On the way there, I thought about blood. Blood and how I really should have refreshed my Civil War memory bank before embarking on a long weekend of Civil War battlefield immersion. Blood though, was the thing I remembered about Antietam. It’s what stuck out in my mind, the tiny piece of information I picked up some time in high school and managed to hold onto until now. I couldn’t remember the exact date, couldn’t remember which generals led the Union or Confederate troops, wasn’t even 100 percent sure which year the battle took place, but Antietam, my memory told me, was bloody.
At the start of this mayhem, we found ourselves with two extra days in Baltimore. So, we adventured, because what the fuck else are you supposed to do when you get two bonus days in America before a deployment?
We rented a car and drove to Baltimore proper. There, we ate all the things, including tacos and cupcakes and cheese plates and some beers, too, and then I did the thing I always do when I’m someplace new. I checked to see if there were any National Park units nearby. And there was Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine just 15 minutes away. I asked my travel companions if maybe, please, they’d be up for going to check it out and, also, hey, if you guys want to do that, WE NEED TO GO RIGHT NOW, GET YOUR SHIT, LET’S GO, because they close at 5 p.m.
So we went.
We started at the visitor center and watched a film that explained the significance of Fort McHenry. Built in 1798 to defend the Baltimore Harbor, the fort was used continuously through WWII. It’s most famous for defending the harbor against British naval forces in 1814 during the War of 1812 and for being the site that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem.
As we learned, Fort McHenry withstood 25 continuous hours of bombardment in 1814. Key was nearby, aboard a ship, watching the whole thing happen. During the chaos, a small storm flag flew over the fort. The next morning, the fort raised a larger garrison flag – measuring 30 x 42 feet – that signaled American victory. Key saw the flag emerge from the smoke and haze of battle and wrote “Defense of Fort M’Henry,” later renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and adopted as our national anthem.
Once the film ends, a screen raises and there’s the flag, our Star-Spangled Banner, flying over the fort. And then they play the anthem. The crowd stands, puts their hands over their hearts and there’s this collective moment of gooey patriotic feelings.
After the film, we headed outside to visit the fort. There, we learned that President Truman signed a presidential proclamation in 1948 that declared a flag would always fly over Fort McHenry.
During the day, a historic flag flies over the fort, similar to the one that flew there in 1814. At night, when the park is closed a modern, 50-star flag is raised. They switch the flags each day, just before they close, and they let park visitors assist in the flag change ceremony.
The modern flag goes up, the historic flag comes down and there’s never a moment when there isn’t a flag flying there, just a brief few seconds when there are two. As the historic flag – the BIG ONE – comes fluttering down, visitors help catch it and then, fold it.
Sometimes you end up somewhere by almost total accident and then it feels like maybe you were always meant to be there, and that’s exactly what being at Fort McHenry felt like. I couldn’t have orchestrated a more perfect goodbye.