the hospital was torn down.

In 1925 Fort McHenry was made a national park, and it was transferred to the care of the National Park Service in 1933. Fort McHenry was redesignated a National Monument and Historic Shrine in 1939. It is the nation's only Historic Shrine.

During World War II the Fort served as a Coast Guard Training Center for fire control and port defense.

Brochures about Fort McHenry is available in Adobe acrobat format from the National Park Service.

The following is the report of the commanding officer of Fort McHenry to the Secretarty of War concerning the engagement an successful defence of Baltimore Harbor.

Bombardment of Fort McHenry
Lieutenant-Colonel G. Armistead, USA, to the Secretary of War

Fort McHenry, 24 September 1814

A severe indisposition, the effect of great fatigue and exposure, has prevented me heretofore from presenting you with an account of the attack on this post. On the night of Saturday the 10th instant, the British fleet, consisting of ships of the line, heavy frigates and bomb vessels, amounting in the whole to 30 sail, appeared at the mouth of the river Patapsco, with every indication of an attempt upon the city of Baltimore. My own force consisted of one company of United States' artillery, under captain Evans, and two companies of sea-fencibles, under captains Bunbury and Addison. Of these three companies, 35 men were unfortunately on the sick list, and unfit for duty. I had been furnished with two companies of volunteer artillery from the city of Baltimore under captain Berry and lieutenant commandant Pennington. To these I must add another very fine company of volunteer artillerists, under judge Nicholson, who had profered their services to aid in the defence of this post whenever an attack might be apprehended; and also a detachment from commodore Barney's flotilla, under lieutenant Redman. Brigadier general Winder had also furnished me with about 600 infantry, under the command of lieutenant colonel Stewart and major Lane, consisting of detachments from the 12th, 14th, 36th, and 38th regiments of United States' troops-the total amounting to about 1000 effective men.

On Monday morning, very early, it was perceived that the enemy was landing troops on the east side of the Patapsco, distance about ten miles. During that day and the ensuing night, he had brought sixteen ships (including five bomb ships) within about two miles and a half of this fort. I had arranged my force as follows:-the regular artillerists under captain Evans, and the volunteers under captain Nicholson, manned the bastions in the Star Fort. Captains Bunbury's , Addison's, Rodman's, Berry's, and lieutenant commandant Pennington's commands were stationed on the lower works, and the infantry, under lieutenant colonel Stewart and major Lane, were in the outer ditch, to meet the enemy at his landing, should he attempt one.

On Tuesday morning, about sun-rise, the enemy commenced the attack from his five bomb vessels, at the distance of about two miles, and kept up an incessant and well directed bombardment. We immediately opened our batteries, and kept up a brisk fire from our guns and mortars, but unfortunately our shot and shells all fell considerably short of him. This was to me a most distressing circumstance; as it left us exposed to a constant and tremendous shower of shells, without the most remote possibility of our doing him the slightest injury. It affords me the highest gratification to state, that though we were left thus exposed, and thus inactive, not a man shrunk from the conflict.

About two o'clock PM one of the 24 pounders of the southwest bastion, under the immediate command of captain Nicholson, was dismounted by a shell, the explosion from which killed his second lieutenant, and wounded several of his men; the bustle necessarily produced in removing the wounded and replacing the gun, probably induced the enemy to suspect we were in a state of confusion, as he brought in three of his bomb ships, to what I believed to be good striking distance. I immediately ordered a fire to be opened, which was obeyed with alacrity through the whole garrison, and in half an hour those intruders again sheltered themselves by withdrawing beyond our reach. We gave three cheers, and again ceased firing-The enemy continued throwing shells, with one or two slight intermissions, till one o'clock in the morning of Wednesday, when it was discovered that he had availed himself of the darkness of the night, and had thrown a considerable force above to our right; they had approached very near to Fort Covington, when they began to throw rockets; intended, I presume, to give them an opportunity of examining the shores-as I have since understood, they had detached 1250 picked men, with scaling ladders, for the purpose of storming this fort. We once more had an opportunity of opening our batteries, and kept up a continued blaze for nearly two hours, which had the effect again to drive them off.

In justice to lieutenant Newcomb, of the United States' navy, who commanded at Fort Covington, with a detachment of sailors, and lieutenant Webster, of the flotilla, who commanded the six gun battery near that fort, I ought to state, that during this time they kept up an animated, and I believe, a very destructive fire, to which I am persuaded, we are much indebted in repulsing the enemy. One of his sunken barges has since been found with two dead men in it; others have been seen floating in the river. The only means we had of directing our guns, was by the blaze of their rockets, and the flashes of their guns. Had they ventured to the same situation in the day time, not a man would have escaped.

The bombardment continued on the part of the enemy until 7 o'clock on Wednesday morning, when it ceased; and about 9, their ships got under weigh, and stood down the river. During the bombardment, which lasted 25 hours (with two slight intermissions) from the best calculation I can make, from 15 to 1800 shells were thrown by the enemy. A few of these fell short. A large proportion burst over us, throwing their fragments among us, and threatening destruction. Many passed over, and about 400 fell within the works. Two of the public buildings are materially injured, the others but slightly. I am happy to inform you (wonderful as it may appear) that our loss amounts only to four men killed, and 24 wounded. The latter will all recover. Among the killed, I have to lament the loss of lieutenant Clagget, and sergeant Clemm, both of captain Nicholson's volunteers; two men whose fate is to be deplored, not only for their personal bravery, but for their high standing, amiable demeanor, and spotless integrity in private life. Lieutenant Russel, of the company under lieutenant Pennington, received, early in the attack, a severe contusion in the heal; notwithstanding which he remained at his post during the whole bombardment.

Were I to name any individuals who signalized themselves, it would be doing injustice to others. Suffice it to say, that every officer and soldier under my command did their duty to my entire satisfaction.

John Brannan, ed. Official Letters of the Military and Naval Officers of the United States During the War with Great Britain in the Years 1812, 13, 14, & 15 With Some Additional Letters and Documents Elucidating the History of that Period. (Washington: 1823), pp. 439-441.

The banner that flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to his poetry was made by Baltimore flag maker Mary Pickersgill. Ordered by Major General Armistead, she constructed a garrison flag of 30 by 42 feet and a storm flag of 17 by 25 feet for $405.90 and $168.54 respectively. Garrison flags of the day were of this size, approximately one quarter of a basketball court, constructed so that "the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance." It is the second official version of the United States flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes decreed by the second Flag Act of January 13, 1794 acknowledging the addition of two new states to the original 13, Kentucky and Vermont. The flag remained in the form of 15 stars and stripes even though additional states joined the union until 1818 when the current design of 13 stripes and a star for each state was adopted.

Each star is two feet acroos and each stripe is 23 inches wide. Ironically the flag is made of English woolen bunting died for the red stripes and blue field. The stars are cotton. The flag is now at the National Museum of American History.




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