Baltimore’s Historic Fort McHenry & Locust Point in Spotlight

Photo by Bill Hughes.

One of my earliest memories of growing up in South Baltimore’s Locust Point were my many visits to historic Fort McHenry. It was situated within walking distance from my boyhood home on Haubert Street, just two blocks from Fort Avenue, the main route to the site.

The Fort is indeed a beautiful sight as it juts out into the harbor. It has the waters of the Inner Harbor to its left and the Patapsco River to its right. The land where it stands was once known as Whetstone Point, later changed to Locust Point. Its geographical location is at the end of a peninsula on the edge of the waters.

It also holds many memories for those who have worked or visited there. This is especially so for the proud sons and daughters of Locust Point, where it is located.

Today, standing at the water’s edge in the Fort and looking straight ahead, you will see the framework of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. It was completed in 1977 and is named after the author of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

Key was a prisoner on a British vessel, which was docked out in Baltimore Harbor during the bombardment of the Fort on September 13-14, 1814. He wrote a poem, originally entitled, “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” After its name change, it was later set to music to a popular drinking ballad and evolved into our celebrated national anthem.

The Fort’s defense at the time of British bombardment was under the command of General George Armistead. The Fort’s guns kept the British at a distance and its defenders were able to withstand “25 hours of artillery and rocket fire.” (1) If the British had been successful, Baltimore City would have probably been put to the torch, which had been the depressing fate of Washington, D.C., on August 24, 1814.

The Fort with its fabled “star fort” as it primary feature, is, at 44 acres, one of the top tourist attractions in the country. It has about 800,000 visitors a year. A presidential visit, too, is customary. Former President Donald Trump did the honors on Memorial Day on May 25, 2020.

The first fireworks demonstration I witnessed was held at the Fort. And, I also watched my first marching band parade there back in the 1940s during WWII. I also remember seeing the then-Republican Mayor of Baltimore, Theodore “Teddy” McKeldin, riding in the back of a military jeep as the patriotic procession moved past Latrobe Park and down towards the Fort

One of the parade’s spectators barked at McKeldin, “You’re a bum!” But my father, a staunch Democrat, who was standing close by and holding my hand, answered, “No, he’s not. He’s a good guy.” I suspect my father knew that McKeldin was one of eleven children and that he was a self-made man and a resounding success story.

(McKeldin would later go on to serve two terms as mayor of Baltimore and two terms as governor of Maryland. He also had the high honor of nominating Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower as president of the United States at the 1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago.)

Back in the early 50s, it wasn’t unusual for Locust Point youngsters to go “crabbing” off the Fort’s south side out of the sight of its park rangers. I recall being a party to one of these crabbing expeditions and leaving on my bike to go to a confectionary store up on Andre St. to get some sodas for my thirsty buddies.

When I got back, “I yelled out,” in jest, “no one is going to get any of these sodas.” I was right! I couldn’t stop running downhill, took a hard tumble, and landed out in the water. One of my hands did get a little bloody. That was the last time, however, that the boy-ohs ever sent me to get a soda for them!  Who can blame them?

Here’s a little history: During the Civil War, Union troops were stationed at the Fort as part of a “unifying force to keep Maryland from seceding from the Union.” The Fort’s guns were turned towards the city and its prisons were used to hold Confederate sympathizers as well as “captured Confederate soldiers.”

During WWI, a military hospital, “then the largest in the country” was established at the Fort. It had over 100 temporary buildings erected on it to house “American soldiers.”

And, do you history buffs out there know that Fort Carroll, just outside Baltimore Harbor, had Robert E. Lee as its principal project engineer? That fort was named for Charles Carroll one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He originally hailed from Annapolis.

The Fort was named for Colonel James McHenry in 1797. He had served as Secretary of War under both George Washington and John Adams. It was designated a national park in 1925. When a new national flag is created the tradition is for it to first fly over the Fort.

Both White and Black troops served in defense of Baltimore and Washington during that 1812-14 conflict. One of the Black troops, Charles Ball, who was a seaman on the U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla, wrote about his service in his memoirs, “The Life and Adventures of Charles Ball.”

I didn’t know this but the Fort had at one time had a chapel where weddings were performed. It was built in 1886 and removed in 1927.

Finally, on August 11, 1939, Fort McHenry received the title of a “National Monument and Historic Shrine,” according to the National Park Service. A Defenders Day ceremony in honor of the “Battle of Baltimore” is held every year in September at the Fort.