We sat in an exhibit gallery at the fort's new visitor center. The film on the story of Francis Scott Key and "The Star-Spangled Banner" was winding down. A choral rendition of the national anthem began to play.
As the shade covering an expansive window gradually was raised and the anthem continued past the part about the "ramparts we watched," the gallery full of visitors gazed outside. There was Fort McHenry, our view dominated by a star-spangled banner, similar to the one Key glimpsed when he put pen to paper, and flying exactly where Key had seen it. The audience members spontaneously stood, faced the fort, and commenced singing "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The spirit of patriotism is alive in Baltimore, thanks to its singular place in history.
While Philadelphia may have Betsy Ross and the legend of the nation's first flag, Baltimore is the home of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Fort McHenry National Monument is the first stop on a trio of Baltimore sites that tell the tale of the national anthem.
"Even if it was not for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,' this would be an important place," announced Fort McHenry interpreter Vince Vaise. The Battle of Baltimore was fought two years into the War of 1812, a war that was not supposed to last long and that sorely divided the nation. Opponents said President James Madison began military action against Great Britain purely for political reasons, wanting to look strong while running for reelection. Proponents, including the majority of Baltimoreans, called it the second war of independence. To them, the antiwar contingent were traitors to their nation.
Of course, the minutiae of the War of 1812 are complex, but suffice it to say the young nation's morale was at an all-time low. The British Navy had been attacking U.S. merchant ships, and the Yanks decided the time had come to teach Great Britain a lesson. That was attempted by invading the British territory of Canada — which resulted in defeat after defeat for the Americans.
But after the defenders of Fort McHenry withstood an onslaught from British frigates and bomb ships, and the crash of thunder and ravaging rains the night of Sept. 13-14, 1814, the poorly paid and underequipped Americans had finally earned something special: respect.
As we stood looking over the ramparts toward the Patapsco River, interpreter Vaise pointed out the approximate location of the ship where Key spent the night. Although he wrote poems and songs as a hobby, Key was an attorney by trade and was on a mission: to negotiate the release of a friend, Dr. William Beanes, a prisoner on a British ship following an arrest for violating a pledge of good conduct in an earlier battle.
Vaise related that this story was the key to Key's immortality. While docked in the truce ship about four miles from the fort, the lawyer jotted down notes about what he witnessed. It wasn't pretty. An American soldier said, "We felt like pigeons tied by the legs to be shot at." Key finished his poem, then titled "Defence of Fort McHenry," a couple of days later, on the evening of Sept. 16. The poem was published the next day and almost instantaneously sung to the tune of a popular British air, "To Anacreon in Heaven," the same melody we sing Key's words to today.
Vaise's guided tour finished, we took a walk inside and around the wood-and-brick fort. The rooms are reproduced barracks, some with standing displays. The powder magazine is filled with faux gunpowder kegs stamped with the name "E.I. Dupont de Nemours & Co., 1813." Long before Dupont became famous for making Nylon and Teflon, the company was a gunpowder manufacturer.
Cannons point toward the modern Francis Scott Key Bridge. A historical marker at Bastion No. 5 overlooking the Patapsco River reads, "If you had been standing on this rampart on the morning of September 14, 1814, you would have had a close-up view of the dramatic scene Francis Scott Key described in our National Anthem."
The same marker also addresses a nagging question posed by historians for years. It notes, "Many doubt Key could have seen the flag from two miles away." But the marker answers its own skeptical statement. The flag was large, it reads, 30 by 42 feet, and Key probably watched the battle through a spyglass. In addition, the banner's colors would have been illuminated by explosions.
Key's original manuscript has lasted the years and is displayed at the museum of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore's Mount Vernon section. Because of the document's fragile condition, it is exhibited only for 10 minutes on the hour from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Those who visit at other times see a replica.
Key's cursive is surprisingly legible, and one can see how the lawyer-turned-poet edited his own copy. The first line of Key's poem originally read, "O say can you see through the dawn's early light." You can see where Key crossed out through and substituted by.
The flag that inspired Key was crafted in a narrow brick townhouse at 844 E. Pratt St. It still stands, near the entrance of the city's present-day Little Italy neighborhood, and is known today as the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House. A tour of about 45 minutes tells the tale of professional flag maker Mary Pickersgill, and at any entrance inside the house visitors can meet members of Mary's household staff, portrayed by living-history interpreters.
A widow who lived with her mother, Pickersgill was making a decent living sewing flags for soldiers and ship captains when she was asked by three Baltimore bigwigs — Commodore Joshua Barney, Brig. Gen. John S. Stricker, and Fort McHenry's commander, Maj. George Armistead — to make a flag. Armistead said he wanted it "so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance."
Pickersgill used 400 yards of English wool bunting and worked every day for six weeks, sometimes until midnight, to expedite the flag's completion. Each of the 15 stars measured 2 feet across; each of the 15 stripes 2 feet wide. (Each stripe represented a state until 1818, when the 13-stripe flag was officially established.)
Pickersgill, her daughter, three nieces, and most likely a free African American apprentice as well as an African American slave all did their parts in crafting the behemoth flag. They plied their trade in both a public flag-making room downstairs and in Mary's private upstairs bedroom, where flag patterns and star-spangled bunting lay sprawled across a chair. The light, airy bedroom, with windows and far above the noisy, dirty street, was conducive to sewing. The final product was so big that one stripe would have stretched from one end of the house to another. Pickersgill and company had to finish the flag in a brewery a block away.
A museum building adjacent to the house hosts a permanent exhibit titled "Preserv'd Us a Nation: The War of 1812 and the People of Chesapeake Bay," telling how residents defended themselves. Displayed are fragments of the original flag, but the biggest draw may be its street-facing exterior wall, a full-sized glass replica of Pickersgill's Star-Spangled Banner.
Postscript to the story: Francis Scott Key's friend, Dr. William Beanes, was released by the British shortly after the Battle of Baltimore.
The War of 1812 ended in a draw, with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on Dec. 24, 1814. Because of the time's slow communications, Gen. Andrew Jackson was unaware that a peace treaty had been signed when he defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans two weeks later. (Since the treaty had not yet been ratified by the U.S. government, the Battle of New Orleans was technically fought during the war.)
Mary Pickersgill's flag that inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner" was given to Armistead after he relinquished his command at Fort McHenry. Pieces of the flag were snipped off and given away by the Armistead family as souvenirs, an acceptable 19th-century activity. In 1907, the flag, by then cut down to 30 feet by 34 feet, was given by Armistead's descendants to the Smithsonian Institution. It is currently displayed at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History in Washington. Congress proclaimed "The Star-Spangled Banner" the national anthem in 1931.
If You Go
Fort McHenry National Monument
The monument is open year-round daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Hours: summer (to Sept. 3) 8 a.m. to 7:45 p.m.; rest of year 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; the last video presentation begins an hour before closing.
Admission: $7 ages 16 and older, free under 16. Park ranger programs, strongly recommended, are offered hourly from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer and three times a day the rest of the year.
Note: Defenders' Day, the annual commemoration of the Battle of Baltimore, will be Sept. 7 to 9.
Maryland Historical Society Museum
The museum is open Wednesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5. It is closed the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Admission: $6 adults, $5 seniors, $4 students with ID and ages 3 to 18, free under age 3, and free for all ages the first Thursday of each month.
The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the last tour starting at 3:15. It is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year's Eve, and New Year's Day. Admission: $8 adults, $7 seniors and military, $6 students, free under 5.
-- Michael Schuman