The bombardment of Fort McHenry began at dawn on Sept. 13, 1813. From a U.S. ship under British guard, Americans Francis Scott Key and his friend, a Dr. Beames, witnessed the onslaught of cast-iron bombshells that filled the sky. They could only hope that the fort would weather the assault.
For 24 hours, the British fleet kept up their outpouring of bombs and rockets while the captives must have looked on in apprehension and fear. Key had been held because of his attempt to seek the release of Beames, who was being kept a prisoner for breaking his pledge of neutrality.
At the Visitor's Center inside Baltimore's Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, the history of the War of 1812 surges to life with its model of the fort, exhibits and a movie, "The Defense of Fort McHenry."
The fort was constructed on this site to guard the only waterway to Baltimore, its many cannons primed to challenge any enemy ships that might approach.
Now, don't rush through the center! It's loaded with background information and includes a history of Major George Armistead, who was ordered to take command of the fort on June 27, 1813. Be sure to catch one of the daily interpretive programs given by park rangers who approach their work like happy researchers.
The fort is world-famous as the birthplace of our national anthem, but it was named after James McHenry, who served as secretary of war from 1796 to 1800 under presidents George Washington and John Adams. It was during the Battle of Baltimore that the British changed their minds about the American "upstarts."
Some 200 yards from the center on a gently, winding walkway overlooking the Patapsco River is the 18th-century star-shaped fort with thick stone walls. It's surrounded by 43 acres of picturesque scenery, including picnic grounds.
In one area of the park stands a statue of Orpheus, the Greek mythological hero of music and poetry, that is dedicated to Key and the soldiers and sailors who took part in the defense of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.
Inside the original fort's entranceway lies the parade ground, bordered by several units, including a restored commanding officer's quarters, junior officer's quarters and two enlisted men's barracks. It was no surprise that the officer's quarters had more comforts than those of the enlisted men.
One of the barracks for enlisted men, which is open to the public, will make you realize the tightness of their quarters. It was home for 16 privates and one sergeant (who naturally had his own bed). What's hard to believe are the four bunk beds, each with an upper and lower berth; because of limited space, four privates slept in each bunk, two in the upper berth and two in the lower.
Nearby are some of the original jail cells from 1812 – dark, dank and small, with no furnishings but a cot. Even if you're not a military buff, take time to study the nearby electric battle map that clarifies the activity during the 1813 to 1814 attack.
But the historical highlight is the garrison flag with its 15 stars and stripes atop the 89-foot high flagpole in the parade grounds. When you stand at its base and look upward, you'll get a dramatic view of the gigantic flag swaying gracefully against the sky. It was the original flag, now authorized to fly 24 hours daily, that was sewn by Mary Young Pickersgill of Baltimore, and was the proud reminder of victory that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words for the U.S. national anthem.
There are walkways outside of the parade grounds where you can see black cannons facing the river, poised in the direction of the British fleet – where the Americans were unable to score hits on the distant vessels until the ships came closer. Imagine the booming of the British warships' cannons and their rockets leaving a crimson trail on their way to the fort.
At dawn on Sept. 13, 1814, Key witnessed a relentless, 24-hour British attack on the fort, not knowing what damage was being done by the 1,500 to 1,800 bombs hurled – nor that 400 had landed in the fort, killing four and wounding 24. Toward noon, booming thunder filled the air and heavy rain showers reduced the fort to a massive mist.
The 'Upstarts' Won!
Nothing was working for the British. Shortly after midnight, they began another bomb assault closer to the fort, but had their ships driven back by the fort's cannon fire.
Having had a number of ships damaged or sunk by the Americans, the British decided to withdraw, rather than risk heavy losses without naval support. The outnumbered "upstarts" had won; the Battle of Baltimore was over.
Key was not even aware of this until 9 a.m. on Sept. 14, when he witnessed the British ships retreating under full sail and the flag still flying over the fort. It was then that his feelings overcame him, and he started to compose a poem originally called "Defense of Fort McHenry," and later changed to "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Surprisingly, it wasn't officially adopted as our national anthem until March 31, 1931.
• Visitor information phone: 1-410-962-4290
• Address: End of East Fort Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21230-5393
• Hours: Grounds open daily, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and fort and visitor center open every day from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
• Visitor Center is accessible to people using wheelchairs. The fort is mostly accessible.