Located in Baltimore, Maryland, Fort McHenry is best known for its role in the War of 1812, when it successfully defended Baltimore Harbor from the British navy. It was during this bombardment of the fort that Francis Scott Key was inspired to write The Star-Spangled Banner.
Named after James McHenry, a Scotch-Irish immigrant and surgeon-soldier who became Secretary of War under President Washington, Fort McHenry was built to defend the important port of Baltimore from future enemy attacks, after America won its independence. It was positioned on a peninsula which juts into the opening of Baltimore Harbor, and was constructed in the form of a five-pointed star surrounded by a dry moat. The moat would serve as a shelter from which musketmen might defend the fort from a land attack. In case such a siege penetrated this first line of defense, each point, or bastion, was fortified, so that the invading army would be caught in a pincer of cannon and musket fire.
The only attack the fort ever received came in the naval portion of the Battle of Baltimore. Beginning at dawn on September 13, 1814, British warships continuously bombarded the fort for 25 hours. The American defenders had 18, 24, and 38 pound (8, 11 and 17 kg) cannons with a range of 1.5 miles (2.4 km). The British mortars had a range of 2 miles (3 km), and their rockets had a 1.75 mile (2.8 km) range; however they were not very accurate. The British ships were unable to pass Fort McHenry and penetrate Baltimore Harbor because of the American cannon, but they were able to stay out of range of the American guns and lob rockets and mortars at the fort. Due to the poor accuracy of the British weapons and the limited range of the American guns, little damage was done on either side, but the British ceased their attack on the morning of September 14, 1814, and the naval part of the British invasion of Baltimore had been repulsed.
Francis Scott Key, a Washington lawyer who had come to Baltimore to negotiate the release of civilian prisoners of war, witnessed the bombardment from a nearby truce ship. An oversized American flag had been sewn in anticipation of the British attack on the fort. When Key saw the flag emerge intact in the dawn of September 14, he was so moved that he began that very morning to compose the poem which would become America's national anthem.
During the American Civil War, Fort McHenry served as a military prison, confining both Confederate soldiers as well as a large number of Maryland political figures who were suspected of being Confederate sympathizers. Ironically, Francis Scott Key's grandson was one of these political detainees. In an earlier coincidence, James McHenry's son had served in the defense of the fort during the Battle of Baltimore.
During World War I, an additional hundred-odd buildings were built on the land surrounding the fort in order to convert the entire facility into an enormous hospital for the treatment of troops returning from the European conflict. Virtually none of these buildings remain, while the original fort has been preserved and restored to essentially its condition during the War of 1812.
The fort was made a national park in 1925; fourteen years later it was re-designated a U.S. National Monument and historic shrine , the only such doubly designated place in the United States. The first official 49 and 50 star American flags were flown over the fort and are still located on the premises.
Last updated: 05-20-2005 03:38:58