Baltimore's Fort McHenry

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The British Attack on Fort McHenry

Lithograph of bombardment of Fort McHenry
The 1814 Battle of Baltimore Inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner" A period lithograph showing the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. courtesy New York Public Library

The British bombardment of Fort McHenry in September 1814 was a critical event in the War of 1812, and was immortalized in lyrics written by Francis Scott Key which would become known as "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Fort McHenry is preserved today as a National Monument administered by the National Park Service. Visitors can learn about the battle and view artifacts in the fort's restored buildings and new visitor center.

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When the Royal Navy bombarded Fort McHenry in September 1814 it was a major action in the War of 1812. Had Baltimore fallen into British hands, the war may have had a very different outcome.

The stubborn defense of Fort McHenry helped to save Baltimore, and it also assumed a special place in American history: a witness to the bombardment, Francis Scott Key, wrote lyrics celebrating the raising of the American flag on the morning after the attack, and his words would become known as "The Star-Spangled Banner."

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Baltimore Harbor

A modern aerial view of Fort McHenry
The Royal Navy Needed to Conquer Fort McHenry to Capture Baltimore A modern aerial view of Fort McHenry. courtesy Visit Baltimore

A modern aerial view of Fort McHenry shows how it dominates Baltimore's harbor. During the attack on Baltimore in September 1814, ships of the Royal Navy would have been positioned to the upper left of this photograph.

In the lower left of the photograph is the modern visitor center and museum for the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.

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Fort McHenry and Baltimore

Fort McHenry and the City of Baltimore
The Position of the Fort Says Everything About Its Importance View of Fort McHenry and the City of Baltimore. courtesy Visit Baltimore

Even a modern view of Fort McHenry and its relation to the City of Baltimore illustrates how important the fort was at the time of the British attack in 1814.

Construction of Fort McHenry began in 1798, and by 1803 the walls had been finished. Positioned on a point of land dominating Baltimore's busy waterfront, the guns of the fort could protect the city, a port of vital importance to the United States in the early 19th century.

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The Flag House Museum

Full-size replica of the Fort McHenry flag at the Flag House Museum
The Flag That Flew Over Fort McHenry Was Enormous Full-size replica of the Fort McHenry flag at the Flag House Museum. courtesy Visit Baltimore

A big part of the story of Fort McHenry and its defense in 1814 relates to the enormous flag that flew over the fort and was seen by Francis Scott Key on the morning after the bombardment.

The flag had been made by Mary Pickersgill, a professional flag maker in Baltimore. Her house still stands, and has been restored as a museum.

Next to Mary Pickersgill's house is a modern museum dedicated to the Battle of Baltimore and the bombardment of Fort McHenry which led to the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

One interesting feature of the museum is that the outer wall is covered with an full-size representation of the Fort McHenry flag. The actual flag, which now resides in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, was 42 feet long and 30 feet wide.

Note that the official flag of the United States at the time of the War of 1812 had 15 stars and 15 stripes, a star and a stripe for each state in the Union.

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Baltimore's Flag House

At Baltimore's Flag House Museum, a curator reenacts the role of Mary Pickersgill.
Mary Pickersgill Created the Enormous Flag for Fort McHenry At Baltimore's Flag House Museum, a curator reenacts the role of Mary Pickersgill. courtesy Visit Baltimore

In 1813 the commander of Fort McHenry, Major George Armistead, contacted a professional flag maker in Baltimore, Mary Pickersgill. Armistead wanted an enormous flag he could fly over the fort, as he was anticipating a visit from warships of Britain's Royal Navy.

The flag Armistead ordered as a "garrison flag" was 42 feet long and 30 feet wide. Mary Pickersgill also made a smaller flag for use during inclement weather, and the smaller "storm flag" measured 25 by 17 feet.

There has always been confusion about which flag was flying over Fort McHenry during the British bombardment on September 13-14, 1814. And it's generally believed the storm flag would have been aloft during much of the battle.

It is known that the large garrison flag was flying over the fort on the morning of September 14, and that's the flag Francis Scott Key could clearly see from his vantage point aboard a truce ship anchored with the British fleet.

Mary Pickersgill's house has been restored and is now a museum, The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House. In this photograph a reenactor playing Mrs. Pickersgill uses a replica of the famous flag to tell the story of its creation.

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Raising the Fort McHenry Flag

Raising the flag at Fort McHenry
The 15-Star American Flag Is Raised Every Morning at Fort McHenry Raising the flag at Fort McHenry. Photograph by Robert McNamara

Fort McHenry today is a busy place, a national monument visited daily by sightseers and history fans. Every morning the National Park Service staff raises a 15-star and 15-stripe American flag on the tall flagpole inside the fort.

On a morning in the spring of 2012 when I visited, a school group on a field trip was also visiting the fort. A Ranger enlisted some of the kids to help raise the flag. Though the flag is large, as befits the tall pole it flies from, it's not nearly as large as the garrison flag flown in 1814.

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Dr. Beanes

Dr. Beanes, who witnessed the attack on Baltimore with Francis Scott Key
A Prisoner of the British Tells of the Bombardment of Fort McHenry Dr. Beanes, who witnessed the attack on Baltimore with Francis Scott Key. Photo by Robert McNamara

After the raising of the flag on the morning I visited, schoolchildren on a field trip were greeted by a special visitor from 200 years ago. Dr. Beanes — actually a Ranger at Fort McHenry playing the part — stood at the base of Fort McHenry's flagpole and told the story of how he had been taken prisoner by the British and thereby witnessed the attack on Baltimore in September 1814.

Dr. William Beanes, a physician in Maryland, had been seized by British troops following the Battle of Bladensburg, and was held captive on a ship of the Royal Navy. The federal government asked a prominent attorney, Francis Scott Key, to approach the British under a flag of truce to arrange for the release of the doctor.

Key and a State Department official went aboard a British warship and successfully negotiated the release of Dr. Beanes. But British officers would not set the men free until after the attack on Baltimore, as they didn't want the Americans to warn others of the British plans.

Dr. Beanes was thus beside Francis Scott Key as a witness to the attack on Fort McHenry and the scene the following morning when the garrison raised the enormous American flag as a defiant gesture to the British.

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Full-Size Flag

A full-size replica of the Fort McHenry flag unrolled at the parade ground.
A Full-Size Replica of the Enormous Fort McHenry Flag A full-size replica of the Fort McHenry flag unrolled by a visiting field trip as part of an educational program. Photo by Robert McNamara

A full-size replica of the enormous Fort McHenry garrison flag is used by National Park Service Rangers for teaching programs at the fort. On a morning when I visited in the spring of 2012, a group on a field trip unrolled the gigantic flag on the parade ground.

As the Ranger explained it, the design of the Fort McHenry flag is unusual by today's standards as it has 15 stars and 15 stripes. In 1795 the flag had been changed from its original 13 stars and 13 stripes to reflect two new states, Vermont and Kentucky, entering the Union.

At the time of the War of 1812, the United States flag still had 15 stars and 15 stripes. It was later determined that new stars would be added for each new state, but the stripes would revert to 13, to honor the original 13 colonies.

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The Flag Over Fort McHenry

The huge flag flying over Fort McHenry.
Depictions of the Enormous Flag Became Part of the Story of Fort McHenry The huge flag flying over Fort McHenry depicted in an early 19th century illustration. Getty Images

After Francis Scott Key's lyrics, which would become known as "The Star-Spangled Banner," became popular in the early 19th century, the story of the huge flag over Fort McHenry became part of the legend of the battle.

In this early 19th century depiction, British warships are firing aerial bombs and Congreve rockets at the fort. And the huge flag is clearly visible.

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Baltimore's Battle Monument

Lithograph of Baltimore's Battle Monument
Baltimore Erected a Monument to the City's Defenders Baltimore's Battle Monument, the symbol of the battle dedicated in the 1820s. Library of Congress

The Baltimore Battle Monument was erected to honor the city's defenders in the years following the 1814 Battle of Baltimore. When it was dedicated in 1825, newspapers throughout the country published articles praising it.

The monument became famous throughout America, and for a time it was the symbol of the defense of Baltimore. The flag from Fort McHenry was also venerated, but not in public.

The original flag had been kept by Major George Armistead, who died at a relatively young age in 1818. His family kept the flag at their house in Baltimore, and prominent visitors to the city, as well as local War of 1812 veterans, would call at the house to see the flag.

People who had a connection to Fort McHenry and the Battle of Baltimore often wanted to own a piece of the famous flag. To accommodate them, the Armistead family would snip pieces off the flag to give to visitors. The practice eventually came to an end, but not before about half the flag had been distributed, in small swatches, to deserving visitors.

The Battle Monument in Baltimore remained a cherished icon — and is being restored for the War of 1812 Bicentennial — but over the decades of the 19th century the legend of the flag spread. Eventually the flag became a famous symbol of the battle, and the public wanted to see it put on display.

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Fort McHenry's Flag Displayed

First known photograph of the Fort McHenry flag, displayed in Boston in 1873.
The Flag From Fort McHenry Was Put on Display at Times in the 19th Century The first known photograph of the Fort McHenry flag, when it was displayed in Boston in 1873. courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

The flag from Fort McHenry remained in the hands of Major Armistead's family throughout the 19th century, and was occasionally displayed in Baltimore.

As the story of the flag became more popular, and interest in it grew, the family would sometimes let it be displayed at public functions. The first known photograph of the flag appears above, as it was displayed at the Boston Navy Yard in 1873.

A descendant of Major Armistead, Eben Appleton, a stockbroker in New York City, inherited the flag from his mother in 1878. He mostly kept it in a safe deposit vault in New York City, as he was concerned about the condition of the flag. It appeared to be deteriorating, and, of course, much of the flag had been cut away, with swatches bestowed to people as keepsakes.

In 1907 Appleton allowed the Smithsonian Institution to borrow the flag, and in 1912 he agreed to give the flag to the museum. The flag has remained in Washington, D.C. for the past century, having been displayed in various Smithsonian buildings.

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The Flag Preserved

The Fort McHenry Flag on display at the Smithsonian.
The Fort McHenry Flag Has Been Preserved and Can Be Seen at the Smithsonian The Fort McHenry flag on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

The flag from Fort McHenry was displayed in the entrance hall of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History from the museum's opening in 1964 until the 1990s. Museum officials realized the flag was deteriorating and needed to be restored.

A multi-year preservation project, which began in 1998, was finally concluded when the flag was returned to public display in a new gallery in 2008.

The new home of the Star-Spangled Banner is a glass case which is atmospherically controlled to protect the flag's fragile fibers. The flag, which is too fragile to hang, now rests on a platform that is tilted at a slight angle. Thousands of visitors who pass through the gallery each day can see the famous flag up close, and feel a connection to the War of 1812 and the legendary defense of Fort McHenry.