By the dawn’s early light…Fort McHenry

Fort McHenry, where courageous Baltimoreans fought off the British. Francis Scott Key memorialized the events of the Battle of Baltimore in the "Star Spangled Banner."

Fort McHenry, where courageous Baltimoreans fought off the British. Francis Scott Key memorialized the events of the Battle of Baltimore in the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Yes, it still waves; 200 years later.

Yes, the flag still waves at Fort McHenry; 200 years later.

All eyes will be on Baltimore in the coming days as the nation celebrates the Bicentennial of our “Star Spangled Banner.” Tall ships will sail in. The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels will streak overhead. There will be music and fireworks, souvenirs and lots of food and fun. We’ve been looking forward to this moment since the Sailabration two Septembers ago. That wonderful observance marked the local celebrations of the War of 1812 and we’ve been commemorating the events of 200 years ago that gripped the Chesapeake community for two years.

The Star Spangled Banner with its 15 stars and 15 stripes flies over the fort during the day — unless the wind is too strong.

The Star Spangled Banner with its 15 stars and 15 stripes flies over the fort during the day — unless the wind is too strong.

The centerpiece for this observance is, of course, Fort McHenry. A brick star-shaped fort overlooking Baltimore’s busy port, Fort McHenry is usually quiet, almost solitary on its bit of land jutting out into the Patapsco River.

There’s a waterfront path for the walker, the stroller or the jogger. Plenty of grass and trees invite the picnicker.

A new Visitor and Education Center opened in 2011 with a great new film and exhibits that celebrate Francis Scott Key’s masterpiece, as well as the brave soldiers and citizens who did their part to see that American remained free. You can even hear Jimi Hendrix play the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Tattoos and other ceremonies remind those of us who take Fort McHenry for granted just how special the place is.

Tattoos and other ceremonies remind those of us who take Fort McHenry for granted just how special the place is.

The fort itself is so small, it seems impossible that a world power took aim at Sept. 12-14, 1814. A few barracks, officers’ quarters, a powder magazine and a few cannon are all that are there. Walk the perimeter to see out to the Key Bridge where the British ships trained their guns on our fort. (If you are on Key Bridge in the summer, look for a little red, white, and blue buoy on the western side. It marks where the British ships were anchored.)

But there are reminders in the exhibits and in the visitor center film that those were terrifying days, a time when the soldiers and the citizenry called up all the courage they could to fend off the British attack.

A film detailing the events of the Battle of Baltimore ends with a dramatic flourish. The screen rises to show the fort and the flag. A statue of Francis Scott Key is witness to it all.

A film detailing the events of the Battle of Baltimore ends with a dramatic flourish. The screen rises to show the fort and the flag. A statue of Francis Scott Key is witness to it all.

Stand on that now-peaceful bit of land and marvel that soldiers  fought here through the night, hour after hour, until the British gave up and left. Look up at the flag, that gigantic flag (The original is in the Smithsonian) and think of the thrill Francis Scott Key must have felt seeing it through the smoke and the mist of that early morning light. Better yet, come early or stay late to be a part of the flag change. It takes a lot of hands to handle this big star-spangled banner as it is raised in the morning and lowered in the evening.

Plan to spend lots of time in the visitors center. Lots of great stuff to see and hear. Here's a bomb that didn't burst in air.

Plan to spend lots of time in the visitors center. Lots of great stuff to see and hear. Here’s a bomb that didn’t burst in air.

America will have its attention turned to Baltimore and Fort McHenry for this celebration. Huzzah for the Fort and its brave soldiers!

When the celebration is over, the fort will still be standing watch over the Patapsco, marking the place where Baltimoreans fought for American freedom and inspired the composition of the “Star Spangled Banner.”  It is a place to treasure now and forever.

© Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman

The large flat is lowered at sunset. A small storm flag flies at night.

The large flat is lowered at sunset. A small storm flag flies at night.

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