Fort McHenry: Preserving a National and Natural Treasure

Two hundred years ago, Fort McHenry played a pivotal role in the construct of our nation's history. Today, this National Park acts as a reminder of those important events for millions of visitors, but it is also shaping up to be a hotspot of urban wildlife and a place for local citizens and students to connect with our natural world.

by Laura Bankey, Director of Conservation

Published September 11, 2014

The National Aquarium has acted as a steward of the 10-acre tidal wetland adjacent to this national landmark, and this week we’ve asked our friend and partner Edward Stierli at the National Park Conservation Association to share his thoughts about the importance of Fort McHenry National Park and Historic Shrine:

Two hundred years ago, the mighty British Navy departed the smoldering ruins of Washington, D.C., to sail to Baltimore, Maryland, intent on attacking the city. Luckily, Baltimore was defended by Fort McHenry—the now iconic star-shaped fort perfectly situated on a point jutting into the city’s harbor. In the midst of an intense storm, on September 13, 1814, the British attacked and bombed the fort for 25 continuous hours.

attack on fort mchenry

Image via National Parks Conservation Association.

Miles away, Maryland native Francis Scott Key was detained on a British ship in the Baltimore Harbor during the bombardment. After the attack ended, Key looked anxiously for the American flag over the fort. Had it been taken? To his relief, he saw the stars-and-stripes waving overhead—proof that the British had been repelled. Baltimore had been saved, and the battle served as a decisive turning point of the War of 1812. Key immediately expressed his gratitude in a poem that became the “Star-Spangled Banner,” our national anthem.

Though the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 was Fort McHenry’s defining moment in history, the fort would live on to play the important roles of military prison and hospital during the Civil War and World War I. When the last patient was discharged in 1923, the War Department moved to establish the fort as a national park and began its restoration to its mid-19th century appearance. America recognized the importance of this place as a national treasure. In 1933, two years after the “Star-Spangled Banner” became the United States’ national anthem, Fort McHenry was transferred to the National Park Service and designated a national monument and historic shrine.

aerial of fort mchenry

Image via baltimore.org.

For the last two hundred years, Fort McHenry has continued to stand as a protector of the nation’s anthem and flag through war, peace and pivotal moments in American history. This September, we remember the important role the fort and Baltimore played during the War of 1812 in securing a young nation. Even though the “Star-Spangled Banner” and American flag have lived on as national icons beyond Fort McHenry, a visit to the fort invokes the power of place and an understanding of its significance. 

Today, beyond the star-shaped brick walls, Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine serves as a cherished urban park, more likely to be invaded by joggers and dog-walkers, with nearly one million annual visitors. The 43-acre park provides precious green space, as well as a 10-acre tidal urban wetland. 

For the last 15 years, the National Aquarium has worked with volunteers to restore Fort McHenry’s wetland habitat for wildlife and remove nearly 600,000 pieces of debris from the park’s shoreline. 

fort mchenry

This initiative has made Fort McHenry’s presence even more vital as an urban oasis for iconic Chesapeake wildlife such as osprey, diamondback terrapins and blue crabs. Each spring and fall, hundreds of volunteers preserve the park’s wetland while enjoying a unique view of the stars-and-stripes waving over the fort—similar to what Francis Scott Key saw two hundred years earlier. 

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