At Fort McHenry
Michael J. Foster
Defenders of Fort McHenry
enjoyed the trip. It was a long walk that usually
took over an hour, but Jim didn't mind. He enjoyed
watching the large ships along the harbor. Some
ships would be loading cargo while others would
be unloading their goods onto the wooden piers.
Their tall masts and rigging fascinated Jim.
They towered high above the warehouses of Baltimore.
He wondered if the sailors that climbed those
masts could see his Grandfather's house from
were bustling with activity, so Jim wisely used
nearby streets. He walked on the cobblestones
of Pratt Street hesitating only to look carefully
down each alleyway before continuing.
think that he would run into the dreaded Wilson
brothers, but he was still cautious. Since Jim
moved into Baltimore to live with his Grandfather,
the Wilsons had picked on him at every opportunity.
were a family of bullies, all six of them. These
bullies roamed the streets near the harbor usually
torturing cats and terrorizing smaller children
fast, and on a few occasions, was able to outrun
them, although Jim wasn't proud of this. His
Grandfather always told him to stand up for
himself; otherwise, people would be picking
on him for the rest of his life.
It was never
talked about, but Jim knew that Grandfather's
warnings were because of Father. Father was
known throughout Baltimore as a kind and decent
man, but a coward just the same. Even with Father
gone, this dark legacy overshadowed Jim's life.
was ashamed of being called the son of a coward,
and what made it worse was that Father and Grandfather
never told him why. It was, for some reason,
a family secret - one that haunted and tormented
Jim on the streets of Baltimore.
the opposite side of the harbor, Jim ascended
Federal Hill. The climb was tough, but this
was Jim's favorite view of the harbor. From
atop the hill, he could watch the ships sail
in and out of the harbor like ducks on a pond,
and on special nights it was the best spot to
watch fireworks light up the Baltimore sky.
Jim would watch the ships sail into the harbor
and remember his father. He envisioned his father
returning much like the way he left, standing
near the wheelhouse waving and yelling "Goodbye,
son, I'll be back soon. Keep your head up!"
These hopeful daydreams made this place special
for Jim. He never thought about it too long
though, because he missed his father, and it
would make him sad. Besides, Jim was anxious
to get to the Fort.
the way to Fort McHenry well. Like the Indian
scouts he read about in books, Jim prided himself
on his sense of direction. Sometimes he took
different paths just to test himself. On one
occasion, after loosing track of time, Jim even
found his way home in the dark. Today, however,
was a beautiful September day and provided no
the last stretch, Jim was rewarded with a familiar
sight of splendor. Fort McHenry, the great fortress,
with its walls of gray stone overlooking the
Patapsco River, dominated the skyline. High
above the rock structure waved a welcoming banner
of brilliant red and blue.
with merely walking, began running. As he approached,
he began to see the sentries atop the wall in
their blue and white uniforms.
to a stop just outside the Fort's v-shaped entrance
that the soldiers called a ravelin. Jim waited
for permission to enter. A moment later, a short
and portly guard with a long mustache waved
his arm and yelled down. "Come on through
looked over the edge as Jim walked under.
Jim, where's your wagon today?"
have a small delivery today. It's in my pocket."
Jim ran across the sally port, over the dry
moat, and through the opening of the large iron
door that had been cracked open for him.
gate opened to a short dark tunnel where Jim
heard the echo of his footsteps and the amplification
of his deep breaths. At the end of the tunnel
shone the bright daylight of the Fort's courtyard.
Jim saw familiar activity. A squad of soldiers
was drilling in the middle of the compound just
beyond the tall white flagpole. The flagpole
grew out of the ground like jack's fairy tale
beanstalk, reaching to the clouds. At the very
top, Jim could see and hear the Stars and Stripes
flapping in the strong breeze.
A few men
sat in first floor windows blackening their
boots and polishing their shiny uniform buttons.
the stone Fortress was a formidable structure
with it's high walls and large cannons, Jim
felt right at home. Outside the Fort, Jim had
no one except Grandfather, but inside he was
of the Fort was lined with two-story buildings
serving as the Fort's
barracks, supply room, officer quarters, chapel,
and arms room. The best feature of the Fort,
however, was in its shape. It wasn't easy to
see, but when Jim first climbed on top of the
Fort's bastions, he saw the star shape of the
built after a French design, was a five-pointed
star. Each point was a bastion, or fortification,
armed with cannons. One bastion overlooked the
Patapsco River below, while the other bastions
served to repel against any possible land attack.
across the courtyard towards the junior officer
quarters. Along the way, he was greeted by just
about every soldier in sight. Everyone seemed
to know Jim, from the cook to the captain of
the guard. Jim tried hard to remember all their
names, but sometimes he had to just acknowledge
with a quick smile and a wave.
Jim, lad! Shouldn't ya be in dat school learn'n
bout all dem fancy words and such?"
over his shoulder. Sergeant Mahoney was laughing
aloud at his own joke.
Mahoney, hello. Our school master was called
out by the militia so there's no school."
Mahoney hobbled closer to Jim. Sarge, as the
men called him, had been with the Army longer
than any man in the Fort. Artillery had been
his life. On an unfortunate occasion, though,
a cannon exploded killing his crew and injuring
Sergeant Mahoney. Even with the wounded leg,
he was in service at the Fort, but only to advise.
All he could offer was his knowledge of artillery,
so he did.
I'll tell you Jim lad, book learn'n is good
and all, but no substitute for real life. You
must enjoy your youth because someday you'll
be like me, a crusty old man limping to the
privy in the wee hours of the morn'n."
Jim in the eyes.
don't tell nobody I'm fill'n your head with
Sarge had a simple way of talking that made
sense, and Jim liked it.
with his crooked walking stick, Sarge nodded
towards the south bastion.
you keep an old man company? Walk with me a
spell, I'm on me way to inspect Battery Four."
mission would have to wait. He would be foolish
to pass up a chance to spend some time with
walked, Sarge, with his thick Irish accent,
did most the talking.
you might hear some of them people in Baltimore
speaking doom and gloom 'bout this here time.
Let me tell you a story Jim. Did you hear what
the Redcoats had done down in St. Michaels last
year. The townspeople see, they knew the British
Navy planned a night bombardment of the town.
So they hoisted lanterns to the highest points
in town. Those lanterns were strewn from the
masts of ships and treetops. Now, when night
fell and the British sailed in close, the townspeople
blackened out the whole town except them lanterns.
When the British opened up with their thirty-two
pounders, they missed. They overshot the whole
city. You see, the British aimed their cannons
at them lights. They thought St. Michaels was
up on a hill. Only one cannonball struck the
town, and even that landed without harming a
you think those people were scared during the
down at Jim.
know that the town St. Michael is a religious
name. Now, I ain't no saint, and no church pew
has seen the likes of me hindquarters in a spell,
but something must be said for the All-mighty
in all this mess. I think that God gives you
the courage you need when you need it."
Sarge arrived at Battery Four over-looking the
Patapsco River below.
A few soldiers
were cleaning the cannons and stacking cannonballs.
Sarge placed his hand on the barrel of one of
we have four twenty-four-pound cannons. Amongst
the other bastions are nineteen cannons, some
eighteen and some twenty-four pounders. If the
British are foolish enough to sail within range,
they'll have hell to pay."
inspected each bastion, Jim followed along listening
to his interesting stories and colorful insight.
Jim thanked Sarge and headed back to the officer's
Jim knocked on the door to the officer quarters.
The door quickly opened, but just a crack, and
out popped a man's head. Looking hard over Jim's
head, the man squinted and shook his head. "Oh
my, I must be hearing things. There's nobody
here." The door shut just as quickly as
it had opened.
look crossed Jim's face. Just then the door
swung wide open.
my boy! I was just pull'n your knickers lad!
Come on in!"
Martin filled the doorway with a smile as wide
as his broad shoulders. His immense size and
physical strength seemed an awkward match for
his soft disposition and a slightly skewed sense
As Jim walked
in, Captain Martin gave him a hardy slap on
the back. "Its good to see you again Jim.
Have you completed your mission?"
right, let's see it."
Jim and Captain Martin sat down at the table
next to the window overlooking the courtyard.
Jim reached inside his trouser pocket and pulled
out a wadded handkerchief. Captain Martin anxiously
waited as Jim silently unwrapped the handkerchief
revealing a shiny gold ring. As he presented
it to Captain Martin, the ring reflected the
sunlight from outside. Wide-eyed, Captain Martin
took the ring and squinted. He inspected it
closely on the inner part and read, "To
My Dearest Susan From Joseph." Captain
Martin smiled. "Great work, Jim! I knew
I could count on you."
and Captain Martin ate lunch together. Captain
Martin cut the bread and cheese while Jim gazed
out the window at the drilling troops.
barked out commands "Left face. Present
arms!" The Sergeant stepped forward to
inspect their muskets. The precision of their
movements and the splendor of their uniforms
captured Jim's imagination.
red and blues matched those of his small toy
soldiers at home. Jim remembered setting the
toy soldiers up in rows by the light of the
fireplace on Christmas Eve. He and Father spent
hours drinking hot cider and engaging the soldiers
Jim how to organize his soldiers based on battlefield
tactics. Jim, of course, knew the ranks of the
chain-of-command and insisted on being called
"General" during each engagement.
especially good at making the sounds of battle.
Father would laugh as Jim made shooting and
exploding sounds with his mouth. Sometimes,
when Jim would get carried away, some spit would
fly from his mouth. Father always commented,
"O" my, I thought those were bullets,
but I guess they're just raindrops."
Jim would take turns inflicting damage to each
other's armies, but most of the casualties were
caused by Bounty, their over-zealous terrier.
Jim knew that Father always let him win, but
Jim didn't care. He was just happy to be with
old must you be to be a soldier?"
Martin smiled and handed Jim a plate of meats
that depends. How old are you?"
be thirteen this winter."
fear you are too young."
a piece of cheese in his mouth and frowned.
He leaned back in his chair and looked back
out the window. Captain Martin sat down next
to him and also looked out the window.
are unique people Jim. Most of them volunteer
for this duty knowing the dangers. They are
willing to sacrifice their lives for something
greater than themselves. It is courage that
brings them here, Jim. Not all people have this
courage. It comes from within when it is time
to stand up for what is right. There is honor
in that. Your father was a courageous man, Jim."
uncomfortably to the floor.
raised you after your mother passed away, and
that's not easy, Jim, especially for a sailor.
He also had the courage to stand up for our
freedom by serving in the Navy."
gently put his hand on Jim's shoulder.
sometimes, Jim, in our efforts to fight for
what is right, we pay the ultimate sacrifice
- our lives. And although this is sad, we must
remember to honor their sacrifice with our actions."
trying hard not to cry. He stood up stuffing
the handkerchief back into his pocket.
better leave so I can get back before dark."
right Jim. Thanks for the ring, I owe you one.
Say hello to your Grandfather for me. Oh! Before
you leave, you'd better stop in and see Major
Armistead. I believe he has another mission
lifted Jim's spirits and he darted for the door.
out the door Jim turned.
you don't need a uniform to have courage. Remember
was a short trip across the compound to Major
Armistead's office. Major Armistead's aide asked
Jim to wait in the commander's office until
the Major was back from an inspection of the
Fort's improvements. The improvements had begun
months ago and were designed to repel bombardments
from the river. Jim remembered when his grandfather
would explain how the Fort used to be just earthen
mounds and makeshift shelters during the Revolution.
Back then it was called Fort Whetstone because
of its location on Whetstone Point.
office was lavishly decorated with military
regalia. Old muskets crossed above the fireplace,
like the kind Jim's grandfather kept in the
attic and occasionally brought down to show
Jim when he retold vivid stories about the Revolution.
Flags of all colors with gold fringe stood behind
his large desk. Maps of the Fort, Baltimore
Harbor, and the Chesapeake Bay covered an entire
wall from floor to ceiling.
close to the wall of maps. With his finger he
lightly traced the Patapsco River north into
Baltimore Harbor. From there he easily found
where his Grandfather's house would be. Keeping
his finger firmly on the map, he leaned back
and looked at the whole wall. He read the names
of far off places like Trenton and Charleston,
and also the familiar names of Reisterstown
and Fort Look-out. It amazed Jim how this perspective
made him feel small, but definitely not insignificant.
The thin lines that arranged the world around
his finger spelled out the impending danger.
thank you for coming."
surprise, Jim gasped and turned quickly. Filling
the door frame was a grinning Major Armistead.
see that you take an interest in the world around
you. That's good Jim."
across the room, Major Armistead removed his
long black hat and silver scabbard and placed
them on his desk. He reached into his coat pocket,
withdrew a handkerchief and dabbed the sweat
from his forehead.
I was your age, I dreamed of traveling the world.
I wanted to hunt elephants in Africa, and explore
parts of the world not found on any map."
stepped forward and glanced over his maps.
maybe I will someday, when this business is
long over and our freedom is secured. Which
brings me to the matter at hand."
looked down at Jim who was transfixed on every
word. Jim was a little intimidated. He had never
spoken directly to the Major before.
in one of the large chairs in front the Major's
desk. His feet barely reached the floor. The
Major sat down letting out a relaxed sigh. Jim
figured he must have been on his feet all day.
He pulled a sealed letter from a desk drawer.
Jim, is why I asked to see you. I heard that
you know your way around Baltimore."
Jim nodded but was still too affected to speak.
need you to deliver this message to Mary Pickersgill.
Do you know who she is?"
Sir, she's the seamstress on Albemarle Street.
I don't know her by sight, only by reputation."
leaned across the table and handed the note
right Jim, I need you to make sure she receives
that letter. Can I count on you?"
at the folded paper. It had a red wax seal with
blue ribbon. He didn't understand why, but remembered
that a good soldier follows orders. Jim stood
up from his chair.
Sir! You can count on me!"
at the door revealed the Major's Aide.
I'm sorry to intrude, but we have a supply issue
that needs your immediate attention."
stood up and walked to the door. He and his
aide talked quietly for a few moments while
looking over some documents.
thrilled to be helping. It made him feel important.
Jim glanced back at the wall of maps and saw
something he hadn't seen before. Red and blue
symbols on one map were around Baltimore and
in the Chesapeake Bay.
you know what those red markers are, Jim?"
had finished his business with his aide and
began putting his sword back on.
Major Armistead back to the map.
in the Chesapeake is the British Fleet. Most
of these ships have been there for some time
blockading our ports and boarding merchant vessels,
but these new ships here at the mouth of the
Patapsco have anchored recently."
expression crossed the Major's face. With his
eyes transfixed on the little red markers, he
lookouts from North Point have counted as many
as sixteen warships. These are under the command
of Admiral Cochrane. His fleet is heavily armed
with cannons, mortars, and rockets. I imagine
many of them are also transporting elements
of British Infantry."
Major Armistead turned from the map and lifted
his hat from the desk.
spies in Washington tell us that they are planning
to invade Baltimore soon."
grew silent. After a quiet moment, the Major
took a deep breath and looked down at Jim.
is why we are all here, at a time such as this."
Armistead and Jim left his office and walked
across the courtyard towards the gate. As the
Major returned salutes from passing soldiers,
Jim looked up at him. Any trace of fear or worry
was not evident in his bold composure. His eyes
possessed a determined resolve that wasn't there
a few moments before while in his office. The
confidence that Jim saw in the Major was effectively
conveyed to his troops who respected and loved
sentry saluted with his musket at attention
and opened the large door. Major Armistead,
with Jim at his side walked together through
the dark tunnel, which led to light of the outside.
you have served as good as any soldier in my
command. You have helped us with the duties
of this Fort and you have asked nothing in return,
which is why it grieves me to tell you what
the end of the tunnel, Major Armistead bent
down and looked Jim squarely in the eyes.
this message for me, Jim, but do not come back."
why? I want to..."
Listen to me carefully. After you deliver this
letter, go home and stay there. Do not return!
Not until it is safe!"
to well up in Jim's eyes.
put one hand on each of Jim's shoulders.
the seriousness of the situation. He knew that
Major Armistead expected the worst in the next
must be strong Jim. All of us here, Captain
Martin, the soldiers, and myself, we stand vigilant
in the defense of Baltimore and our country.
This is our duty."
tear ran down Jim's flushed cheeks. Major Armistead
wanted to comfort Jim, but didn't know exactly
what to say. The Major smiled reassuringly and
stood up. He looked to the sky.
you see the colors Jim?"
the tear, squinted against the sun, and saw
the flag waving high above the Fort.
you will hear the rumbling of war. You will
hear the reports of the cannon and see bursts
of light in the distance. Men will speculate
and spread rumor in the streets of Baltimore,
but I tell you this Jim. Don't loose heart.
As long as you see our flag flying above these
ramparts, all is well."