Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
–Francis Scott Key, “The Defense of Fort McHenry”
One can hardly fathom the sheer terror that Francis Scott Key must have experienced as he watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry on the night of September 13 and into the early morning hours of the 14th, 1814. That evening, Key, a thirty five year-old Maryland-born lawyer from Georgetown in the district of Columbia, had dined with enemy officers aboard an enemy ship in order to negotiate the release of American prisoners. Because he was now privy to British plans for the bombardment and invasion of Baltimore, Key and American Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner were detained aboard the HMS Tonnant.
Key likely knew of the systematic destruction of Washington, D.C. by the British and quite possibly worried about destruction of his own home on the opposite bank of the Potomac River. Now detained aboard an enemy ship in Baltimore harbor, it’s imaginable that he worried about the probable destruction of another American city. Below decks, American prisoners lay shackled and there was fear that the British would mercilessly hang these citizens including a respected doctor, William Beanes, from Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Key and Skinner watched with horror the bombardment of Fort McHenry with its huge flag.
The bombardment by the British fleet in Baltimore harbor began on the morning of the thirteenth with an initial exchange. The Americans had sunk a series of merchant ships in the harbor to prevent the British from getting close enough to the fort. After the initial bombardment, the British withdrew to just outside of the range of Fort McHenry’s cannon. At 1 AM the next morning, the British began their heaviest and most long-lasting bombardment that would last most of the next day. They poured some 1500 to 1800 Congreve rockets and mortars onto the fort from a series of ships. Firing mortars onto the fort were ships bearing names like Devastation, Terror, Meteor, Volcano and Aetna. Fortunately, the mortars were poorly designed and few of them actually reached their targets while many of the Congreve rockets exploded mid-air. “…And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air…”
With dawn’s early light, Fort McHenry’s huge flag which had been sewn by Mary Pickersgill and her 13 year-old daughter was revealed to still be flying, an indication that the city and fort had repelled the invasion. Relieved, Key wrote an ode to the flag that was set to an English tune, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The song gained popularity and was eventually deemed the national anthem in 1931. The grand flag has been cherished and preserved in the Museum of American History while Fort McHenry has been deemed a National Historic Shrine: a shrine to liberty, American defiance, hope, history and spirits.
Whetstone Point juts into an arm of the Patapsco River as it meets the Chesapeake Bay. This peninsula provides the perfect perch from which to oversee ships sailing into Baltimore Harbor and it was here that a fort was first constructed during the American Revolution in 1776. Baltimore was never under British threat during that war, but the local citizens thought it necessary to expand the fort following the war using a five-pointed star design by Jean Foncin. Among the fort’s biggest cheerleaders during this time was Secretary of War James McHenry, for whom the fort was later named.
In the midst of the tumult of the early nineteenth century, American decided to finally stand up against British bullying and declared war. It was this action that brought intense military scrutiny to the region and then action in 1814. Brevet Lt. Col. George Armistead commanded the fort during the day-long bombardment and saw only four casualties among his men. Following the war, the fort resumed its duties standing guard over the harbor until the nation it kept intact was torn apart by Civil War. As Maryland remained neutral there was fear that those with Southern sympathies would try to secede, thus leaving Washington, D.C. surrounded by enemy territory. Politicians suspected of having rebel sympathies were imprisoned in the fort including Baltimore’s mayor, city council and police commissioner. Legend states that the fort’s guns were even trained on the city it had so dutifully protected.
After the Civil War the fort resumed its regular duty and when war once again tore Europe apart during World War I, the fort became a 3000 bed hospital for American troops. After medical duty, much of the fort was restored and it was named a National Park in 1925. On the eve of the Second World War, the fort was named both a National Monument and Historic Shrine, a unique designation from a grateful nation. Once again, the fort resumed duty, like many historic coastal forts. The fort was used by the Coast Guard who worked to protect American shores and shipping from German U-boats.
Under the purview of the National Park Service, the typical line is taken: there are no ghosts at Fort McHenry, though many experiences have been documented. Ed Okonowicz in his masterful Baltimore Ghosts catalogs the numerous spirits that have been witnessed through the old fort. Among them are one, possibly two spirits from the British bombardment in 1814. During one of the engagements, the British scored a direct hit on a gun emplacement on Bastion 3. The explosion killed two Baltimore merchants serving in the Maryland Militia, Lt. Levi Clagett and Sgt. John Clemm. Visitors and staff near “Clagett’s Battery” as it is now called, have spotted the visage of a soldier in period uniform. Visitors sometimes inquire at the visitor’s center as to the identity of the reenactor in that area when none are present. During preparations for a visit by President Gerald Ford, the Secret Service spotted a uniformed soldier walking the same bastion where Clagett and Clemm died.
The barracks hosts a female spirit who has been spotted looking out the window and who may be responsible for two “attacks” that have taken place there. An artist who was exploring the building walked through a doorway and was knocked out cold by an invisible something. He stated that it felt like he was hit in the face with a frying pan. He was discovered a short time later by a park ranger who escorted him from the building and who did not seem surprised by the artist’s experiences, replying that he had had a woman in nineteenth century clothing try to push him down the stairs. According to Okonowicz, the identity of the woman may be that of a military officer’s wife who lost both her husband and children to an epidemic sometime after the War of 1812.
Perhaps one of the saddest spirits of the fort is the pathetic form of Private John Drew. Drew was on guard duty one evening in 1880. He was arrested the following morning when he was found to have fallen asleep on the job. Unable to deal with this horribly embarrassing episode, Drew shot himself in his cell. Drew’s form has been seen near where he was supposed to be standing guard on that fateful evening. Others have felt a chill within the cell where Drew took his life.
One of the more interesting experiences reported on the grounds of the fort comes from near a large statue of Orpheus honoring Francis Scott Key. The large statue stands on the grounds outside the fort and it was here that one visitor saw the figure of man in uniform seemingly floating in mid-air. It was discovered later that that particular area had been the scene of an execution in 1862. A young private had been found guilty of murdering another soldier and it was here that he made his “air-dance,” in other words, he was hanged. Most likely, this is just a sample of the spirits that roam the historic battlements of Fort McHenry; battlements that still witness “the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” every Fourth of July when fireworks celebrate the freedom this place helped maintain.
- Fort McHenry. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 22 November 2011.
- Francis Scott Key. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 22 November 2011.
- Okonowicz, Ed. Baltimore Ghosts: History, Mystery, Legends and Lore. Elkton, MD: Myst and Lace Publishing, 2006.
- The Star-Spangled Banner. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 22 November 2011.
- Varhola, Michael J. and Michael H. Varhola. Ghosthunting Maryland. Cincinnati, OH: Clerisy Press, 2009.