For the last decade or so, I've considered myself a history buff. I've enjoyed becoming better acquainted with our nation's history through visiting the sites where this complex and layered tale has transpired. Seeing what our fellow countrymen (and women!) saw and being where they were really helps history come alive for me.
So, early on in our relationship, when my wife mentioned that she enjoyed doing living history, I figured that, while living history was something I hadn't done before, I would probably enjoy it! Doing living history would simply be taking my passion of experiencing history to the next level, where I would be literally placing myself in the shoes - and clothes - of the people in the past.
My wife and I have already made multiple extended-stay trips to Colonial Williamsburg this year, and on one occasion we dressed in Revolution-era clothes for the day while strolling around the park. Even though we were visitors and not actual interpreters, I thoroughly enjoyed dressing up and playing the part. Colonial Williamsburg is already an immersive experience for a normal tourist, with all the first-person (and appropriately-garbed) interpreters and buildings accurate to the late eighteenth century. However, dressing in period clothes myself made the illusion of being back in time even more real and relatable for me.
My wife's principal experience with living history has come from spending several summers volunteering at Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine in Baltimore, Maryland. Fort McHenry, for those of you who may not remember, is the fort which the British bombarded in 1814. During that bombardment, Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the Star Spangled Banner, which later became our national anthem.
The biggest annual event at the Fort, which involves the living history unit in full force, is Defenders’ Day. It is typically celebrated at the park on the weekend closest to September 13 and 14 as to commemorate the anniversary of the bombardment. Due to her school schedule, my wife had never had the opportunity to participate in Defenders’ Day and of course I had never been. About a week and a half before the festivities, I realized that my school schedule would allow me sufficient time to take off and drive up there (there are benefits of not taking any classes!). Not surprisingly, it didn't take much to convince my wife to go on this trip, and, happily, the ranger in charge of the programming said he would be delighted for us to be part of his living history crew for the weekend.
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To be honest, I didn't know much about Fort McHenry before this trip. Always someone who appreciates a historical site more when I know something about its history, I dropped by the gift shop during the three days that my wife and I were at the Fort, and purchased a copy of Walter Lord's The Dawn's Early Light. I thought that reading a book about this chapter of American history would give me the understanding that I needed to fully appreciate the place.
The Dawn's Early Light was well worth reading. The 344-page volume was a riveting read and, quite frankly, felt more like a well-crafted suspense/thriller novel than a nonfiction book chronicling a war that happened over two centuries ago. The book starts out with the British finally defeating Napoleon in spring 1814 and thus being able to send their full military force to the North American continent. Ironically enough, the term "chasten the savages", which the Americans had used as a slogan for how to treat the Native American tribes, the British now used as a slogan for how to treat their former colonies!
President James Madison was certain that the British would attack America's capitol but, for the most part, was not able to sell this perspective to his skeptical cabinet. While Secretary of State (and future president) James Monroe agreed with Madison, Secretary of War John Armstrong persistently thought that the British would head for Baltimore! Through Armstrong's influence, the defenses at Baltimore were built up, but Washington, D.C. was left practically defenseless. The only reconnaissance that occurred on the British was done by Monroe himself.
General William H. Winder, whom Madison had put in charge of defending Washington, D.C., received little-to-no logistical support from Armstrong. Evidently, Armstrong thought he, as Secretary of War, had no say in how war was waged in America and put all the decision-making on Winder! To further complicate matters, Winder did not have the best head on his shoulders. He failed to slow the British advance nor worked in tandem with the small American naval forces also trying to defend Washington. Instead, Winder set up an all-out battle with the British at Bladensburg, MD on August 24, 1814 - about ten miles northeast of the capitol. Unfortunately, due to Winder's (unsurprising) poor leadership, the ragtag militia were no match for the British regulars, and the rout was so humiliating it later became known as the "Bladensburg Races", comically portraying how fast the Americans ran back to Washington. One of the most interesting things I learned in the book is that President Madison himself was present at the Battle of Bladensburg, albeit back from the front lines, along with much of his cabinet. As the British quickly became victorious, Madison and his officials quickly fled the scene and played hopscotch all around the countryside. The British had a heyday that night and burned the vast majority of public property in Washington, D.C. - including the White House, the Capitol, and the Library of Congress.
In all the mess of Bladensburg, an elderly physician by the name of Dr. William Beanes was taken prisoner by the British. Early September found Richard West, Beanes' neighbor, asking his wife's brother-in-law to go talk to the British personally and see if, by persuasion, the doctor could be freed. The brother-in-law? Well, he was a young lawyer by the name of Francis Scott Key. Key, with the permission of Madison, took along an American prisoner-of-war exchange agent by the name of John Skinner.
Americans were (rightfully) shocked and angry at the British burning their capitol and the lack of military defense. Many towns and cities feared they would be the next British target, but the citizens of Baltimore knew they were next, especially as the city was a thriving trade center for our young country and known as a haven for the "nest of pirates" that interfered with British shipping. Initially, division between British commanding officers put a pause on attacking Baltimore; but once a consensus was reached, they decided to punish Baltimore even worse than Washington, D.C.
However, in the three weeks between the burning of D.C. and the British moving operations to Baltimore, two wise changes of American leadership occurred. First, Madison fired Armstrong and asked Monroe to serve as both Secretary of War and Secretary of State. Second, Monroe and Maryland governor Levin Winder (uncle of William Winder) placed Samuel Smith in charge of the defense of Baltimore. Smith was a Revolutionary War veteran, who, from my reading of Lord's book, was the right man at the right place at the right time. With excellent gut instincts and experience to call on, he expertly organized the incoming American troops, drilled them, and built defenses. National unity soared in this time of tragedy as the nation took individual responsibility - perhaps more than they had for a long time. Americans were determined that Baltimore would not be a sequel to Washington if they could help it! Smith, correctly guessing that the British would attack from the east, relegated William Winder to defending a little-known (nor cared about) branch of a stream to the west of the city - well out of the way of the British!
Meanwhile, Skinner and Key were well-received by the British. However, because the two gentlemen had come aboard during talks of the impending attack on Baltimore, they, along with Dr. Beanes, were informed that they were going to be "guests" of the British until the attack on Baltimore was complete. The Redcoats couldn't risk their plans being spread to the American population at large.
The British forces landed on September 12th and marched inland, defeating the Americans at what later became known as the Battle of North Point. While the Americans were pushed back to their defenses just outside of Baltimore, it was not nearly as disastrous a rout as at Bladensburg. Furthermore, the British realized how well-constructed Baltimore's defenses were and that they would need the help of their sea-based comrades. Thus, the British regulars retired to their ships, where they waited for the navy to do its damage.
The main target was Fort McHenry, which sits on the tip of a peninsula to the west of the city. To the east, through a channel, lies the inner harbor of Baltimore. Major George Armistead, the commanding officer who had taken charge of Fort McHenry in 1813, had a smart head on his shoulders. As soon as he took command, Armistead had an absolutely mammoth 30' x 42' American flag created for the Fort, so whenever the British attacked Baltimore, they could clearly see whose flag the Fort was flying! More recently, he and his men had convinced several Baltimore merchants to scuttle (or sink) their ships across the channel to deter the British from reaching the heart of the city. If the scuttled ships and McHenry's guns didn't do enough damage, there were also two dozen ships behind the lines in the Inner Harbor ready and waiting with cannon.
At 6:30 in the morning on September 13, the British began bombing Fort McHenry. But Armistead and his men held their own, despite being pinned down by the ordnance. All day and all night, the defenders took shelter when they could and, though it was ineffective due to the distance, continued to return fire. In spite of the downpour from the heavens and the rain of fire from the British, the Americans always managed, somehow, to hold on and not give in. The next morning found the British running low on ammunition after twenty-five straight hours of bombing. They soon ceased fire and prepared to sail away.
Key, Skinner, and Dr. Beanes had been keenly following the battle from their vantage point behind the bombing ships. By the dawn's early light, Key anxiously examined the Fort through an eyepiece to see whose flag was flying. Straining, he made out the 30' x 42' Stars and Stripes flag, and some verses started coming to mind...
O! Say, can you see
By the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed
At the twilight's last gleaming? (1)
Soon after, the three Americans were released, and they returned to Baltimore to join in the celebration. Key scribbled down four stanzas to his poem, and sent them to a publisher. Baltimore - and soon the entire American country - absolutely loved it!
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But what was my experience at Defenders’ Day like? To nobody's great surprise, I rather enjoyed myself! I've grown up around Civil War sites and of course Colonial Williamsburg focuses on the American Revolution, so it was exciting to see a historical site of a different era come alive with interpreters in period clothing. My wife brought her own garb, while I was able to wear some that the Fort graciously lent to me. Our job was to help man the Sutlery - which was basically like a convenience store of 1814. The Sutlery would sell a variety of items - from games and cookware to lanterns and fabric – positioned just outside the fort and catering to the military folks stationed there. In short, it was a source for items the Military didn't issue or didn't issue enough of.
I really appreciated how friendly and welcoming everyone was, especially to a newcomer like myself who had never participated in a living history portrayal of any kind before. There was a general joy and jubilation in the air, as this was the first major living history event that Fort McHenry had put on since the pandemic began. I found myself rather enjoying sharing with the public about the Sutlery - seeing the lightbulb moment of "Aha! I never knew that before!" go off in people's heads - whether an old man or a young girl, a long-time local or a first-time visitor. Certainly, it's important to learn about political and military leaders and strategy and the big headlines of a war or era in American history. However, I have found, for me, that what really connects me to those Americans of the past is when I start relating to them. I, as Austin living in 2021, do not have the experience of leading an army, but I do have the experience of having to go buy groceries, batteries, or potato chips at our local Kroger. Interpreting the Sutlery helped make the story of Fort McHenry more real for me, and I think I was able to pass some of that on to those who stopped to talk with me.
Besides those of us who were sutlers, there were also living historians portraying laundresses, other civilians, officers and soldiers -- particularly the cannon crew -- though the cannon always seemed to go off right when I wasn't expecting it to! I especially enjoyed the fife and drum performances by both the U.S. Army & the Fort McHenry Fife & Drum Corps.
Towards the end of the daytime portion of the Defenders’ Day programming, I was privileged enough to be temporarily relieved of duty and got to be inside of the fort for the flag-change program. It was quite powerful. There were a dozen or so living historians clad in 1814 soldier garb, about an equal number of current Navy personnel looking sharp in their white uniforms, and a whole slew of veterans from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. I learned later that they were on a tour of important D.C. sites and decided to swing up to Fort McHenry for the day - not knowing at all that any special programming was going on until they arrived! But, how perfect it was to have them there.
I was privileged enough to have the opportunity to thank a Vietnam veteran for his service. I got to stand next to a WWII veteran - WOW but the history he has lived through!! Pearl Harbor, D-Day, FDR, Churchill . . . places and names that to my generation are (usually) relegated to the history textbooks, but to this man filled his very real reality. It was so incredibly powerful standing on what is truly sacred American ground - commemorating those original 1814 defenders in the past, the current defenders of America today standing across the green from them, and all encircled by those heroes who have defended our country throughout the decades. It brought tears to my eyes as I reflected on the fact that all these defenders at this instant of time were together on this piece of land. They were all celebrating the defenders who have come before, and the part each of them played or will play in the defense of our country.
THIS is the America that I know, love, and cherish . . . and boy do I wish that more people could come to Fort McHenry, or for that matter any national park or historical site, and have this same sort of experience. The concept that we have more similarities than differences. The concept that it's not red vs. blue, us vs. them .. . it's us. Americans. All of us, together.
The experience further led me to reflect - what are we Americans today willing to defend? What am I willing to defend? What is important enough to those who have come before me, to me, and to those who will come after me? What legacy am I leaving? And how well am I carrying the baton?
I think it would do all of us good to spend some thoughtful time contemplating what it truly means to be an American and how we can leave our country a better place than we found it.
As Key wrote in his concluding verse,
O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov'd home and the war's desolation!
Blest with vict'ry and peace may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv'd us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto - "In God is our trust,"
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave. (1)
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All photos used in this post were either taken by me or a family member, or are in the public domain. All are used with proper permission.
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The History & Culture section of the Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine website has some fantastic information free for your perusal and education.
The official Fort McHenry NM&HS YouTube channel also has some pretty fantastic stuff.
You can watch the official Fort McHenry NM&HS visitors’ center orientation film online - it’s a great audiovisual introduction to the story.
The Smithsonian National Museum of American History now houses the actual Star-Spangled Banner. They have a fantastic website of resources about the flag and Fort McHenry.
Of course, I recommend The Dawn's Early Light by Walter Lord.
I shot a video tour of Fort McHenry back in April.
You might also value War of 1812: Big Night in Baltimore - a nice excerpt from Mr. & Mrs. Madison's War by Hugh Howard. I haven't read the entire book yet, just skimmed this excerpt, but I hope to read the whole thing very soon!
Fort McHenry volunteer photographer Tim Ervin captured some marvelous pictures of the day.
Chris Caldwell, of A Teacher's History of the United States podcast, has a very nice episode on the Battle of Baltimore and the Star Spangled Banner plus several others that give insight into the greater context of the War of 1812.