When driving through the Fort McHenry Tunnel on I-95 near Baltimore, Maryland, you will be under the very water where Francis Scott Key was stuck on September 13 and 14, 1814 during the War of 1812. Key, a lawyer, had boarded the British flagship to secure the release of a friend.
He watched a gigantic flag with 15 white stars and 15 red and white stripes flutter defiantly on the ramparts of Fort McHenry. Sewn by Mary Young Pickersgill, her daughter Caroline, nieces and servants, it was so large (30′ x 42′) that it could not be stitched in their home. So they had it completed in a Baltimore brewery at a cost of $574.44.
Key waited out the 24 hours in “shock and awe,” as the British fired off 200-pound bombs, which often blew up prematurely in mid-air. At night they sent up signal rockets which burned in flaming arcs across the sky. Through all of that, at dawn Key was amazed to see Mary’s flag still waving and the Fort intact.
OVERCOME WITH EMOTION, he wrote some phrases on the back of a letter. His brother-in-law suggested singing the poem to the meter of a British drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The song was an instant hit, but it took Congress until 1931 to designate it as the U.S. national anthem. If you want to see the flag, it is still a moving sight; it is displayed in the Smithsonian Institute, which is down I-95 a bit.
It’s only about an hour pitstop to tour Fort McHenry. In the summer months there are daily ranger talks, weekend living history, and drill, musket and artillery demonstrations. Do not miss the 10-minute orientation film with its surprise ending! The fort is at 2400 East Fort Ave. in Baltimore.