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Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine

Park Overview

Known as “The Birthplace of the National Anthem,” Fort McHenry is the only National Monument and Historic Shrine in the National Park Service. During the War of 1812, the fort’s garrison stood firm during a severe naval bombardment by British forces. The successful defense of the fort saved the city of Baltimore and raised American morale. Francis Scott Key, an eyewitness to the battle, captured the sights, sound and emotions in a poem that was quickly set to music and titled “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The popularity of Key’s poem contributed largely toward making the American flag the national icon it is today. A popular national song since 1814, “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the National Anthem in 1931.

Following the Revolutionary War, Fort McHenry was one of the first forts built by the newly independent United States. Named after Secretary of War, James McHenry, it served as the primary guardian of Baltimore’s harbor for over 100 years. Although an active military post, the only time the fort came under attack was during the War of 1812.

The War of 1812, to some “the forgotten war,” stemmed from the growing pains of a young United States. Known as “Our Second War of Independence” by its supporters and “Mister Madison’s War” by its detractors, the War of 1812 was regarded as one of the most controversial wars in American history. Causes stemmed from British seizure of American sailors, interdiction of U.S. trade, Native American issues on the frontier, and a desire by some Americans to annex Canada.

Following the Battle for Baltimore, the fort remained an active military post for over 100 years. During the Civil War, the fort was instrumental in securing Baltimore for the Union cause. Over 10,000 Southern sympathizers and Confederate prisoners were held at the fort during the Civil War. From 1917 until 1923, the fort served as U.S. Army General Hospital #2. Approximately 30,000 wounded veterans received medical care at Fort McHenry, and the first programs for the disabled American veteran were founded at the hospital at this time. During World War II, portions of the fort served as a U.S. Coast Guard training facility.

While most of the exhibits, displays and artifacts currently at the fort focus on the War of 1812 and the writing of the National Anthem, the architecture and surrounding viewshed of the fort looks as it did during the American Civil War. For example, the “Rodman Battery” outside the fort is one of the most complete collections of Civil War-era seacost cannons in the United States.

The park’s cultural landscape consists of 43.26 acres. In addition to the historic fort, the Visitor Center, Civil War-era ammunition magazine, classical statue of Orpheus (placed in the park to honor Francis Scott Key), and two memorial tree groves can be found on the grounds. Many local residents use the park for recreational purposes. The mile-long loop trail is popular for jogging and biking. On weekends, the well-mown grounds are a popular spot for picnicking, Frisbee-throwing, and other light recreational sports.

Fort McHenry boasts an impressive museum collection of over 54,000 artifacts. It includes weaponry, archeology, archives, flags, uniforms, photographs, rare documents, and other militaria. The park’s library is comprised of approximately 500 books as well as 70,000 documents. The collection receives heavy research use.

The park staff offers 10 daily ranger-led programs in the summertime, five in wintertime. In addition to guided walks, park staff offers a variety of “hands-on” programs during the course of the year. The large cannons of Fort McHenry were effective in repulsing the British naval attack, just as the giant 30 x 42-foot Star-Spangled Banner flag promoted national pride. To illustrate this, on weekends visitors are invited to engage in artillery programs led by park rangers and volunteers. Held on the gun deck of the fort’s Water Battery, these programs invite visitors to literally “roll the guns out” as they serve as a cannon crew on the fort’s great guns. This program also forms the basis for a curriculum-based educational program for area schools whereby students learn basics of physics, geometry, and teamwork skills within the context of the Battle for Baltimore.

By far and away, the “Flag Talk” is the most popular program in the park and engages visitors, tour groups, and school students in unrolling a 30 x 42-foot replica of the Star-Spangled Banner. Literally a “flagship” program, the program is given a minimum of twice daily year round, and more frequently during spring months. It highlights the role of the flag in the development of the National Anthem. This talk is based on Maryland curriculum standards for grades 4 and 5 and is posted on the park’s website.

Planning has begun for the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 (2012) and the Battle for Baltimore (2014). Strong interest has been shown at the federal, state, and local level. Commemorative activities will include large-scale living history reenactments, scholarly symposia, and educational activities. It is forecasted that the construction of the new park visitor center will be completed before the Bicentennial.

Enabling Legislation

Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine was established by Congress in 1925 “to provide for the restoration of Fort McHenry…and [for] its permanent preservation as a national park and perpetual national memorial shrine as the birthplace of the immortal “Star-Spangled Banner,” written by Francis Scott Key (16 U.S.C. sec.437)

Excerpt from Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine and Hampton National Historic Site Business Plan, fiscal year 2005


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