At the dawn of September 14, 1814, after a night of hell on earth, the Stars and Stripes of the United States of America defiantly waved above the embattled Fort McHenry. This patriotic scene inspired a National Anthem and turned the tide of the war for a fragile free nation. The War of 1812 was raging—the freedom of the city of Baltimore and the young nation hung in the balance. This tiny Star Fort stood between the world’s premier naval power and the city. At dawn’s early light the massive 42-foot long flag “was still there” signifying a much-needed victory in a war that was going very badly for the United States. There is perhaps no better place to experience the ideals of freedom and the struggle of a nation to win and keep them than when visiting Fort McHenry National Monument.
Top 7 Reasons for Visiting Fort McHenry
- Star-Spangled Banner
- The Original Cross Beam
- Liberty or Tyranny?
- One of a Kind
- New Flags & States
- Fly Your Own Flag
#1) The Star-Spangled Banner
The number one reason for visiting Fort McHenry is to learn about that fateful night that inspired the Star-Spangled Banner. On September 13th, 1814 the British rained down hell on the fort and its 1,000 soldiers for 25 hours straight in an attempt to gain access to Baltimore. The British had already set Washington D.C. ablaze and were moving up the Chesapeake with 5,000 ships. The visitors center at Fort McHenry has many displays that focus on the War of 1812 in very interactive and vibrant displays.
Francis Scott Key
Francis Scott Key witnessed the battle at Fort McHenry take place from the side of the British. According to the Parks Service, he had boarded the British flagship in an attempt to negotiate a prisoner release. From there, he witnessed the horrifying bombardment of cannon shot and the elation of first light when the flag still waved in the morning breeze. Francis Scott Key set about writing a poem to capture the scene. The tune that accompanies the poem is actually a popular British drinking song of the time named, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Key’s poem was originally called the “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” It was destined to become the anthem of the United States over one hundred years later in 1931. The poem not only inspired the country during the War of 1812 but left a legacy of patriotism that has inspired generations of Americans.
#2) The Original Cross Beam
Fort McHenry has changed a lot over the past 200 years. While the shape of the fort remains the same, it was updated and modified to remain relevant as the tools of war advanced. The fort changed so much over time that not only was the wooden mast that flew the famous flag removed but the very location was lost to time. That was until 1958 when archeologist Hubert Smith unearthed the cross beam that supported the massive flag. Today the cross beam is on display for those visiting Fort McHenry to see. The massive 30 by 42-foot flag itself has been preserved and is on display in Washington D.C at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
#3) Liberty or Tyranny?
During the Civil War, Fort McHenry became a vitally strategic position. The fact that Virginia succeeded from the Union left Washington D.C. vulnerable. If Maryland had also chosen to succeed then the nation’s capital would have been surrounded. For this reason, Baltimore was scrutinized. Not only were the massive guns at Fort McHenry aimed at the Patapsco River to protect the city but they were aimed at the city to quash any idea of succession. Some of the citizens who were seen as sympathizing with the South were imprisoned at Fort McHenry. The most famous of whom was Frank Key Howard the grandson of Francis Scott Key. After being arrested in the middle of the night and imprisoned at the fort he gazed upon that same flag pole that had flown the symbol of liberty for his grandfather and saw only tyranny.
Henry Hall Brogden
Not to portray too bleak an image of Fort McHenry during the Civil War, there is an equally compassionate story on display at the fort. Henry Hall Brogden was imprisoned at Fort McHenry after being found guilty of being a spy. The verdict carried the penalty of death. President Lincoln stepped in and betrayed the Constitution to save the life of this traitor. Brogden was charged with the lesser crime of entering the Union lines without permission. This was not a law on the books at the time he committed the crime and under the Constitution, he should not have been eligible for such a downgrade in charges. Brogden was eventually traded to the Confederacy for a captain and thus his life was saved.
By the time America joined into the first World War in April of 1917, Fort McHenry was well over a hundred years old. Fort McHenry, like many masonry forts, was militarily obsolete but because of its location found new life as a massive military hospital. According to the parks service, the area adjacent to the fort became known as general hospital #2 and housed 3,000 beds and 100 buildings. The hospital remained active until 1925. This short eight-year period was the busiest time in the history of Fort McHenry.
#5) One of a Kind
In 1933, two years after the Star-Spangled Banner was officially made the anthem of the United States of America, Fort McHenry was designated by Congress as not only a National Monument but an Historic Shrine. In the nearly 90 years since no other place in the United States has received this honor. The fact that this national Historic Shrine is truly one of a kind is one of the best reasons for visiting Fort McHenry.
#6) New Flags & States
Fort McHenry has traditionally been given the privilege of being the location where new flags of the United States are first flown when new states have been added. Small plaques of every state along with the date they were added to the Union line the access road to the visitor center. This is a further display of the importance of each star that is sewn into the fabric of not only each flag but our nation.
#7) Fly Your Own Flag
Today, visitors to the monument can even have their very own flag flown over the fort. An official certificate with the date your flag flew over the fort can be purchased at the gift shop. You can also purchase a flag onsite if you forget to bring one. This has to be one of the best souvenirs in the park system and one you can only get when visiting Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.
Logistics for Visiting Fort McHenry
Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine can be fully explored in a few hours. The most ardent of history buffs would be well satisfied with a half-day visit. The fort is open to the public from 9:00AM – 5:00PM every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Fort McHenry has a small parking lot with limited on site parking available. If you intend to drive in we suggest arriving early when the park opens at 9:00AM.
Bus and Water Taxies
If you are staying in Baltimore the city operates a free bus system known as the Charm City Circulator that stops at the Fort McHenry Gate. The fort also has a dock for water taxies. Here is a helpful map for planning out your Baltimore adventure.
When a city is large as Baltimore it has an abundance of good eateries. The Diamondback Brewing Company is located relatively close to the fort and has not only excellent brews but very tasty made-from-scratch pizzas. If you prefer seafood over a pie then check out L.P. Steamers.
There are a lot of hotels in Baltimore, but the Courtyard by Marriott has a nice location near Fort McHenry with easy access to I95. It is modern, beautiful, and an excellent choice when wanting to stay in the city.
The Hollofield Area Campground in Patapsco Valley State Park is located 13-miles to the west of Fort McHenry. This is one of the closest campgrounds to the city but is located in a state park surrounded by nature. This is the perfect location for those wishing to visit the historic city and fort without having to stay in the modern urban environment.
If you are looking to visit Washington D.C. while also exploring Baltimore then perhaps the Capitol KOA is right for you. It is fairly pricey for a campground. Located 20-miles to the south of Fort McHenry, it’s the perfect base camp for exploring the two cities as well as Annapolis.
Visiting Fort McHenry
The United States of America is a young and unique country. A patchwork of 50 independent states that have come together in a constitutional republic with the unique idea that all men (and women) are created equal. The country appropriately represented by our distinct flag that honors each of the 50 states with a star and the original 13 colonies with a stripe. Our nation may have been born in the furnace of the Revolutionary War of Independence but it was solidified by the War of 1812. The flag flew over Fort McHenry despite the capital having already fallen to the British. The American experiment survived and an anthem was born. There is perhaps no better place to reconnect with what it means to be an American, the cost, and the struggle for the freedom we enjoy than when visiting Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.