BALTIMORE — There are no bombs bursting in air over Fort McHenry but the star-spangled banner still waves proudly above its ramparts, as it did after a massive British naval bombardment during the War of 1812 — the event that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics to what became the national anthem.
The War of 1812 is the conflict most Americans probably know the least about — the cause was the British forcing US seamen into the Royal Navy — and in much of the country its bicentennial will probably be ignored. But not in Maryland — and Baltimore in particular — where it will be enthusiastically commemorated.
The state claims some 500 sites connected to the three-year-long war and Baltimore is expecting more than a million visitors for the weeklong “Starspangled Sailabration” that begins on June 13 with a parade into the harbor of more than two dozen vessels including US and Canadian warships and tall ships from around the world. There will also be an air show featuring the Blue Angels, along with parades, concerts, fireworks, ship tours, and other events and activities.
Today a national park and historic shrine, Fort McHenry is also a civic symbol for Baltimore. The anniversary of the battle, which began on Sept. 12, 1814, is an official state holiday called Defenders Day.
Before the attack on Fort McHenry the British had occupied Washington, the nation’s new capital, and set fire to the presidential mansion (later painted white to conceal fire damage), the Capitol, and other public buildings.
The star-shaped fort, built in 1798, guarded the entrance to Baltimore Harbor and its successful defense may have saved the city from even worse devastation. Because of its many privateers, who sailed as far as England to raid shipping, the British considered the city “a nest of pirates” and might have treated it far more harshly than it did Washington.
Key, a Washington lawyer and amateur poet, was on board a British ship arranging a prisoner release and witnessed the entire 25-hour bombardment. Hundreds of shells and rockets rained down on the fort but it continued to fire back. Early in the morning after the bombardment, a large flag was run up the fort’s flagpole.
To Key’s surprise and relief it was the American flag. On the back of a letter he immediately began writing a poem expressing his patriotic feelings. He titled it “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” First published in a Baltimore newspaper, it was later set to the tune of a drinking song originally composed for a men’s social club in London. Renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the song quickly became popular throughout the country and in 1931 was made the national anthem.
Because of its status as a national shrine, the fort is authorized to fly the American flag 24 hours a day — but it’s not always the same type of flag. The kind of flag flown at night is the standard one. Those displayed during the day are replicas of the flags used at the fort during the War of 1812 and have 15 stars and 15 stripes.
The so-called storm flag, which flew through the night during the battle, is 17 feet by 25 feet. The even bigger garrison flag — which inspired Key — is 30 feet by 45 feet and one of the largest of its kind ever made.
The original flags were made by a Baltimore flag maker, Mary Pickersgill, whose small house is open to the public. A full-scale copy of the garrison flag is painted on the outside wall of the museum attached to the house, giving visitors a chance to see how huge it was. Bigger than any room in the Pickersgill house, it had to be laid out on the floor of a nearby brewery to be sewn together. For her considerable labors Pickersgill was paid the then handsome sum of $405.90.
There are “flag changing” ceremonies at the fort year round at 9:30 a.m. and 4:20 p.m. and also at 7 p.m. in summer. Because of its great size, the garrison flag is raised usually only on very calm days. Visitors are invited to help with the flag changes, which involve unfolding flags to their full length and then hauling on a rope to raise them to the top of a tall flagpole. It’s a fun group effort.
On summer weekends members of the Fort McHenry Guard, volunteer history reenactors dressed in the uniforms of the War of 1812, give weapons demonstrations, explain the duties of soldiers at the fort, and participate in military ceremonies.
There are ranger-guided tours but visitors are free to roam the fort checking out exhibits in barracks rooms and taking in the sweeping views from atop the walls. A film shown at the visitors center at the entrance to the park dramatizes the events that inspired the “Star-Spangled Banner” and is recommended before visiting the fort itself.
On holidays such as Flag Day, the Fourth of July, and Defenders Day, the flag waves as proudly as ever above the ramparts — but what burst in the air are fireworks not bombs.
Fort McHenryAdults $7, age 15 and younger free, Fort Avenue, www.nps.gov/fomc/index
William A. Davis can be reached at bill@davistravels