Explore Fort McHenry, Battle of Baltimore site

By Jeana Teddick

Staff Writer

In 1814, with “the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air,” citizens once watched 1,000 American soldiers valiantly defend Fort McHenry in the Battle of Baltimore. The Fort McHenry National Monument enshrines this famous battle, serving as the birthplace of various extraordinary historic events, including the origin of the country’s patriotic mantra. Inspired by the Americans’ ability to halt a British advance into the city of Baltimore during the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and amateur poet, composed the national anthem, “Defense of Fort McHenry,” which later became known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Fort McHenry’s fascinating grounds feature historic remnants including canons, ships and battle materials that were utilized during 18th and 19th century wartime. With 42 acres of battleground to explore, visitors have the option to stroll up and down the troughs and grassy green hills overlooking Baltimore’s Inner Harbor that America once protected with Fort McHenry’s tough brick walls.

Prepare for nearly an entire afternoon’s worth of exploring in this historic shrine. The adventure is packed with moderate exercise up and down the fort’s uneven terrain and inside ancient historical buildings, with engaging interactive learning opportunities. Visitors start off by watching a short orientation film, which provides a glimpse and sufficient context to understand 1814, during which the battle of Fort McHenry occurred. For a relatively inexpensive entrance fee of $10 for those ages 16 and older, the National Monument offers an invigorating multimedia portrayal of captivating images of the Battle of Baltimore. The video sets the scene perfectly—vivid imagery, engaging patriotic music and stimulating sensory effects flash across the screen and project out upon the audience all at once, creating a vicarious experience of being present in the battle.

Traditionally, when a new flag is created for the United States for government use, it is first flown over Fort McHenry’s pentagon-shaped grounds, over the same ramparts referred to in America’s national anthem. The fort today is set up so that at the center of the patriotically-shaped star is a tribute to the parade grounds. Located at the tips of the pentagonal star are bastions, with enlisted men’s barracks and junior officers’ quarters strategically placed inside the perimeters of the fort. One of the bastions displayed inside the pentagon depicts a scene that actually occurred during the battle in 1814. A direct hit on the southwest bastion of the Fort dismounted a cannon, which resulted in the death and injury of a group of soldiers.

The three separate ends within the fort include the Civil War Guardhouse, a powder magazine and the commanding officers’ quarters and guardhouse. On the west end of the historical monument lays a triangular ravelin as part of the fort’s defense mechanisms. A dry moat is located on the south side of the pentagon, where the U.S. infantry troops once occupied to protect the fort against possible British land attack. Meanwhile, upper and lower water batteries contour the outskirts of the historic shrine, serving as one of the defense measures that the Americans took in order to British ships from entering the Baltimore harbor.

To begin, a self-guided tour of the fort takes about an hour. However, guests who accept the challenge to step outside their comfort zone and immerse both their brains and bodies within the various attractions located in and around the fort. Guests are bound to spend a lot more time here. Interactive screens broadcasting informative images and sounds span across the fort in several of the exhibits available to tour within the National Monument. Printed scripts, audio stations and soundsticks detailing Fort McHenry enhance the sensory experience.

Spend a few minutes inside an actual jail cell, grasping the cold iron bars where citizens and soldiers were once imprisoned. Further experience the dingy, underground compartments where Americans had slept upon by laying down inside for a few moments. Don’t worry—there are only a couple of creatures crawling around the perimeters of the cell.

Fort McHenry is lined with battle weapons such as cannons and guns that were used against the British. The fort was defended by cannons firing 18-, 24- and 36- pound solid iron cannonballs. Its guns were primarily designed to fire in a horizontal arc and because of their limited ranged had difficulty in reaching the attacking vessels. The British bombardment fleet ships carried mortars or rockets whose greater range allowed projectiles to be dropped over the walls of the fort.

Around the pentagonal battlegrounds of the fort, mortars, rockets and bomb ships are on display for viewing at visitors’ leisure. The Congreve rocket was a relatively new instrument of war back in 1814 and had been specially modified to fire this frightening weapon. Pieces of vast bomb ships lay about the site, almost unbelievable in size and condition. The ships had their foremasts removed and their hulls reinforced to accommodate two powerful mortars during wartime. Mortars were used both on land and sea. Fort McHenry has a large one on display which was supposedly able to fire 190-pound projectiles with wooden fuses to explode the charge.

Round up your day with the last push of climbing atop of Federal Hill, commonly referred to as “Fed Hill” by locals. At a whopping height hundreds of feet from ground level, the view is breathtaking. It overlooks the harbor where the British fleeting navy once attempted to bombard Baltimore.

After exploring Fort McHenry, dine among the astonishing array of cuisines that Baltimore has to offer, many within walking distance. Some include: Hull Street Blues Café Himalayan House, and In Like Flynn Tavern.

Finalize the journey with a trip to the visitor center which lies off to the left of the pentagonal fort. Restrooms, exhibits and a gift shop are all available inside the building. The gift store features token-worthy keepsake items including shiny coins, memorable statue replicas, tangy candies, creamy chocolates and vividly colored art pieces.

Be a witness to a unique historical landmark that was designated the only area of the National Park System as both a National Monument and Historic Shrine. Open to the public year round, it offers visitor programs and special events that highlight the park’s history. Flag Day, Civil War Weekend, Defenders Day and The Star-Spangled Banner Weekend are only a few of the featured events that the fort hosts.

The Fort grounds, park and visitor center open at 9 a.m. every day, closing at 5 p.m. in the winter and 8 p.m. in the summer. Closed only on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, park visitors are welcome to bring pets as long as they are kept on a leash and out of the historic Star Fort area.

The entrance fee to the historic area of the park is $10.00 for adults 16 years of age and older; children 15 and younger are free. This fee provides the visitor with a 7-day entrance permit to Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine. You must keep your entrance receipt to re-enter the park in the 7-day time period.

Address: 2400 E Fort Ave, Baltimore, MD 21230 Phone: (410) 962-4290

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