Fort McHenry: Birthplace of the National Anthem

05/30/2016
By Preservation Maryland

As Marylanders, we are stewards of one of the great sites of American history; Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shine, and the birthplace of the National Anthem.We’re proud to tell the story of the preservation of Fort McHenry and the flag that inspired our National anthem:

Fort McHenry currently occupies Fort Whetstone, a star-shaped fort constructed in 1776 to protect Baltimore during the Revolutionary War. The fort went on to serve an essential role on in mid-September 1812, when soldiers fought off the British attack in the Battle of Baltimore. There were causalities and damage to the fort, yet the iconic 30 foot by 42 foot garrison flag that was flying during the Battle survived and was seen by Francis Scott Key the morning of September 14 and inspired him to write the words to “The Star Spangled Banner,” our National Anthem.

SAVING FORT MCHENRY FROM DEMOLITION

Fort McHenry remained a working military garrison for 110 years, until the last active military unit left in 1912. During the 1930s, the Fort was restored by the U.S. Army and the Works Progress Administration. In 1933, Fort McHenry was transferred to the National Park Service by executive order and it became designated as the only National Monument and Historic Shrine in America in 1939.

Even with its solid place in history, and historical recognition, Fort McHenry came under a new type of attack in the 1970s with the planned construction of Interstate 95. Plans called for an elevated highway and bridge over the Fort with a clearance of just 180 feet, hiding the Fort from public view – that may have been the least of concerns with the construction having unknown consequences on the historic site.

Community activists with several state politicians opposed this proposal on the grounds of Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act that required exploration of a new path or plan that did not negatively affect a recognized historic site. Adherence to the regulations led to a new design that included construction of the Fort McHenry Tunnel, which did not compromise the historic site.

Today, when we advocate for historic preservation policy at the Federal and state level, we freely reference Fort McHenry as a site essential to American history that would have been lost without the regulations of Section (4)f. It’s a case study of a policy success and is used to protect historic sites today.

The Fort McHenry flag as photographed in 1873.

CONSERVING THE STARS AND STRIPES

Today Mary Pickersgill’s flag sewn in 1812 and flown over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore is displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. After the Battle of Baltimore, Major Armistead retained the flag, and passed it on in 1878 to his grandson, Eben Appleton of New York. Appleton denied many requests to display the flag and only permitted it to travel to Baltimore in 1880. In 1912, Appleton donated the flag to the Smithsonian Institution with the hopes that it would forever be on display for the public and would be properly preserved.

Our Preservation Month posts were written and prepared by Rachel Rettaliata, one of Preservation Maryland’s Waxter Interns. Rachel’s work with us focuses on communications and advocacy. She is a Fulbright Scholar, and will be attending the historic preservation program at the University of Maryland this fall. Learn more about Rachel and our intern program here: presmd.org/waxter

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Preservation Maryland is Maryland’s first and largest organization dedicated to preserving the state’s historic buildings, neighborhoods, landscapes, and archaeological sites.

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