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Inside the fort today

canonPart 1: Our Visit to Fort McHenry

Fort McHenry and what it stands for in American history is so important, with so much information available, that I decided to break it up into 4 parts—that makes for easier reading and understanding, I hope.

One of the most popular places to visit in Baltimore is Fort McHenry—to visit the actual fort and to learn about the American flag and anthem. As we discovered, it’s impossible to talk about the fort without also mentioning the flag and anthem as their history is so intertwined.

We caught the free Banner bus at the stop close to the Baltimore Visitors’ Center—about a 20-minute bus ride to the entrance to the park, but it’s also possible to go by water taxi.

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At the entrance to the park

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Visitor Center at the fort

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View through windows as curtains open

A short walk takes you to the impressive fort Visitor Center, which has a ticket counter, shop, restrooms, and a small museum that offers an audio-visual show at regular intervals. We bought a life-time pass to the US National Parks for only $10 each as seniors—what an amazing deal! The museum has information on the fort, the siege and defense of Baltimore, and the story of Francis Scott Key writing the words to the Star-Spangled Banner. (See my earlier background post here https://viviennemackie.wordpress.com/2017/09/27/fort-mchenry-and-the-star-spangled-banner/ ). A ranger gives a short audio-visual presentation, at the end of which curtains open over huge picture windows, giving a dramatic view out to the fort.

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Entrance to the inner part of the fort

canon2You can take a ranger-guided tour, or just walk around by yourself, which we opted to do. The sight has many information boards along the paths and by all the buildings and other points of view, so it is very easy to picture what was going on here. Some of the structures from the original fort no longer exist (such as the Tavern, as alcohol was important to the soldiers), but the foundation outline is still there, so we can imagine the layout. What we see today are the modifications over 200 years.

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These Rodman canons were installed in 1866

It’s a large grassy area, with great views out to the river, and it’s fun to ramble around. The fort is in an excellent location for protecting Baltimore as it controlled the entrance to the Inner harbor. Almost all of this was new information for us, which we tried to absorb, but being there and walking around made it much more personal and meaningful

fortinsideThe actual fort inside is quite small (it was built for 150 soldiers), so trying to imagine 1,000 people crammed in there during the siege of Baltimore is hard. Many of the rooms in the inner fort buildings now serve as a museum depicting life in the fort. We learn details and snippets, such as the fact that officers were from rich families and often had their own servants and paid for their own (nice) food. Tobacco was important as an export to America and the British blockade badly affected imports and exports, with negative impact on the economy. One of the important ports was Baltimore, so it’s also symbolic that it played a pivotal role in fending off the British.

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Example of an information board —this one about the Magazine

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Magazine inside today

We saw the cross-traverse for the original flag. This kept the flagpole from falling over, because such a big flag on a pole would just blow over. We also saw the magazine used for stored gunpowder (it was used to store coal in WW1), and some of the canons used in 1814 and later, plus explanations about the fuses and how long fuses should be. The canon balls were solid and varied in size—all were deadly.

What are the main take-home lessons from visiting the fort?

First, how important the War of 1812 was in American history. It was the second war against Britain, and the success of the American defense got the British “off their backs”. It’s also very clear that the British could potentially have sacked Baltimore just as they did Washington DC, so holding them off here was enormously important.

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Canon balls (shots) of different sizes

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A 36-pound shot. Absolutely lethal 

Second, this was the naval battle that led to the development of the national anthem. And this was due to a huge American flag flying at the fort. See Part 2 on information about the flags at Fort McHenry.

For more information about Fort McHenry and the park, go to their website:

https://www.nps.gov/fomc/index.htm

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fortsign4Fort McHenry and the Star-Spangled Banner: Historical Context

With all the hou-haa going on right now about the US anthem, honoring it and what it means to be patriotic, this seemed like a good time for me to try and finish writing about Fort McHenry in Baltimore and the birth of the song that was inspired by a huge flag.

In July we were in Baltimore for a conference, our first time to visit this American city. Our knowledge of its history was a bit sketchy to say the least, so we had a great time exploring Fort McHenry, and the small house where Mary Pickersgill lived and helped stitch the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen his victory poem that later became the American anthem.

It’s actually a tense and dramatic story, made more real by visiting the sites of the action, and trying to visualize what happened on those momentous days.

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The inside of Fort McHenry today

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Entrance to the inside of the fort today

battle_starsignEveryone speaks of the War of 1812, but in reality the major events took place in 1814.

Bit of background:

After the American Revolution and the exhausting fight to win independence from Great Britain, tensions between the two countries still smoldered. Britain was at war with France for supremacy in Europe, and also set policies that interfered with American trade, like confiscating merchant ships and cargoes. The British navy needed more men, so would board American vessels and seize men said to be British deserters. They also forcefully blocked American expansion along the Great Lakes and Northern Frontier.

Many Americans, including President James Madison, wanted to strike back, and Congress declared war on June 18, 1812. Over the next 2 years, American and British forces clashed in many places from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. The British occupied the fertile Chesapeake Bay, and raided waterfront towns.

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One of the canons in Fort McHenry

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Fort McHenry

By summer 1814, President Madison realized the war could escalate, especially since Napoleon had fallen and the British then had more troops available. He worried in particular about the Washington-Maryland area and called for more militiamen and volunteers.

On August 19, 1814 British General Robert Ross brought more than 4,000 troops ashore in southern Maryland to start a land invasion, and Rear Admiral George Cockburn sailed up the Potomac River towards Washington DC. Both of them and their troops arrived at the edge of DC at dusk on August 24, and created havoc and panic. They torched much of the city, including the US Capitol and the President’s house. The rampage only ended because of a violent rainstorm. Bladensburg, a tobacco port just 5 miles northeast of the capital, was also attacked and badly affected, mostly because the American commanders and troops were very inexperienced compared to the British counterparts.

From August 28 the British plundered Alexandria for 5-6 days and then set their sights on Baltimore, on the Patapsco River with its many ‘arms’ and branches.

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The guns that won the battle

Amristead

armisteadplaqueBut, Baltimore was better prepared than Washington had been. Under Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith, a US Senator and veteran of the Revolution, defences were erected, arms and equipment stockpiled, and troops trained. He had about 15,000 men, and Fort McHenry, the key to the harbor, had 1,000 men. Fort McHenry was commanded by Maj. George Armistead. The fort’s guns and two batteries along the river’s edge dominated the channels leading to the city. A line of gunboats and sunken hulks across the mouth of Northwest Branch also obstructed entry.

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Direct Hits to Fort McHenry–in which 2 officers were killed

On September 12, Ross’s troops marched towards Baltimore. Ross was killed but his replacement, Col Arthur Brooke, marched to within 2 miles of the city and was waiting for the naval attack to end before assaulting the city. British Admiral Cochrane knew that for the British campaign to succeed he had to capture or destroy Fort McHenry. He attacked the fort at dawn on September 13th and the bombardment from the water carried on for 25 hours. Armistead estimated later that between 1500 and 1800 shells and rockets were fired at the fort. However, only two officers were killed and several gun crew members injured.

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Dawn’s Early Light

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The soldiers on Fort McHenry hoist the huge flag

Around midnight Cochrane realized that shelling the fort was not enough and decided to send small boats as a diversion up the Ferry Branch of the river to distract the Americans and allow Brooke to storm the east side of the city where he was waiting. But in the dark, this plan went wrong—they rowed up the wrong branch, and other barges were detected and driven back by the Americans. The British carried on bombing the fort until 7am on September 14th, and then they withdrew.

The American soldiers fired the morning gun and hoisted the huge flag that Armistead had ordered especially, which later became known as the “Star-Spangled Banner”.

How did that happen? This takes us to Francis Scott Key.

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Plaque to Francis Scott Key on Fort McHenry

As the British sailed toward Baltimore in early September 1814, Georgetown attorney Francis Scott Key and John Skinner, the US agent for the exchange of prisoners, met the British to negotiate the release of Key’s friend, a physician abducted from Maryland. They were aboard a truce ship when the British began bombarding Fort McHenry outside Baltimore. They had to watch the fighting through the night, but then came the raising of that large flag measuring 30×42 feet, which Key could see even from a distance. He then knew that the Americans were victorious and was very proud. To record his thoughts at that moment, he wrote a poem about his feelings on seeing the flag. This poem later became the national anthem. Some of his words say “the stars of that banner”, which led to the actual flag being called The Star-Spangled Banner too.

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Viv M and a flag and statue of Key in the Fort McHenry Museum

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The flag on Fort McHenry today

President Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent on February 17th, 1815, and the war was officially over. Neither America nor Britain had won a clear victory, but the war gave Americans a stronger sense of collective identity and confirmed its new position on the international stage.

Fort McHenry became a National Monument, which people can visit. We did and it was fascinating—I’ll write more on that later.

Two lasting symbols came from this war: The Star-Spangled Banner (now in the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington DC) and the national anthem that honors it. More details on those coming too.

 

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They make their own beer at Oliver Brewing Co on sight

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Ale outside

Pratt Street Ale House

While in Baltimore we ended up coming here a couple of times for lunch and for dinner. Partly because its location was so convenient—opposite the Convention Center and close to our hotels—but also because after our first meal there we realized that the food is really good, fairly reasonably priced and has a wonderful convivial atmosphere and really friendly wait staff.

We sat outside the first two times at tables under trees that line the sidewalk. The next two times we opted to sit inside as the weather had changed to terribly hot and steamy. Both were fine in different ways: outside we could watch the world go by, and it did, in a steady stream of pedestrians and noisy traffic; inside we were cool and could listen to snippets of conversation at other tables as people discussed the merits of the local baseball team, the Orioles. On our final night in the city, there was a game on between the Orioles and the Chicago Cubs and many Cubs fans were in town. Many seemed to be in this pub as it’s on the way to the stadium, so we also heard lots of “go Cubbies” comments too. Remember that Baltimore is serious about its sports!

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Inside—tuna salad

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Outside—tuna salad

OsignBut, back to the Ale House.

They have quite a large menu with many options, lots like typical pub food. For lunches we tried a couple of their special salads: a crab cobb salad and a seared tuna salad with wasabi soba noodles and vegetables. So good, in fact, that we had the tuna again!

They are a brew pub and their speciality is Oliver’s Ales, so we had to try one of those at least once (because our grandson’s name is Oliver!), and their beer menu is impressive. One evening we chose “Staring at the Sun”, a Belgian-style wheat beer that was pretty good.

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An extensive menu

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Crab Cobb salad

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Ribeye

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The salmon and shrimp dish was delicious…

For entrees, the rib-eye was good (Rod), but the really amazing dish was the salmon with shrimp, a mashed potato patty and wilted spinach. I would definitely go back just for that!

Address: 206 W. Pratt Street, opposite the Baltimore Convention Center and a few blocks from the Inner harbor.

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…and so was the tuna salad!

 

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phillips

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The former Power Plant building

Phillips Seafood was recommended by a friend originally from Baltimore and by all the tourist books and brochures, so we decided we should go there our first evening in Baltimore, as we hadn’t scouted out any other good eating places.

This popular place is at the edge of Inner Harbor in part of the old Pratt Street Power Plant building (Barnes and Noble and Hard Rock Café are in there too). The former coal-fired power plant, built 1900-1909, was repurposed from the mid 1970s. Phillips Seafood moved here in June 2010.

Come very early, or a bit later (8pm) as it gets very crowded around 5:30-8pm and you’ll likely have a long wait, especially on weekends.

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Rod M inside

There is indoor and outdoor seating: we opted for indoors as the wait was slightly shorter. It was cooler inside too! The décor is attractive with pretty chandeliers and stained-glass insets in the ceiling. We had a beer while waiting and then got a bar area table pretty easily.

Here in Baltimore (and in Maryland generally) crab cakes are a speciality, so we had to try them. We shared a beet salad, with two different colored beets and feta cheese on arugula, which was delicious. Then Rod had the classic plate, which was a crab cake, a shrimp skewer, a piece of salmon, mashed potatoes and asparagus. I had crab-stuffed shrimp, which was 5 butterflied shrimp

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Crab-stuffed shrimp

stuffed with a crab mix, with mashed potatoes and asparagus. All very nice, with a very friendly server.

The atmosphere is pleasant, as it’s bustling with people and two guys on guitars were playing and singing, a bit like John Denver.

Phillips Seafood is a very prominent institution around here, and it would be hard to miss with its huge red sign. I’m glad we came and it was fun. The food was good, but pretty over-priced, I’d say. Definitely good for one visit, but I’m not sure we could afford to return.

601 E. Pratt Steet, Baltimore, www.Phillipsseafood.com

 

 

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Inner harbor

Part of Baltimore’s famous Inner Harbor

We have just returned from a week’s trip to the city of Baltimore, a first for me. We really enjoyed it, in spite of the extreme heat and humidity, and agree that the city deserves its nickname of “Charm City”.

They have done a good job with public transport, which is very important for a city to be moving forward. They have a Light Rail system, many different bus lines (some are free), and a metro.

 

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Our Light Rail ticket to BWI Airport

For example, it’s very easy to get from Baltimore (BWI) airport to downtown. When you’ve collected your baggage walk to Gate 18 in the baggage collection area and buy Light Rail tickets at the machine there. Normal fare is $1.60, but seniors pay only $0.80 (there are some advantages of being a senior!). Then Gate 19 straight ahead leads directly onto the platform. During the day, trains come about every 20-25 minutes and it took us about 40-45 minutes to get to Camden Yards, one of the convenient stops for the Convention Center (the other is the next stop, Convention Center, but that day the train ended at Camden Yards).

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A Purple Line Charm City Circulator bus

Returning to the airport very early in the morning, trains only run every 30 minutes and do not stop at Convention Center, so we caught the train at Camden Yards again. Same price, from the ticket machine.

Another great feature of public transport, for both visitors and locals, are the Charm City Circulator buses. There are four lines that run different routes. Each route has a color—purple, orange, green, and dark blue (called Banner Line). We used them a number of times, as the routes run to most of the main tourist sights. Best of all they are FREE! People hop on and off at will. Pick up a Charm City Circulator bus schedule at the Visitors’ Center on the Inner Harbor.

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