Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine

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Sep 7, 2001 (Updated Aug 5, 2004)
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  • User Rating: Excellent

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Pros:Very educational. Staff knowledgeable and helpful

Cons:Some areas aren't stroller/handicapped accessible

The Bottom Line: Don't miss it if you're in the area. You need to do some homework first to get the most out of it.

The weekend of September 7-9, 2001 is the official celebration of the 187th anniversary of the defense of Fort McHenry -- also
known as Defender’s Day. The actual anniversary falls on the 13th & 14th of September, but since those are weekdays this year, the big doings will be this weekend.

On June 14, 1777 the Continental Congress passed the first Flag act: “Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation."

In 1885, a school teacher decided that his students should celebrate the anniversary of that day. Others thought that to be a good idea, and so it grew and spread - eventually
reaching even to Washington, DC where the Congress thought this such a good idea that in 1949, June 14 was designated as National Flag Day. Nowhere do they celebrate this quite as spectacularly as at the birthplace of our National Anthem, Fort McHenry.

As a homeschooling mom, I’m always looking for educational opportunities and ways to create memorable learning experiences for my kids. Flag day presented just such an opportunity this year, since it provides the other big celebration at the fort. We started in early June with a trip to the library to pick up some books on the subject. There is a staggering selection at my local library and we were staggering under the weight of our selections by the time we headed for home. Since my current vict... er student was 5 at the time, this consisted primarily of picture books and a resource or two for the teacher (me).

When we started reading the first book, my son was immediately entranced by the weapons displayed. He just loves anything military from any time period. He takes after his father that way. Then he was horrified to learn that Francis Scott Key had been held prisoner by the British for nearly a week. He was outraged! He demanded to know more. I took advantage of his eagerness and moved on to the next book: Mary Pickersgill was somewhat less fascinating, since there were no weapons involved, but once he realized her connection as the seamstress who sewed the Fort McHenry flag, he paid close attention.

A few days, and a few books later, Matthew was quite excited about the upcoming Flag Day trip to Fort McHenry. I thought I was prepared. I had my map and my directions to the fort. I’d checked their web site to see what time the flag changing ceremony would take place. We left in plenty of time and arrived 15 minutes before the scheduled
ceremony. I knew something was wrong when I saw the TV crews pulling out just as I was pulling in. Don’t trust the posted schedule if you want to see the flag changing ceremony - they change it to suit the schedule of the local news crews - or they did this year. If you want to catch the twice a day ceremony, call the day before to make sure the time hasn’t been changed.

Because we were hoping to catch at least a little of the morning ceremonies, we bypassed the introductory movie on our way into the fort. As we walked briskly toward the parade ground we were passed by the rapidly retreating members of the honor guard who had taken part in the ceremony. Since they weren’t carrying weapons, Matthew had no interest in pursuing them. Entering the fort by way of the Sally Port, we found the famous flag pole standing proudly erect in front of us. Looking up, up, up we immediately realized that the flag flying that morning was rather smaller than we’d expected. It was rather like finding bikinis where you expected to find boxers.

Puzzled, we approached the ranger who was standing at the foot of the flagpole with a stack of even smaller flags. As we watched, he lowered the flag and replaced it with one
so small that we had to laugh. Seldom shy with his questions, Matthew soon engaged the ranger in conversation and we learned that the flag he’d just raised was destined for a retirement ceremony. There were other flags which would shortly follow it up the pole, fly over the fort for a brief time, and then go on to their own celebrations. Flags which have been flown over the fort are in demand all over the world. If your pole has a yearning for celebrity, you can introduce it to a flag that’s been next to greatness. You have a choice of a replica of the fort flag, or a modern 50-star flag. They'll fly it over the fort for a short time, then take it down and send it to you. Once it's off their pole and in your hands, you can run it up yours! Orders can be placed through the Fort McHenry gift shop.

We also learned that the flag flies over the fort 24 hours a day, regardless of the weather, so there isn’t just one Fort McHenry flag. The original battle flag was 42 feet long by 30 feet high with 15 stars and 15 stripes. The flag we saw when we entered the fort was the smaller storm flag -- on an ordinary pole, that would still be impressive at 17’ x 25’. No, the day wasn’t stormy. In fact the reason they were flying the smaller flag was because there wasn’t enough wind to lift the larger flag. Most days that wouldn’t have been an issue, but they were playing to the cameras that morning.

After our chat with the ranger, we went on to explore the parade grounds. With all the weaponry on display, Matthew was as excited as I’ve ever seen him. He could barely contain himself as I read the explanations of the displays.

“They used THIS one in the battle, didn’t they mom?”

“Sorry, that one is LIKE the ones they used in the battle, but it’s not one of them.” Seeing the disappointment in his eyes, I realized I should probably have just said yes.

He doesn’t stay disappointed long, and soon located weapons actually used in the battle. Then we checked out the buildings. Matthew was quite impressed with the quarters provided - with 2 men assigned to each bunk and the bunks not much larger than his bed. Inside the buildings of the fort we also found displays of uniforms and weapons used at the fort during the defense of Baltimore as well as during the Revolution and the Civil War.

About halfway around the circle, Matthew spotted a more modern sign. It was one he’d apparently been looking for, because as soon as he spotted it, he said. “Mom, I have to pee!” In we went and found facilities that were clean and well kept, if a little dated. No, not that dated. They were definitely mid 20th century.

Next, we toured the rampart -- the earthen outer wall of the fort. You can walk almost completely around the fort on the rampart, and it offers a breathtaking view of industrial
sites across the river -- as well as views of Baltimore’s inner harbor. The rampart also provides an excellent view of the gun emplacements with the Rodman guns used to defend the fort against British attack.

We had to climb down to give the cannon a closer inspection and once down, it seemed logical to walk the perimeter of the fort. There must be something about halfway points. We reached a small stand of trees when Matthew again made his announcement -- dogs and small boys seem to find it difficult to walk past a tree without watering it. This time, mom insisted that he keep walking. He was disappointed and threatened to embarrass me by dropping his shorts on the spot, but promises to bypass the gift shop if he did that quickly got him back on track.

It was very hot that day, so we paused a little further along to rest. As I was looking out over the water imagining the British ships sailing up the bay, Matthew interrupted my reverie.

“Mom, are there sharks in that water?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I bet there are!

He listens to his brothers too much sometimes. We walked a little further.

“Mom, are there sea monsters in that water?”

I gave brief thought to telling him about Chessie, the legendary creature occasionally spotted in the Chesapeake bay. Fortunately, I thought better of it. He’s prone to nightmares and we live close to the water.

The perimeter path would be a very pleasant walk on another day -- perhaps when the temperature and humidity aren’t both hovering around 99. By the time we completed our walk, we were thoroughly limp and more than a little damp from the exertion. There are water fountains and soda/juice machines just outside the visitor center. There is also a shaded area with benches near by. We selected our refreshment and headed over to find seats. We were delighted to find a girls choir from Austin, Texas who had stopped to rehearse their performance just outside the visitor center. The girls were excellent singers and their choice of music was very appropriate to the site. That would have made a wonderful finale to our tour, but there was one more stop.

Back inside the visitor center again, we finally got to see the “introductory” movie about the fort and the writing of the Star Spangled Banner. It’s really quite inspiring, but I recommend you do it our way. Learn about the fort before you go; tour the place and imagine yourself among the defenders -- only then should you experience the
“introductory” movie. It’s much more meaningful that way.

If you’re in the Baltimore area this weekend, I recommend that you get yourself out to Fort McHenry. Defender’s Day promises to be much more exciting than Flag Day, complete with reinactments and fireworks from the fort. Weekends during the summer, and special occasions like Defenders Day there are always folks in costumes of the period who are delighted to share their experiences of the Battle of Baltimore.

For more on Fort McHenry visit the following web sites.

Recommend this product? Yes

Best time to go: Anytime
Recommended for: Anybody
Review Topic: Overview

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