National Park Service
BALTIMORE — The United States is in the midst of commemorating the bicentennial of a war that is largely forgotten but that almost tore the nation apart. Most of us remember incidents from the war — the burning of Washington, D.C., Dolley Madison saving the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, and the writing of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
But ask Americans in which conflict those incidents took place, and you can bet many will say the Revolutionary War. In reality, it was the War of 1812, which to many is as obscure as the Gadsden Purchase. In an introductory film at the Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine, we hear that it was here in Baltimore during the waning months of the war that the national anthem was composed.
We sat in an exhibit gallery at the new visitors center at the fort. The introductory film with the story of Francis Scott Key and “The Star-Spangled Banner” was winding down. A choral rendition of the national anthem began to play. As the shade covering an expansive window gradually unfurled and the anthem continued past the part about the ramparts, the gallery full of visitors gazed outside.
There was Fort McHenry, our view dominated by a star-spangled banner, similar to the one Key glimpsed when he put pen to paper, and flying exactly where Key had seen it. Our fellow audience members spontaneously stood, faced the fort and commenced singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The spirit of patriotism is alive in Baltimore, thanks to its singular place in history.
While Philadelphia may have Betsy Ross and the legend of the nation’s first flag, Baltimore is the home of the Star-Spangled Banner. Fort McHenry National Monument is the first stop on a trio of Baltimore sites that tell the tale of the national anthem.
“Even if it was not for The Star-Spangled Banner,’ this would be an important place,” announces Fort McHenry interpreter Vince Vaise. The Battle of Baltimore was fought two years into the War of 1812, a war that was not supposed to last long and a war that sorely divided the nation.
The war’s opponents said President James Madison began military action against Great Britain purely for political reasons, wanting to look strong while running for re-election. Proponents of the war, including the majority of Baltimore residents, called it the second war of independence. To them, the members of the anti-war contingent were traitors.
Of course, the minutiae of the War of 1812 is complex, but suffice it to say that the young nation’s morale was at an all-time low. The British Navy had been attacking the United States’ merchant ships and the Yanks decided the time had come to teach Great Britain a lesson. That was attempted by invading the British territory of Canada. Yet each battle there resulted in defeat after defeat.
But after the defenders of Fort McHenry withstood an onslaught from British frigates and bomb ships, the crash of thunder and ravaging rains the night of Sept. 13-14, 1814, the poorly paid and under-equipped Americans had finally earned something special: respect.
As we stood looking o’er the ramparts towards the Patapsco River, interpreter Vaise pointed out the approximate location of the ship where Francis Scott Key spent the night. Although he wrote poems and songs as a hobby, Key was an attorney by trade and was on a mission: to negotiate the release of a friend, Dr. William Beanes, a prisoner on a British ship following an arrest for violating a pledge of good conduct in an earlier battle.
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