Feeling like we needed a bit more history knowledge in our summer, and knowing that going to a fort would sound cool to my two boys, I planned an outing to Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. I had read that 2014 is the 200th anniversary of the Star-Spangled Banner so it seemed like an ideal time to visit.
The nutshell version of Fort McHenry’s history: In September 1814, during the War of 1812, the British had already burned Washington and won a battle at North Point, not far from Baltimore. They next attacked Baltimore by ship at Fort McHenry. It seemed the Americans didn’t stand a chance against the mighty British Navy, yet somehow only four Americans died, and the British ships retreated. Watching the 25-hour battle from a vessel was Francis Scott Key. When he was able to spot the American flag flying at Fort McHenry “by the dawn’s early light,” he knew the battle was won. Based on what he saw, he penned a poem that later became The Star-Spangled Banner.
We started in the visitors’ center, where we glanced at some interactive exhibits while waiting for the introductory movie to begin (it’s shown on the hour and half hour). Shown on an enormous screen, the movie includes some very intense scenes, made even more dramatic by the music, and at a few points, the lighting (red spotlights blare down when a reenactment of Washington burning is shown). My boys and I were on the edge of our seats, and found the telling of the fort’s history to be compelling and also easy to understand. Children who are easily frightened might find the film too scary, though my 5-year-old didn’t express any fear nor did anyone else around us. At the movie’s end, the screen rose to reveal a window with a view of the fort and a flag flying outside, while The Star-Spangled Banner played. I found it very moving as the whole crowd of visitors rose from their bench or floor seats, mostly with hands over hearts, to listen or sing and pay tribute.
We headed outside and came upon a very animated ranger standing over a permanent, etched-in-stone map of Baltimore/Washington with toy boats on top. He was very dramatically describing the events of 1814 while pointing out where The Star-Spangled Banner phrases came from. We learned what ramparts are (the walls around the fort).
We next followed a pathway toward the five-point-star-shaped fort, stopping to read a few signs as we went. We came to a display of large cannons that my boys liked reading about while I enjoyed the breeze coming off the nearby water.
We entered the brick-and-stone fort, and wandered into all the rooms open to visitors, including soldiers’ and officers’ quarters and an ammunition room. We stopped and read signs or watched short videos as went. My boys climbed on some cannons for a photo op but it wasn’t until later that I read in the brochure that that is prohibited (there wasn’t a sign by those particular cannons warning us!)
There are sections of the fort that would be difficult or impossible to traverse with a stroller, including some stairs and some underground rooms, but those could easily be skipped. The fort is not fully handicap accessible.
As we went back outside the fort, we came to some impressively large cannons that we spent a lot of time ogling (some of them shot 36-pound cannons). Except for when we were in rooms in the fort, we were mostly in full sun. We found a bench under a tree along the water and ate our picnic lunch.
We thought we were done with our visit (deciding to skip walking over to some statues near the visitors’ center), but when we came upon the visitors’ center, there was another ranger program underway. They were just about to unfurl a 42×30-foot star-spangled banner, a replica of what flew over the fort in 1814. We were able to line up with other visitors and hold a section along the flag’s edge as it was unrolled. Then the ranger asked Fort McHenry trivia questions and with each correct answer, we all helped roll up a stripe until it was fully rolled. It was a wonderful way to wrap up our visit, and spontaneous singing of The Star-Spangled Banner has since become commonplace in our house.
- Entrance to Fort McHenry is $7 for ages 16 and over; free for 15 and under. Hours change seasonally so check the website for current hours, but it’s generally open 9am to 5pm daily.
- GPS directions may not be correct so check the directions (via Lawrence Street) on the fort’s site and follow posted signs for Fort McHenry.
- There’s a large parking lot (free) outside the visitors’ center.
- Many ranger programs are offered daily. We were lucky to happen upon a few on our visit, but check the fort’s website beforehand if you want to try to catch a certain program.
- We brought a picnic lunch, but also passed some eateries on our drive in off I-95. The fort does not have a cafe (but it does have a gift shop with some candy).
- The fort is about a 10-minute drive from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
- Baltimore will celebrate the 200th anniversary of The Star-Spangled Banner with tall ships, the Blue Angels, fireworks, and more, September 6-16, 2014. Event details are at https://www.starspangled200.com/.
Photos by Kathleen Seiler Neary.