Living historian Dave Gorrell and several Junior Marine volunteers lower the 30-by-42-foot Star Spangled Banner flying inside Fort McHenry's parade grounds. / Matt Roth for USA TODAY
BALTIMORE - It's been 200 years since a Washington lawyer, confined to a British troopship during their assault on an American fort guarding Baltimore, jotted down a series of pointed questions about the precarious fate of his country, just 27 years old and already under attack.
Defenceof Fort McHenry, the four-stanza poem that emerged, became a popular patriotic song and, eventually, our national anthem. Francis Scott Key's poem, which soon became The Star Spangled Banner, redefined our basic relationship with the Stars and Stripes, historians say, changing it quite literally overnight.
Before the night of Sept. 13, 1814, the flag was mostly thought of as a utilitarian marker, raised at military installations and used to identify government buildings. The following morning, after an unsuccessful bombardment by the British navy, the American flag that rose over the fort became "the symbol of liberty and perseverance and the life of the nation," says Jeffrey Brodie, deputy director of the Smithsonian Institution's Lemelson Center.
This summer, historians here and elsewhere celebrate the bicentennial of Key's ode and the 25-hour battle that preceded it. The song wouldn't become our national anthem for 117 years, but the essential question Key posed on the morning of Sept. 14, 1814 - which flag will fly over the fort? - helped stir Americans' imaginations about their future at a perilous moment.
Two weeks earlier, the British had burned down Washington, and they threatened to do the same to the key port of Baltimore with an attack on the star-shaped fort that protected it. Key, dispatched to the British ship to negotiate the release of a prisoner, was ordered to stay put until the battle ended.
"He's sort of asking the question, 'What happens if the (American) flag doesn't come up over the fort? What's the fate of the country if that happens?' " Brodie says. "When Key is writing it, he means it quite literally."
Brodie, the project manager and one of the co-curators for the Smithsonian's Star-Spangled Banner preservation project, says Key's poem and the song that emerged were the first important works to infuse the flag with the qualities of resilience and liberty.
The flag itself made its way to the Smithsonian in 1907. By then, a succession of owners had snipped off bits of the stripes to give away as souvenirs, reducing the flag's 42-foot length to 34 feet. One of the 15 stars disappeared, too. In 1996, the Smithsonian began an intensive, eight-year effort to preserve and study the flag. It remains there on display. The original copy of Key's poem also is on display at the Smithsonian, but just through Sunday.
Two hundred years after the battle, few Americans realize that the song commemorates a somewhat unexpected and epic victory in "our forgotten conflict," says Wayne State College historian Don Hickey, author of several books on the War of 1812. The successful defense of Fort McHenry "spared Baltimore from possibly being overrun," he says. More important, it helped shape our identity as a viable military player.
Five Americans died in the bombardment, but the fort was tougher to take than the British had anticipated, says Vince Vaise, chief of interpretation at Fort McHenry. "They don't want to lose a lot of ships; they don't want to lose a lot of men. So the idea is to take it if it's easy. And when it proved not to be easy, rather than risk losing all of that, it was easier just to back off."
What the British didn't realize, he says, was "how much of a morale boost it would be" to Americans, in Baltimore and elsewhere. "I don't think the British saw that coming."
The American victory at Fort McHenry and a naval victory on Lake Champlain three days earlier marked "a kind of turning point in the War of 1812," Hickey says. "We were successfully defending our territory here." The following January, Americans won a lopsided victory in the Battle of New Orleans to effectively end the war, but the successful defense of Fort McHenry remained one of its watershed moments, Hickey says. "It does show that our military had significantly improved from the beginning of the war, when it was just awful, absolutely dreadful."
Like many other important historic places associated with war, the fort hasn't seen military conflict since its key battle, says Fort McHenry Superintendent Tina Cappetta Orcutt,. Unlike others, it has been in use almost continuously by the U.S. military. "It's still a living, breathing, dynamic place," she says.
During the Civil War, the Union Army used the fort as a prison. Ironically, Key's grandson Francis Key Howard, a Baltimore newspaper editor and Confederate sympathizer, was briefly imprisoned there. To that element, the fort - and the flag - had become symbols of the tyranny of the federal government. But for Union soldiers passing through Baltimore, Vaise says, they were symbols of hope and unity, even reunification. "There was a sense that what happened here was instrumental in ending the War of 1812," he says. "Americans stood up for their country at the fort at that time, so now we're standing up for our country in our time."
For African-American Union soldiers, he says, the symbolism of the flag is "absolutely huge. The flag is a symbol of freedom. The flag is a symbol of the end of slavery."
The army decommissioned the fort in 1912, and it became a city park known for its bathing beach. By World War I, the grounds were back in use as a massive, 3,000-bed Army hospital rose nearby. During World War II, it became a Coast Guard training base that locals visited to see displays of the first captured Japanese flags.
"What I always liked, and I still love about this site as a history junkie, is that layeredness of history here," Vaise says. "Arguably, Gettysburg is a one-trick pony. If you take the Civil War out of Gettysburg, you've got farm fields."
Orcutt, who came to Fort McHenry from Gettysburg, pointed out that Camp Colt, a tank training facility, operated there during World War I.
After World War II, Fort McHenry reverted to a manicured park - for a while, visitors could simply drive right up to the walls and peek in. Interest in "living history" prompted the National Park Service to turn it into an educational site.
In 1964, construction of a visitors center overlooking the fort introduced what to many is the site's most memorable feature: a short video detailing the battle and Key's inspiration, followed by an a cappella rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, sung by the U.S. Naval Academy Glee Club. As the song plays, a giant curtain opens to reveal the fort itself, flying a replica of the 30-foot-high flag that flew Sept. 14, 1814.
A visitors center remodel in 2011 upgraded the movie and turned the curtain into a plain white screen, but the effect is the same: Most people stand for the anthem and a few sing along, and many get a lump in their throats when they see the flag flying.
"I get goosebumps every time we get to that point," Orcutt says. "I mean every time. And I've watched it a lot of times."
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the gift shop sold out of flags, Ranger Paul Plamann says. When he first arrived at the park in 1967, he had to keep two 16mm projectors running, tied to the curtain by electronic triggers embedded in the film. He has appeared in several films that re-enact the battle, both here and at the Smithsonian, and has graduated to performing live history re-enactments.
On a recent Saturday afternoon inside the visitors center, most visitors strained to adjust to the light as the screen rose and The Star Spangled Banner played. A few wiped away tears.
Baltimore audiologist Ira Kolman, 71, stood as the song began and urged his son and two young grandchildren to do the same. "I always try to tell people, 'Please stand up,' " he says. "So is this awe-inspiring? Yes, every time I come. I just got a chill, just talking to you about it."
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated the college affiliation of Don Hickey.
Read the original story: Star Spangled Banner yet waves 200 years later