Maryland: Fort McHenry

A pentagon-shaped fortress completed in the early nineteenth century, Fort McHenry is famed for its defense of Baltimore during the War of 1812, when a fleet of British ships attacked and were repulsed by a much weaker and smaller force. The battle inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the U.S. national anthem. Since 1933, Fort McHenry has been operated by the National Park Service. In 1939, Congress declared Fort McHenry a National Historic Shrine, the only one in the country.

Site Office

Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine

Baltimore, MD 21230-5393

ph.: (401) 962-4290

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Fort McHenry’s history predates the War of 1812, during which it experienced its shining moment with the defeat of the British, a battle that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Because of that event, U.S. Congress in 1939 designated it a National Monument and Historic Shrine, the only official historic shrine in the country.

Few realize that Fort McHenry would have faded into oblivion after its brief glory in the War of 1812 had it not been for its role in two other American wars. From 1861 to 1865, during the Civil War, Fort McHenry served as a detention center for prisoners of war and political prisoners, all of whom had been arrested without charge and denied the right to an attorney. After the Civil War, Fort McHenry’s days as an active military installation were numbered; in 1914, it became a city park and recreation center. Yet, it would experience one more unusual twist of fate that would contribute to its historical significance: the establishment in 1917 of General Hospital No. 2, the largest in the country during World War I. The most severely wounded doughboys were treated at the three thousand-bed facility, where revolutionary surgical operations were performed. Although the hospital closed its doors in 1923, its prominence during the war revived historical interest in the site. In 1925, it became a national park; the National Park Service has operated the site since 1933.

Early History

The land on which Fort McHenry stands is a peninsula, jutting out from between branches of the Patapsco River. Europeans settled on the peninsula as early as 1661; the area was named “Whetstone” by the man who bought the land in 1702. When rich deposits of iron ore were discovered on Whetstone Peninsula twenty years later, it would become the property of an English iron-refining company as a source of raw material. Not until the Revolutionary War broke out did the citizens of Baltimore think of building a fort there. When a British ship sailed into the Chesapeake Bay one day, wholesale alarm seized hold of Baltimoreans, and they raised money by subscription for the erection on Whetstone Point of what came to be known as Fort Whetstone.

Baltimore remained unscathed throughout the Revolutionary War, and the eighteen-gun earthen battery was never used. The defenses were abandoned after the war, but not for long. In 1793, tensions escalated between revolutionary France and Great Britain. The United States, which continued to carry on trade with both countries, decided to erect fortifications to protect shipping. In that year, Congress passed appropriations for new defenses on Whetstone Peninsula; a succession of French military engineers (America was a haven for educated and well-trained French aristocratic exiles) worked out the plans, and the result in the early nineteenth century was a sizable fort in the shape of a pentagon. Each of the five points was visible to the other points and was fortified. The man who helped bring about the fort and wring the necessary appropriations from a stingy Congress was Secretary of War James McHenry, a resident of Baltimore. An Irish immigrant, McHenry fought on the side of George Washington and the colonies when war broke out, and afterward he rose high in both the state and federal governments. Fort Whetstone was renamed Fort McHenry in his honor.

The War of 1812

The fort was completed during a period of mounting tension between Great Britain and the United States, which was mainly the result of British impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy and British confiscation of neutral American ships. To Americans, it appeared that England was trying to fold the United States back into the British Empire. The British government and press had only contempt for the U.S. Congress’s declaration of war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812. The United States was woefully unprepared to fight a war with the largest navy on earth.

Word of the declaration of war spurred many Baltimore ship owners to outfit privateers to prey on British shipping. Subsequent fears of British retaliation against the city, in addition to the more general fears of British invasion, made Fort McHenry the object of feverish preparations. The defense of Baltimore, put under the military command of General Sam Smith, was supervised by a local committee of public supply. The militia inside Fort McHenry were put under the command of Major George Armistead, and a trained engineer was engaged to oversee the strengthening of the fortifications. Meanwhile, a call went out for volunteers to man the fort. By the time the British attacked Fort McHenry in September, 1814, one thousand men garrisoned it. This was a citizen army, composed primarily of local residents and Maryland militiamen.

The British fleet had arrived rather late following the declaration of war because of its preoccupation with defeating Napoleon Bonaparte in Europe. By the spring of 1813, only ten warships, commanded by Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, had arrived at the Chesapeake Bay. Still, the British plundered and burned the coast, and Baltimoreans feared that their city would be next. When Napoleon finally was defeated the following spring, British troops were free to face the American enemy. Fifty British ships, manned with six thousand battle-hardened veterans, arrived in the late spring of 1814 in the Chesapeake Bay, successfully fought off American troops at the Battle of Bladensburg in Maryland, and with the help of Cockburn’s forces, destroyed Washington, D.C. Such easy victories were expected by the British. The governor general of Canada vowed to postpone a victory celebration until Baltimore was captured.

Sixteen British ships sailed within sight of Fort McHenry on September 13, 1814. Nothing seemed to go right for the beleaguered American force shut up in Fort McHenry: The cannon mounted on the ramparts turned out to have inadequate range, unable to hit the British attackers. Meanwhile, British ships bombarded the fort for twenty-five hours, lobbing more than one thousand shells against the hapless men trapped inside. Ultimately what gave Americans their victory was the heavy rainfall, which foiled a British attempt to land and seize the fort, as well as the blocking of the entrance to Baltimore’s harbor by sunken American merchant vessels. Finally, when two British vessels approached the fort and came within the range of its cannon, they came under ferocious fire and fled with heavy casualties.

Casualties at Fort McHenry had been surprisingly light–four killed and twenty-four wounded out of a thousand men–despite the inability of Fort McHenry to defend itself adequately. One of the casualties was the only African American among the recruits, twenty-one-year-old escaped slave William Williams. Some months earlier, he had fled his Maryland owner and enlisted in the defense of Baltimore. Normally a slave had no right to enlist, but the recruitment officer asked no questions. Mortally wounded during the bombardment, Williams died two months later.

Francis Scott Key

A week before the British attack on Baltimore, Francis Scott Key, a prominent Maryland lawyer with a successful practice in Georgetown, was on a prisoner exchange boat headed for the British fleet on Chesapeake Bay. A deeply religious man, Key had adamantly opposed Congress’s declaration of war, but once his country was invaded, there was no doubt about his loyalty. He was headed to the fleet to arrange the parole of his good friend, Dr. Edward Beanes, who was being held prisoner by the British. With Key was Colonel John K. Skinner, the U.S. government’s agent for arranging prisoner exchanges.

When the small prisoner exchange boat with the white flag discharged its passengers on one of the British warships, they were met by courteous British officers. They agreed to free Beanes to the custody of Key and Skinner but would not allow them to leave, for fear they would spread word of the imminent attack against Fort McHenry. The bombardment began as they were placed back on their prisoner exchange boat. As the story goes, a British sailor had told Key that night to take one last look at the flag flying from Fort McHenry, because by morning, it would be gone. Key was a witness to the terrible battering of Fort McHenry’s walls that evening. Nonetheless at “the dawn’s early light,” the Americans were astounded to see the rent flag still waving and even more shocked when the British gave up their attack as hopeless.

It is unclear whether or not any of the Americans, including Key, realized that the flag they were looking at (now in the Smithsonian Institution) was the largest in the world, especially commissioned for Fort McHenry. The dimensions of the flag were truly staggering: more than thirty feet wide by forty-two feet long; the stripes alone were two feet wide. General Smith and Major Armistead had ordered not one but two flags from Mary Young Pickersgill, a Baltimore widow who specialized in sewing flags for private merchant ships. With the help of her thirteen-year-old daughter, Pickersgill set to work not as she usually did in her upstairs bedroom, which proved too tiny, but in a nearby brewery house. The larger flag cost more than four hundred dollars; ironically, the cloth was of English wool. Both the larger and the smaller flag were designed to be seen easily by British forces, even at a great distance. It is conjectured that the smaller flag flew the first night; the larger “Star-Spangled Banner” on the following morning.

“The Star-Spangled Banner”

It is known what effect the sight of the flag had on Francis Scott Key, whose poem about the experience would eventually become the lyrics of America’s national anthem. A friend published his untitled verses, and a songwriter set them to a popular melody of English origin, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The new song was titled “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was not officially adopted as the national anthem until 1931. Key went on to fame but not fortune; he died in Baltimore in 1843, well loved and remembered.

Fort McHenry underwent a slow decline after its days of glory in September, 1814, although there were efforts in the 1830’s to improve its fortifications and expand them. The fort, however, had outlived its usefulness as a strategic defense bastion. During the Mexican War from 1846 to 1848, Fort McHenry was used as a training base for recruits. Robert E. Lee, an army officer, spent time there. Nevertheless, the fort seemed headed for oblivion.

The Civil War

The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 brought Fort McHenry back into prominence. It was used as a prison for those who sided against the federal government, and in Baltimore there were many. Unlike fifty years earlier, the guns of Fort McHenry were now turned away from the bay and aimed toward the city, which was put under military occupation early in the war. Ironically, the grandson of Francis Scott Key (also a lawyer) was imprisoned there, as was the grandson of Major George Armistead (caught with a Confederate flag in his possession). What changed Fort McHenry’s reputation from a citadel of American liberty to the “Baltimore Bastille” was the incarceration of political prisoners without charge and without legal counsel. Hundreds of prominent rebels and rebel sympathizers were thrown into Fort McHenry’s dark, dank cells.

President Abraham Lincoln was widely denounced for rescinding the writ of habeas corpus within the Washington-Baltimore-Philadelphia area, an action he regarded as critical to the capital’s defense. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (one-time law partner of Francis Scott Key) harshly criticized Lincoln for overstepping his authority; only Congress had the right to suspend this constitutional right. (Lincoln had ordered its suspension when Congress was not in session, citing a national emergency.) Lincoln’s response to Taney’s widely publicized condemnation was to condemn the rebels, who were willing to destroy the constitution itself, not just one constitutional right.

Those incarcerated at Fort McHenry in these years were usually freed if they took an oath of allegiance to the Union. While in prison, they were able to receive visitors, parcels, and food. Fort McHenry accommodated thousands of prisoners of war as well; more than seven thousand were housed within its walls after the battle of Gettysburg. These POWs were held in Fort McHenry only temporarily before being transferred to other prisons.

After the Civil War

With the end of the Civil War, Fort McHenry returned to a peaceful but purposeless existence. Its primary function seemed to be as a parade ground. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Fort McHenry once again became a training camp for recruits. By 1912, Fort McHenry had no active soldiers on duty; two years later, Congress approved its transformation into a city park. It might have lost most of its historical character had it not been for the outbreak of World War I.

When the United States became involved in that conflagration in 1917, Fort McHenry was transformed into a hospital. Over the next year, one hundred temporary buildings were erected on its grounds to receive the wounded from Europe. General Hospital No. 2, as Fort McHenry was called, became the largest military hospital in the United States. The two hundred doctors and three hundred nurses worked around the clock to care for the twenty thousand men who made their way to Fort McHenry from 1917 to 1923. Fort McHenry in that time became a bastion of hope. New surgical techniques were performed there, including reconstructive plastic surgery and revolutionary neurological operations that restored the use of damaged limbs.

The hospital was closed in 1923, and the temporary buildings were carefully dismantled in 1925, although a few of them were left standing as memorials. Maryland Congressman J. Charles Linthicum lobbied to save Fort McHenry as a historic site and turn it into a national park run by the army, rather than having it revert to a city recreation area. His bill passed, and in 1925 Fort McHenry officially became a national park. The army proceeded to clean up the fort, plant trees and shrubs, and make an attempt to restore it. Funds, however, were insufficient, and restoration proceeded slowly, at times imperceptibly. Finally, in 1933, the park was transferred to the National Park Service, and in 1939 Congress declared Fort McHenry a Historic Shrine. Not until after World War II were ambitious plans carried out to restore Fort McHenry to its original, nineteenth century appearance and to educate the public about its significance in American history.

For Further Information

  • Lord, Walter. The Dawn’s Early Light. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972. The standard account of the War of 1812 and the attack on Fort McHenry. This is a highly readable, gripping account of that dramatic time.
  • Rukert, Norman G. Fort McHenry: Home of the Brave. Baltimore: Bodine, 1983. A detailed, richly illustrated history of this historic landmark.
  • Sheads, Scott S. Fort McHenry. Baltimore: Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America, 1995. A history of Fort McHenry itself and of the National Monument.