F Is For Fort McHenry

Anyone who is familiar with basic American history has probably heard of Fort McHenry. But, before we get to the reason why most Americans know Fort McHenry, we need to know its early beginnings. It started out as a small earthen star fort called Fort Whetstone during the American Revolution. The fortress was situated at the peninsula that guarded the entrance of the Baltimore Harbor. The fort never came under attack during the Revolution, but military men realized the importance of coastal defenses such as this one to protect the young country’s third largest city and one of her vital ports.

Construction began in 1798 to expand the fort and make it more permanent with brick and stone masonry. The new and improved structure was named after George Washington’s Secretary of War, James McHenry, a Baltimore native.

Fort McHenry was completed in 1803 and enjoyed a period of relative peace where it was used as an outpost for a small standing army and the fledgling country’s first light artillery unit

Peace didn’t last long.

With the War of 1812, Fort McHenry became prime real estate. Tensions had been rising between the US and Great Britain over colonial settlement in the northwest territory, but even more incendiary was the British habit of press-ganging men and American ships into the British Navy even with American papers. The Royal Navy was effectively embargoing trade with France and tempers were rising. Opinion in America was split on how to deal with the situation. Congress voted for war. Britain made concessions that would have avoided war, but the word was not received until hostilities commenced.

On August 24, Major General Robert Ross along with Rear Admiral George Cockburn attacked Washington City with 4,500 “battle-hardened” soldiers. Cockburn felt that “within a short period of time, with enough force, we could easily have at our mercy the capital.” His plan was to raze the city to the ground, while Ross wanted to damage only government buildings. They sacked the Capitol, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the White House.

There is a legend about Dolly Madison saving the portrait of George Washington by cutting it out of the frame, but the British troops were upon them and there was no time for her to do that as it was mounted high on the wall according to servants who wrote about it later. She gathered the silver in her reticule and fled. One of the servants grabbed a ladder and cut the portrait out barely ahead of the British. The Brits enjoyed the dinner that was already prepared for the family and then looted and torched the White House.

By the Grace of God, a strong storm, possibly a hurricane put out the fires.

Needless to say, Americans were fired up after the burning of Washington. Dr. William Beanes, an elderly and popular town physician, and a friend of Francis Scott Key had been captured in his home on August 28, 1814. Beanes was accused of aiding the arrest of some British soldiers who were pillaging homes.


 Key sought out Colonel John Stuart Skinner, the American agent for prisoners of war, and together they made their way to the HMS Tonnant, where he successfully negotiated for the release of the doctor who was being held on the ship. Unfortunately, they had overheard the plans to attack Baltimore and could not be released.

Thus, Key would witness the attack on Fort McHenry which guarded the harbor to Baltimore. Key, Skinner, and Dr Beanes transferred from the HMS Tonnant to the frigate HMS Surprise on the morning of September 8. The Royal fleet eased up the Chesapeake toward Baltimore with Skinner’s truce vessel in tow behind Surprise. Col. Skinner insisted they be transferred back to their own truce vessel, which they were allowed to do under guard on September 11 when they reached the north peninsula. Admiral Cochrane moved his sixteen-ship attack force into position and transferred his flag to the shallow draft Surprise so he could move in with the squadron. There, aligned on the Patapsco River Fort McHenry, the 25-hour bombardment commenced at sunrise on September 13 and lasted through the early morning of September 14. They signaled repeatedly; lower your flag and we will stop the shelling.

When the bombardment began, Fort McHenry was flying her 17×25 foot storm flag. The next morning, she defiantly raised her 30×42 foot garrison flag.  

Giving up, the British allowed the Americans to go, and they sailed away. Francis Scott Key started writing what would become The Star Spangled Banner on the back of an envelope in his pocket during the fight. He finished it in a hotel the next day. It was published on broadsides and immediately became a hit, then was set to the tune, The Anacreontic Song.

Fort McHenry was relatively quiet until the Civil War started and then it played a big role in Washington politics.

Following the War of 1812, Fort McHenry went through many improvements. Outer defenses were strengthened and added. Buildings were expanded. Army Colonel and engineer Robert E. Lee supervised the construction of Fort Carroll, adding to Baltimore’s coastal defenses. Lee’s engineer skills had been vital in the Mexican War and were once again called on for new defenses for port and coastal defense.

Fort Sumter was fired on April 12, 1861, prompting Lincoln’s immediate call for 50,000 troops to put down the insurrection. Maryland had a strong Southern leaning, but it was necessary to move troops through Baltimore to Washington regardless of the leanings of the population.

On Thursday, April 18, 460 newly mustered Pennsylvania state volunteers arrived at Bolton Street Station. John Pemberton’s (later a Confederate general) regular army regiments joined them there. They split off from Howard Street in downtown Baltimore and marched east along the waterfront to Fort McHenry. Several hundred Southern sympathizers formed near the Washington Monument and surged to confront the troops, which unbeknownst to them were unarmed and had their weapons unloaded. The police were mostly successful in protecting the troops marching south to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad stations. Even so, they suffered insults and a heavy assault of stones and bricks. The troops camped in the uncompleted Capitol Dome that night.

The 6th Massachusetts Militia expected to move slowly through Baltimore on April 19, but had no other choice due to a rule preventing the construction of steam rail lines through the city. There was no direct rail connection between the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad’s President Street Station and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s Camden Station. Rail cars had to be pulled by horses down Pratt Street between the two stations.

The unit’s commander, Colonel Edward Jones, was warned they might meet resistance when they passed through Baltimore. He went through the cars giving his men the following order: “The regiment will march through Baltimore in a column of sections, arms at will. You will undoubtedly be insulted, abused, and, perhaps, assaulted, to which you must pay no attention whatever, but march with your faces to the front, and pay no attention to the mob, even if they throw stones, bricks, or other missiles; but if you are fired upon and any one of you is hit, your officers will order you to fire. Do not fire into any promiscuous crowds, but select, any man whom you may see aiming at you, and be sure you drop him.”

They were. Shots were fired and when the riot was over four soldiers and twelve citizens lay dead.  

After the riots, the fort commandant invited the police chief to tour the fort with him and pointed out how some of the cannons were now placed. They had been shifted directed toward the city center. “I should be very sorry to fire on the city, but will not hesitate a moment to hold the fort.” The message had been delivered and no more threats were thrown toward McHenry.

Governor Hicks begged President Lincoln not to send troops through Maryland to avoid further problems. Lincoln responded Union soldiers were, “neither birds to fly over Maryland, nor moles to burrow under it” and would continue moving through the state and through Baltimore. There were, unsurprisingly, calls for Maryland to secede following the riot and further actions to keep the military out of Baltimore abounded. A militia leader named John Merryman was arrested a month later and imprisoned at Fort McHenry on suspicions he was going to burn a bridge. His lawyers protested the defiance of a writ of habeas corpus, leading to the Ex parte Merryman court case. Chief Justice Taney ordered the commandant to release Merryman as the arrest and suspension of habeas corpus was unconstitutional, but he refused, and Lincoln backed him. When it was further protested, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus for anyone suspected of having secessionist leanings.

Lincoln then had the mayor, police chief, entire Board of Police, and city council of Baltimore imprisoned without charges, as well as one sitting U.S. Congressman from Baltimore. Once again unconstitutionally and without habeas corpus. Fort McHenry was filling up and it was not a pleasant place to be. The cells were small, barely large enough for a small mattress, which had to be placed on its end during the day because the floors were so wet.

Baltimore newspaper editor, Frank Key Howard, Francis Scott Key’s grandson, criticized this in an editorial in September. Federal troops imprisoned Howard in Fort McHenry, the same fort where the Star Spangled Banner had been waving “o’er the land of the free” years before that inspired his grandfather’s song. Howard wrote about his experience as a political prisoner in Fort McHenry when he was finally released in 1863. Two of the publishers selling Howard’s Fourteen Months in the American Bastille were promptly arrested and sent to Fort McHenry.

Martial law was firmly established. The police force was arrested and sent to Fort Warren.

Some Southerners reacted with passion to the riot and the following incidents. James Ryder Randall, a Louisiana teacher but a native Marylander had lost a friend in the riots. Grieving his friend’s loss, he wrote “Maryland, My Maryland” for the Southern cause in response to the riots. The poem was later set to “Lauriger Horatius” (the tune of O Tannenbaum), a melody popular in the South and became the state song.

The state legislature reconvened to discuss recent events and Lincoln’s unconstitutional actions on September 17, 1861. Federal troops stormed the legislature and arrested twenty-seven state legislators, fully a third of the Assembly citing Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus in further defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice’s ex parte Merryman ruling. The legislature was canceled and Fort McHenry was now a full-time prison for political prisoners as well as a defense fort, though certainly not the only prison used for such purposes.

In The Rain Crow, my main character, Lorena, is visiting her mother in Baltimore when a Union troop marches by their house. She is upset about something that has happened recently and in a fit of rebellion, leans out an upper window and waves the Bonnie Blue (a Confederate flag) and sings Rebel songs. A captain’s aide wants to arrest her, but the captain declines. She’s subsequently arrested by a Pinkerton man a few days later and imprisoned in Fort McHenry.

The Rain Crow ©2023

A young aide sitting below my window next to his captain pointed to me, scowling in distaste.

“Should I arrest her, sir?”

Go ahead, you little pismire. I waved the flag harder.

The captain, all Yankee blue and polished brass buttons looked up, cigar clenched between his teeth. No shopkeeper he. This man was rugged and deep. His beard was neatly trimmed and the color of good chocolate, not the cheap stuff, but dark and rich. His hat brim tilted low over his brow, but I could see his eyes narrow, studying me as if he were making an important decision. I tilted my chin up and continued singing. I’d sing my way to the stockades and damn them every one to hell.

“No,” he said at last. “A woman that beautiful may do as she wishes.” He drew on his cigar, examining me further. “Sing about the Baron again,” he called up.

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