Oh Say Can You See…

A visit to Fort McHenry

By Edree Downing

If you’re thinking of soaking up a bit of American history while enjoying an interesting Fall walk and experiencing the beauty and tranquility of the Bay, why not give Ft. McHenry a try? Even if you’ve been there before, the refurbished visitors center and lack of Summer crowds make it a worthwhile day trip.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Brits sailing up the Bay after destroying Bladensburg and sacking the White House. Their intention was to take Baltimore. Britain was invading with more than 500 warships. Our newly established U.S. Navy had a flotilla of not quite a dozen ships. With all that power and after more than 25 hours of bombardment, to say nothing of the rockets’ red glare, the Brits lost. They withdrew from Baltimore Harbor and headed down to New Orleans for more of the same at the hands of Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson.

While Britain was attempting to undo the American upstarts, Frances Scott Key was composing the most well-known tune in all of Christendom – with apologies to Britain’s Rule, Britannia. Keys was, as every school kid knows, detained on a British ship, while trying to negotiate the release of an American prisoner. Before Keys penned the words to what eventually became known as the Star Spangled Banner, Mary Pickersgill had, along with friends, stitched up what today is the most recognizable flag in the world. And yes, it was Mary Pickersgill – Betsy Ross just happened to have a better public relations team. There will be a few 5th grade teachers out there who aren’t going to accept that without clarification, so log onto http://starspangled200.org/History/Pages/Pickersgill.aspx for the real story. And, as every East Coast resident knows, that original flag, a whooping 30’ x 42’ (reduced to 30’ x 34’) can be seen at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

Visiting the Fort

A trip to Fort McHenry promises to be a fun-filled, fact-finding, low-key day of activities. Start in the visitors center where a small but impressive exhibit is housed. There’s an ongoing excellent 10-minute movie on the history of this star-shaped fort that stands guard to the entrance to the harbor. At the conclusion of the film, the drapes are parted and the American flag is revealed flying majestically over the fort, a sight that makes one pause to appreciate where we are and what we have.

From the visitors center take the short walk into the fort. Not much goes on here but it is open, accessible and has lots of nooks and crannies that are worth exploring. Trying to understand how they fit more than 1,000 men and huge arsenals of ammunition into such a small area on that fateful night is a puzzle. More amazing, there were only a handful of American casualties as the Brits bombarded the fort through the night of Sept. 13 -14.

Find a U.S. park ranger and ask your most difficult questions. They are walking encyclopedias and always happy to share their vast knowledge.

If you happen to be there during the flag change, they welcome audience participation in folding a reproduction flag. Don’t forget your camera.

To end your day, stroll the one-mile-plus walk around the perimeter of the grounds. It shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes. If you’ve planned ahead, there are picnic benches to enjoy your lunch or early dinner with a view of the Bay.

Fast Facts:

Hours: Daily 9 a.m. – 4:45 p.m.

Cost: Free with Interagency Senior Pass. $7 for anyone over 16.

Special Events: Flag raised and lowered each day at 9:30 a.m. and 5:20 p.m. (weather permitting).

Contact: Call 410.962.4290  or go to www.nps.gov/fomc/index.htm



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