The Song Heard 'Round the World

Friday, April 13, 2012 Road Junkies 1 Comments

On the History Highway, Day 30

BALTIMORE, Maryland— With history as the focus of our wanderings, our agenda had to include Baltimore's Fort McHenry, the spot that inspired our national anthem.  Having seen the actual flag in the Smithsonian Museum of American History, we were expecting the fort site to have maybe a historical marker and an interpretive sign or two.  We were wrong.


Built in 1803 as part of the fledgling United States' coastal fortifications, Fort McHenry was attacked by British forces during the War of 1812.  During the Civil War, federal forces occupied Baltimore to ensure that the state remained in the Union.  They used Fort McHenry to incarcerate Maryland politicians who supported secession.  After Gettysburg, it became a POW camp for 7,000 Confederate soldiers.

By 1925 with no military value, Fort McHenry was designated a national monument.  Since that time, the fort has been restored to its mid-nineteenth century appearance.  A new visitor center opened last year to replace a small facility built in 1964.  The eco-friendly building houses a fascinating collection of interactive exhibits that tell the story of the War of 1812.  An original video, The Battle of Fort McHenry, dramatically tells the story of the battle with live-action footage and illustrative maps.


In the open area where the video is shown, a statue of Francis Scott Key appears to be watching with you.  At the end of the video, the national anthem is played.  As viewers stand at attention, the projection screen is raised to reveal a view of the flag flying over Fort McHenry.  Like the rest of the audience, we gasped at this moving sight.
 

In accordance with a federal executive order, the flag flies day and night at Fort McHenry.  The 42' x 30' woolen flag that inspired Frances Scott Key to pen the Star-Spangled Banner was created by a local seamstress with help from her daughter and seven seamstresses.  Major George Armistead had ordered the flag when he became commander of Fort Henry in 1813, declaring, "It is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance."  Little did he realize what that large flag would later inspire.

Though that original flag now resides in the Smithsonian Museum of American History, today the park service maintains three sizes of flags for Fort McHenry.  A full-size nylon replica of the famous flag is flown when weather permits.  The range of suitable weather for a banner this massive is fairly narrow.  Winds have to be 5 mph or greater for the flag to unfurl, but if the wind gets stronger than 12 mph, the flapping of the huge flag puts dangerous stress on the wooden flagstaff.  Five or more people are needed to raise and lower this large flag.
 
The large replica flag (photo from National Park Service)
Like the 1814 garrison, the park service also keeps a 17'x 25' flag on hand.  Still very impressive in size, this flag is safer to fly in windy weather.  Both this and the huge banner are of the 15-star/15-stripe design used from 1795 to 1818.  Today was a bit windy, so the fort was flying a 5' x 9' version of the current 50-star flag.

Francis S. Key, Esq., a lawyer, and two other gentlemen left Baltimore under a flag of truce in September, 1814, in an attempt to secure the release of a friend who had been arrested by the British.  After negotiating with British officers on board their ship, Key and his party were detained on the ship because they had learned too much about British positions and plans to attack Baltimore.  Forced to watch the nightlong shelling of Fort McHenry from an enemy war ship and knowing a landing party had been attempted, Key eagerly awaited sunrise to see whose flag was flying over the fort.  Seeing the American flag, as any school child can tell you, inspired him to write The Star-Spangled Banner, the poem which became our official national anthem in 1931.

Edgar Allan Poe
From Fort McHenry, we went to visit the final resting place of another famous poet associated with Baltimore.  Best known for his short stories and poems, Edgar Allan Poe often claimed Baltimore as his birthplace and home.  Though he was actually born in Boston and raised in Richmond, Poe was emotionally tied to Baltimore, where he lived for much of his adult life. 

After his death in 1849, Poe was buried in the Westminster Burying Ground in a grave near his grandfather.  Until 1920 when a Baltimore resident got permission to install a real headstone, the grave was identified with a stone marked '80' by the church sexton. Later this same supporter raised funds to have a larger memorial to Poe built.  Poe's remains and those of his wife and mother-in-law were moved to this location, giving the writer the distinction of having two headstones in the same cemetery.

Poe first real headstone (L) and current memorial (R) in Westminster Burying Ground
The inevitable letterboxes were hidden near the original marker.  One saluted The Raven, Poe's most famous and celebrated poem while the other recognized the "Poe Toaster," an individual who paid annual tribute to Poe by leaving roses and an unfinished bottle of cognac at his grave for more than 60 years.

Poe's house
Though it is no longer open as a museum, we drove past the house that was Poe's final residence in Baltimore before his death.  The house was spared an appointment with the wrecking ball when a housing project was built around it in the late 1930s.  In the last two years, the city has elected to eliminate funding for the museum's operation as the high crime rate in its vicinity had reduced visitors to a trickle.

We couldn't leave Baltimore without a visit to the celebrated Inner Harbor, lauded by urban scholars as "the model for post-industrial waterfront redevelopment around the World."   The Inner Harbor transformation in the 1980s attracted tourists to the city and won more than 40 national and international awards for urban planning and development.

Baltimore's Inner Harbor
Adjacent waterfront areas have undergone development in subsequent years creating a string of pearls along the shore.  These added condominiums, restaurants, retail spaces, hotels, and museums continue to attract tourists and locals to the riverside.

More Photos from Today

Fort McHenry
Inner Harbor
Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum
(in a nicer neighborhood, still subsidized by the city)