Fort McHenry and Fort York

This year being the bicentennial of the War of 1812, we Canadians have been bombarded with what strikes me as an odd media campaign celebrating our nationhood. Odd, because we Canadians don’t typically yell and shout out our patriotism. Odd, because videos like this one

seem to be doing a pretty good job at celebrating our nationhood at the expensive of the other guys. You know, the ones who are suppose to be Canada’s Best Friend. Longest undefended border and all that.

Truth is, I don’t remember ever being taught anything in school about the War of 1812. That might be because I was (mostly) educated in Alberta, and the war took place in Upper Canada (what we now call Ontario), Lower Canada (what we now call Quebec), and the United States. Or maybe it’s because we Canadians don’t really give that war much thought.

What little I know about the War of 1812 is that it had something to do with the British boarding American merchant ships and drafting American sailors into the British Navy. (Britain was busy fighting Napoleon at the time and needed all the sailors it could get its hands on.) The Americans didn’t like that much (who would?) and they declared war on the British.

What little I have read about the War of 1812 says that nobody actually won. It more or less came to a stalemate, and sometime in 1814 the powers that be worked out an agreement called the Treaty of Ghent that more or less left everything pre-war as the status quo. And ― oh yeah ― we burned the White House. That was in retaliation for the Yanks burning our Parliament Buildings in York (what we now call Toronto), which was then the capital of Upper Canada.

(As an aside: burning government houses was considered bad form back then, and trashing non-military targets simply wasn’t done in the age of the Gentlemen’s War. Which is why the Brits got a tad upset and why they turned around and burned the White House. I find it ironic that everybody remembers the Brits burned the White House, but nobody seems to remember that the Americans burned York.)

(And, just one more aside: I found out during my visit to Washington DC last summer that the White House came to be called that because, after said burning, it was painted white to cover up all the soot marks. President Theodore Roosevelt made it official almost a hundred years later by having stationery printed with the words “The White House” at the top.)

Back to the war: a more accurate assessment of the War of 1812 might be that we both won. The Americans call it their “second war of independence,” and after it was over we Canadians began to think of ourselves as a nation, and not just some fur trading post for the British.

And so (finally!), to the main topic of this blog post. On my visits last summer to Baltimore and Toronto, with the War of 1812 being foremost in my mind due to our tax dollars hard at work, I decided to visit Fort McHenry and Fort York.

Fort McHenry, I discovered, is not just a National Historic Monument, but a National Monument and Historic Shrine. That was pretty much evident during the video presentation I watched at the Visitors’ Center. The last image of the video, with the American anthem playing after the voice-over ends, is of the American flag. At the same time, the screen rises so that you are looking outdoors at the American flag flying over Fort McHenry. I tried not to snicker, but it was a bit hokey.

The end of the video presentation at the Fort McHenry Visitor's Center. The statue is of Francis Scott Key, and he's watching the Star Spangled Banner, still waving strong after the British bombarded the fort with rockets and guns for 25 hours.

The end of the video presentation at the Fort McHenry Visitor’s Center. The statue is of Francis Scott Key, and he’s watching the Star Spangled Banner, still waving strong after the British bombarded the fort with rockets and guns for 25 hours.

Back to the War of 1812: the British knew they needed to capture Fort McHenry if their campaign against Baltimore was to succeed. They attacked the fort at dawn on September 13, 1814, bombarding the fort for a day and a night, but eventually they gave up and stopped the bombardment. The problem was, the American guns had a range of 1.5 miles, and the British guns had a range of two miles. The British navy parked itself just out of range of Fort McHenry’s guns, but that meant the shells from their guns couldn’t reach Fort McHenry accurately. Only two shells out of over 1500 fired actually hit the fort. Talk about a waste of ammunition.

Battery of guns overlooking the Patapsco River, with Francis Scott Key Bridge in the distance. During the Battle of Fort McHenry, the British fleet parked itself well past where that bridge now spans the river.

Another gun overlooking the Patapsco River

And yet another gun pointed at the Patapsco River

After the bombardment stopped, Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer who was being held by the British on a ship out in the Patapsco River, looked towards the fort and saw the large flag still flying. That told him the Americans were still in control of the fort. That same flag ― which measures an incredible 42 by 30 feet ― is now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

When weather permits, an American flag the same dimensions of the original Star Spangled Banner is flown over Fort McHenry.

Francis Scott Key wrote the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” after the British released him and while he was on his way back to Baltimore. The “bombs bursting in air” line in the anthem refers to the British shells that were fired at Fort McHenry.

The national park ranger gives us a history lesson. I liked her model ships.

There isn’t much to see in Fort McHenry itself as it’s fairly small and there aren’t many buildings still standing. But you certainly get a feel for why its location was so important: it sits at the end of a narrow peninsula right at the entrance to Baltimore’s harbour, and is in a perfect position to defend the city. I took a water taxi out to the fort from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and it was a lovely, breezy way to see the harbour.

The barracks at Fort McHenry

Another view of the barracks. The barn-shaped building is the powder magazine.

The junior officers’ quarters. Note the plates of oysters. Clearly the junior officers ate well.

Fort York, on the other hand, is located in the midst of a bustling, growing city, right beside Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway. This made for some intriguing photos as I looked for interesting angles.

Fort York Barracks

Barracks and Bank Towers

Cannon and Gardiner Expressway

Cannon and Street Car

The museum displays at Fort York could use some updating, but it had many more rooms furnished in period pieces than did Fort McHenry, which makes a visit much more interesting. (Click on any of the photos below to open a slide show.)

The Americans attacked Fort York on April 27, 1813. The British were vastly outnumbered (750 British troops, 50 Mississauga and Ojibway warriors, and 12 guns vs. 2550 Americans, 15 naval vessels, and 85 cannon), and lost the battle, but the Americans suffered almost double the casualties of the British when the British blew up their own gunpowder magazine. The battle lasted six hours and cost 157 British lives and 320 American lives, including the American field commander. Afterwards, the Americans burned and looted the city of York, including the Government House and the Parliament Buildings (see above), and occupied the town for six days.


The Blue Barracks were built in 1814 to house the junior officers. These are a reconstruction.

Brick Barracks and Mess

The Brick Barracks and Mess, built in 1815, housed the unmarried officers and served as the mess for all of the garrison’s officers.

Stone Magazine

The Stone Magazine was built in 1815 and had room for 900 barrels of gunpowder. Its walls are two metres thick.

The Battle of York was a clear victory for the Americans, and marked their first invasion of British territory since the start of the war. But the battle itself wasn’t considered crucial to the outcome of the war and the Americans saw taking York merely as a stepping stone to the real prize: the Niagara Peninsula and, eventually, Kingston.

The Battle of Fort McHenry, on the other hand, was considered a turning point in the war, saved Baltimore from British invasion, and contributed to the early mythology of a nation still trying to forge its identity.

As for me, a gap in my Canadian history education has been filled, and my knowledge about the War of 1812 is now more complete. My government would be proud of me.

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  1. The Smithsonian « There and Back Again - January 28, 2013

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