Project:1812 – Fort McHenry

Project:1812 – Fort McHenry

To the American people, Fort McHenry is the most important symbol to continuing American freedom in the face of the British Empire, due to one single action during the greater War of 1812. Situated on a spit of land and stands to this day watching over Baltimore’s harbor. The original fort, however, was not called McHenry, but rather Fort Whetstone. Constructed on Whetstone Point, the five-point star earthworks fort was placed in an ideal spot to defend the city without its guns endangering the city itself. Whetstone was constructed by the Continental Army to defend Baltimore against potential British attacks which never materialized. But the end of the American Revolution it became clear that a stronger defensive position would be needed.

Project:1812 - Fort McHenry
The Main gate of the fort. The flag pole to the left is where the star spangled banner still flies today. Just not when I was there, too windy.
Hasselblad 500c – Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm 1:2.8 – Kodak Tri-X 400 @ ASA-400 – Kodak D-23 (Stock) 7:30 @ 20C

By 1797, the War Department earmarked 20,000$ for improvements at Whetstone Point. Construction of a new masonry fort began in 1798 based on a design by Jean Foncin with the construction of the new fort was completed in 1800. The new fortification would take the name Fort McHenry, named for the Secretary of War, James McHenry. McHenry served in the post under two American Presidents, George Washington and John Adams and had approved the construction of the new post. The new fort was again a start design, but where Whetstone had points, McHenry had bastions ensuring that there would not be any blind spots. Inside the fort stood stone barracks, a powder magazine and separate quarters for the commanding officer. The fort’s guns would ensure that no ship could easily approach Baltimore, and a dry ditch surrounding the fort ensured that an infantry assault would be suicide for any attacker.

Project:1812 - Fort McHenry
A War of 1812 era gun battery display outside of the fort. Most of the fort’s displayed artillery dates to the Civil War
Hasselblad 500c – Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm 1:2.8 – Kodak Tri-X 400 @ ASA-400 – Kodak D-23 (Stock) 7:30 @ 20C

And it worked, for a majority of the War, Fort McHenry stood as a silent sentry over Baltimore. As the war moved into the second year, the city of Baltimore prepared for any attack as the Royal Navy stepped up their operations along the eastern seaboard. While General Samuel Smith fortified the city, the new commander of Fort McHenry, Major George Armistead, began to upgrade the fort’s defenses. And added a personal touch, a new garrison flag made by a local woman to rival the flag he had at his former post, Fort Niagara. And on 13 September 1814, the attack did come. A British assault fleet would over the course of 27 hours fire over 2,000 projectiles at a range of 3 kilometers at the fort. McHenry would only suffer damage to the powder magazine (thoughtfully emptied) and one of its bastions. The British would withdraw having failed to break the fort. The attack, witnessed by Francis Scott Key, would inspire the Washington Lawyer to pen the poem “The Defense of Fort M’Henry.”

Project:1812 - Fort McHenry
Two barracks upon entering the fort proper. During the War of 1812 they only had a single story.
Hasselblad 500c – Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm 1:2.8 – Kodak Tri-X 400 @ ASA-400 – Kodak D-23 (Stock) 7:30 @ 20C

During the middle of the 19th Century, the fort’s internal buildings would be expanded or replaced with new construction. When the United States was torn in two during the American Civil War, Fort McHenry would serve a dual purpose. A new battery of Rodman Guns served to train artillery crews posted to more frontline forts. The second, darker purpose, was a military prison. Fort McHenry housed both Confederate soldiers captured in battle but also local citizens feared to have leanings towards the Confederate States of America. In an odd twist of irony, Francis Key Howard, the grandson of Francis Scott Key, was held at the fort. The fort would continue to serve the armed services as a general hospital when the United States entered the First World War and as a training base for the Coast Guard during the Second World War.

Project:1812 - Fort McHenry
A battery of Rodman Guns from the Civil War. They were undergoing restoration when I visited.
Hasselblad 500c – Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm 1:2.8 – Kodak Tri-X 400 @ ASA-400 – Kodak D-23 (Stock) 7:30 @ 20C

By the 20th Century, the fort already was designated as a national park (1925) and a national monument and historic shrine (1939) it finally received a national historic place designation in 1966. The fort also holds the honour of being the first place any newly designed American flag would fly before being widely distributed due to the now famous Star Spangled Banner, the large garrison flag Armistead had ordered in 1813. Today the fort is one of Baltimore’s popular tourist destinations. Most of the buildings constructed during the First and Second World Wars have been torn down and the fort today appears as it would have during the American Civil War. As for Armistead’s Star Spangled Banner, that flag is now displayed on permanent collection at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

Project:1812 - Fort McHenry
A statue of Artmistead, the fort’s celebrity commander.
Hasselblad 500c – Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm 1:2.8 – Kodak Tri-X 400 @ ASA-400 – Kodak D-23 (Stock) 7:30 @ 20C

Written With Files From:
Collins, Gilbert. Guidebook to the Historic Sites of the War of 1812. Toronto: Dundurn, 2006. Print
Hickey, Donald R. Don’t Give up the Ship!: Myths of the War of 1812. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2006. Print.
Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1989. Print.
Lossing, Benson John. The Pictorial Field-book of the War of 1812 Volume 2. Gretna, LA: Pelican Pub., 2003. Print.
Web: www.nps.gov/fomc/index.htm
Web: wardepartmentpapers.org/document.php?id=27413
Web: www.hahs.us/flags/r18.pdf

2 Replies to “Project:1812 – Fort McHenry”

  1. What a coincidence! I just finished putting together a collection of photos documenting Fort Winfield Scott in San Francisco, a seaward defense comprised of 4 batteries built in the late 1800’s: Godfrey, Boutelle, Marcus Miller, Cranston, and Lancaster:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/125572542@N06/albums/72157675119671251

    There is also Fort Point, which is maintained as a visitor center: https://www.flickr.com/photos/125572542@N06/albums/72157676941584485

    It’s a shame these forts were left to decay, unlike Fort McHenry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *