Memorial Day at Fort McHenry

On Memorial Day I visited Fort McHenry in nearby Baltimore, where almost 200 years ago, the Star-Spangled Banner was written after the Fort held out against a British bombardment and prevented a British fleet from entering Baltimore harbor and sacking the city. In studying the history of the fort, it encapsulates the history of what we now call homeland security.

Fort McHenry was the linchpin of a defense system built around the city of Baltimore and paid for primarily by the city, with some state and federal support. The federal government then was much weaker than now. Baltimore merchants had prospered as privateers attacking British shipping (the British were capturing American ships and pressing American sailors into their service). They knew they would be targeted and took matters into their own hands. The officers serving at Fort McHenry were also from these mercantile families. A certain parallel with the NYPD’s impressive counter-terrorism bureau suggests itself. Two hundred years ago, cities protected themselves with networks of fortifications – now they need intelligence networks. But just as Baltimore had to build the forts for themselves, according to NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, “We’re still defending the city pretty much on our dime.”

Fort McHenry is most famous for its role in the War of 1812, but its role as a military installation continued. In the Civil War it was a fort, but perhaps more importantly for the war effort, it was used as a prison. Over 2200 people, including many of Maryland’s most prominent citizens (including state legislators) were held there under legally ambiguous circumstances. The fear was that if Maryland (a slave state) joined the Confederacy then Washington DC would be surrounded and the war would be lost.

In World War I, Fort McHenry served as an army hospital, serving the multitudes of wounded from “The War to End All Wars.” The Fort remained in service when the war ended and a deadly pandemic swept the globe killing tens of millions.

In World War II the Fort McHenry was a Coast Guard station. Every coast in the United States was considered vulnerable to German and Japanese attack, but Baltimore would have been an important target. Just a few miles from Fort McHenry was Sparrows Point, home to Bethlehem Steel’s giant steelworks (then the largest steelworks in the free world). Their steel was sent to the Fairfield Shipyard where Liberty Ships were built. Ugly and slow, American shipyards could churn out Liberty Ships faster then U-boats could sink them. Over 2700 were built in WWII, 385 at Fairfield.

Since WWII, Fort McHenry has not had a military function. It is a National Park, and in the best tradition of that service it preserves something essential to our common heritage as Americans. While there I watched the changing of the flag on Memorial Day and heard the Veterans speak – a ritual about binding ourselves together and to our common past. That is Fort McHenry’s new role in national security, as a reminder of our common history and that there is something special about this country and a reason we revere its symbols – and that it is worth fighting for…

Fort McHenry’s time as a physical defender is long past. It’s new mission, as a spiritual one is only just beginning.

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