Washington, D.C. Stories and Tips

Fort McHenry, Baltimore, MD

Fort McHenry Photo, Baltimore, Maryland

Francis Scott Key was a young Washington lawyer when he was sent on a mission to secure the release of a friend held captive by the British Fleet during the War of 1812. Key and others of his party watched from a truce ship in the harbor as at dawn on September 13, 1814, the British began a bombardment of Fort McHenry lasting all through the day and night. Realizing that the fort was not going to fall, the British fleet turned around and headed for its next target, New Orleans. As the British ships sailed away, the morning guns were fired and a large flag was hoisted over the fort. As the light broke and smoke cleared, Key could see the huge, proud flag still waving and was inspired to write a 4-stanza poem entitled "The Defence of Fort McHenry."

"Let the praise, then, if any be due, be given, not to me, who only did what I could not help doing, but to the inspirers of the song!" These are the humble words of Francis Scott Key as his poem was published in newspapers around the country and sunk into the hearts of the citizenry. With the opening lines, "O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light," the poem was soon being sung to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven." Renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner," it became the National Anthem of the United States in 1931.

Our tour began with a 15-minute film about the history of the fort. At the conclusion of the film a men’s choir begins singing a beautiful a capella version of "The Star Spangled Banner" as the audience rises. As we stood there listening to the beautiful music, the large curtain covering the picture windows opened revealing a view of Fort McHenry and the 15-starred American Flag of 1812. Usually, a replica of the very large (42x30 feet) flag is flown and I imagine it’s a very impressive sight. On the day of our visit, inclement weather forced the flying of a much smaller replica. The original flag that inspired our National Anthem hangs in the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington DC.

Our tour guide was a historian, instrumental in refurbishing the original flag. Pieces had been cut from the fabric and he and his team was able to track down the story of the missing pieces and have them returned to the museum for the restoration of the flag. It turned out that the commander of Fort McHenry, Major George Armistead had kept the flag in his family, and swatches had been cut as souvenirs for friends and family.

This was an unplanned tour for us and turned out to be one of our favorite sites.

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