What is Fort McHenry?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Fort McHenry is a former military fort of historic interest located in Baltimore, Maryland in the United States. It is designated as a National Monument and Historic Shrine, the only location in the United States to bear this double designation, and it is a popular destination for tourists visiting Baltimore. Some visitors enjoy traveling by water taxi to get a tour of Baltimore Harbor on their way to Fort McHenry.

The unsuccessful British bombardment of Fort McHenry was the inspiration for the national anthem of the U.S.
The unsuccessful British bombardment of Fort McHenry was the inspiration for the national anthem of the U.S.

The fort was built in the late 1700s as part of a series of fortifications designed to protect America's coastline. Fort McHenry was named for James McHenry, the Secretary of War at the time that the fort was designed, and it was intended to protect Baltimore Harbor, an important strategic asset for the new nation.

Almost as soon as it was finished, Fort McHenry got its first test in battle, during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. The unsuccessful British bombardment of Fort McHenry was the inspiration for Francis Scott Key to write “The Star Spangled Banner,” which later became the national anthem of the United States. The eponymous banner which flew over the fort, the Star Spangled Banner Flag, is displayed in Washington DC, after a major restoration effort which began in 1999. A replica is flown over the fort when the weather is fair.

Fort McHenry is designed in a star shape, building on the footprint of the earthen fort which was there when it was originally designed. Historically, the fort was surrounded by a moat which was intended to add defenses, although the moat has since been filled. During the Civil War, Fort McHenry was used as a military prison, and in the First World War, it became a major hospital, and was surrounded by a number of buildings.

After the First World War, many of the new buildings were removed, and in the 1930s, the National Park Service began restoring Fort McHenry to the condition it was in during the Battle of Baltimore, as the fort was believed to have more historic than strategic value. From 1942 to 1945, part of the fort was leased to the United States Coast Guard, but since then, it has been preserved exclusively as a historic site.

By tradition, newly designed American flags are flown over Fort McHenry first. The first 49 and 50 star flags flown are located at Fort McHenry. Historical reenactments are periodically held at the fort, and the buildings feature things like original furnishings and recreated scenes which allow people to see what the fort would have been like in 1814.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Another great fort to visit is Fort Morgan, close to Mobile Bay. Everything there still looks very old and unscathed. My kids and I spent the day there last summer and they actually enjoyed it.

Fort Morgan was listed as “one of the nation’s 10 most endangered battle sites” in 2007.


My husband (former marine) and I love to visit old military forts. Fort McHenry is definitely one of our favorites. We’ve been there three times and each time is like the first. It is a humbling experience to walk through there and know what was done to protect our country.

On one of our visits, we were fortunate enough to be there at the time that the Fort McHenry Guard was there. They are a historical organization that tries to give visitors a glimpse of how things were back then. They do demonstrations dated to the early 19th century. They even fire a cannon as part of their demonstration.

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