Live history on our ‘Star-Spangled’ seas

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If you sail up the Patapsco River from the Chesapeake Bay during the warm months of the year, you will see a unique red, white and blue, conical-shaped “nun” buoy as you approach Baltimore.

The Francis Scott Key Buoy sits just off starboard as you pass under the I-395 Bridge, about 10 miles before you reach the pulsing heart of Baltimore's famous Inner Harbor.

The 'rockets' red glare' and 'bombs bursting in air' shed the only light over Fort McHenry during the Sept. 13, 1814 attack.

This is the star-spangled, but little-known, Francis Scott Key Buoy, which marks the spot where Key wrote what would eventually become America’s national anthem. The buoy is carefully anchored at that precise location each spring by the U.S. Coast Guard, and removed in the fall before ice flows can rip it loose.

July 4, 2009, will be the first Independence Day for the original Star-Spangled Banner in its new permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The extensively renovated National Museum of American History reopened last fall, with the fragile flag as its most famous artifact, in a climate- and light-controlled gallery of its own.

Smithsonian curators note that sails have a major role in supporting the Star-Spangled Banner. In 1873, the flag was displayed at the Boston Navy Yard, attached to a large canvas sail for support. And, as part of its most recent conservation treatment, the flag was attached to a lightweight polyester material called Stabiltex, which in turn was sewn to a special thermoplastic fabric known as Cuben Fiber, sometimes used as a sailcloth. Cuben Fiber was used to make the sails for the winner of the 1992 America’s Cup and is still available for custom-made racing sails through North Sails.

The original Star-Spangled Banner is again on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

In a real sense, “the flag,” as Americans know it today, came to us through history on a boat — many boats, in fact. Not only did sailing ships play a major role in the story of our flag, but some of the key locations in that history are today very attractive boating destinations in their own right. If you want to really understand why the Star-Spangled Banner is more than just a piece of cloth, cruise some of its associated historic destinations: Bermuda, Tangier Island and Baltimore.

Fort McHenry: Bastion of Baltimore

The Star-Spangled Banner got its name from the famous poem by Francis Scott Key. He wrote the lines in 1814 as he stood on the deck of a small American sloop watching a fleet of British Navy warships try to obliterate Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. More than a century later, Key’s poem became the official national anthem.

Today, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is one of the top boating and tourist destinations in Chesapeake Bay. It is also one of the country’s signature urban renewal success stories: Baltimore’s Haborplace & The Gallery shopping and dining complex helped spark a revitalization that reclaimed the Inner Harbor, leading to the construction of an aquarium, maritime museum, science center, Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium.

The British originally targeted Fells Point in Baltimore as a 'nest of pirates.' Now it's a place to catch a water taxi to visit Fort McHenry.

First-time sailors coming up the Patapsco River from the Bay are often surprised at how narrow the opening is between the Locust Point Peninsula (Fort McHenry) and the north shore of the river, through which all boats must pass to reach the Inner Harbor. It can be a bit confusing in daytime, but arriving in the dead of night can be downright intimidating — especially with dozens of navigational aids flashing a bewildering kaleidoscope of colored signals in front of countless city lights.

Add in all the heavy freighter, tug and barge traffic that chugs through at all hours, and it’s an exciting destination no matter when you arrive. This is a port that demands your full attention.

To explore the harbor, tie up at a marina and take a water taxi to the various attractions. The Inner Harbor water taxi to Fort McHenry leaves from Fells Point (Stop 11). At the time of the War of 1812, this was the “nest of pirates” that the British Royal Navy wanted to destroy more than anything else in Baltimore. Fells Point was the center of the Americans’ ship-building industry and home port to the fast and deadly Baltimore Clipper privateers, which so effectively hectored British merchant ships.

The shipyards are long gone, but the Fells Point neighborhood is today a popular, close-knit, and still-special corner of this lively, historic and much-visited city.

From Bermuda to Baltimore

The chronicle of the Star-Spangled Banner begins at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Bermuda, which the British Navy turned into its “Gibraltar of the West” after losing its bases in America following the Revolutionary War.

It was from Bermuda’s Royal Naval Dockyard during the War of 1812 that the British Royal Navy launched a fleet of warships against the new and still-weak United States. Under the command of Adm. George Cockburn (pronounced “CO-burn”), the British ravaged Chesapeake Bay and ultimately drove the U.S. government out of Washington, D.C., leaving the city a smoldering ruin. Just weeks after sacking Washington, Cockburn’s fleet lay siege to Baltimore — the bombardment witnessed by Francis Scott Key.

Today, the sprawling Royal Naval Dockyard, with its classic fort (or “keep”), is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Bermuda. The dockyard houses the Bermuda Maritime Museum, the Dolphin Quest center (where visitors can get in the water with trained dolphins), a small shopping arcade and restaurants, an arts center and cinema, and other attractions.

The dockyard’s well-protected marina offers slips, a boat lift and repair facilities for visiting yachts, as well as a ferry terminal providing a quick link to Bermuda’s capital city of Hamilton.

Bermuda also is one of the top racing and cruising destinations for thousands of American sailors each year, particularly in the Newport-to-Bermuda yacht race (held on even-numbered years) and the Marion-to-Bermuda race (starting in Buzzards Bay, Mass., on odd-numbered years and starting June 19 this year).

Tangier Island

When Cockburn’s warships arrived in Chesapeake Bay, he made Tangier Island, Va. — a small, remote, centrally located and loyalist spot — his base of operations. Thus began the Chesapeake campaign, a methodically brutal series of raids in every corner of the Bay. The British burned homes, seized food and supplies, sank or seized American ships, greatly disrupted commerce, and killed and terrorized local residents.

Cockburn’s job in the War of 1812 was to blockade the Chesapeake and generally harass the Americans, creating a diversionary front that would force a redeployment of federal troops away from the main battle lines in Canada. But the Americans declined the gambit, leaving the British to plunder the Chesapeake at will. In 1814, crack British Army and Navy reinforcements arrived at Tangier Island.

Tangier Island, Md., the base for attacking British Naval forces during the War of 1812, is now a wonderfully remote and unique cruising destination.

The British then turned their attention to Washington. In the subsequent attack, British troops marched overland from the Patuxent River and easily crushed the ill-trained and poorly led local militias. Sweeping into an undefended city, they torched the presidential mansion (only later called the White House), the Capitol building and other structures. Baltimore, a far more important strategic and industrial target than Washington, was to be the next prize.

Today, Tangier is one of the last remaining island communities of watermen in the Chesapeake Bay. (Another is Smith Island, Md., just to the north.) Residents of both islands share an English and Welsh ancestry, an economy based on crabbing, fishing and tourism, and a distinctive dialect of Old English mixed with American and Southern and coastal accents.

People get around the island either by electric golf cart, bike, boat or foot; there are no cars. The community of 600 or so residents is close, religious (Methodist), and dry (no alcohol is sold anywhere on Tangier).

For sailors, Tangier Island is a wonderfully remote and unique destination, 12 miles off the Eastern Shore, six miles below the Maryland state line. There are only a couple small stores, a handful of places to eat or sleep, and just one place to dock: Parks Marina. Watermen’s crab shacks, built in stilts out in the main harbor, form watery roads for the boat traffic on which the island depends.

Today, one of Tangier’s most interesting attractions is its southern tip, known as “the hook.” It was on the hook of Tangier Island that Cockburn asked the legendary Methodist “parson of the islands,” Joshua Thomas, to bless his troops as they were leaving to attack Baltimore. But standing on a stage inside the garrison, in front of armed British soldiers massed in formation, Thomas famously predicted their attack would fail.

Baltimore Harbor: Key buoy and the flag

After the capture and burning of Washington in 1814, the Americans were left humiliated and demoralized. More capable federal forces scrambled to mount a stronger and more determined defense at Baltimore.

In a famously self-confident act of insolence, the commander of Fort McHenry, Maj. George Armistead, commissioned a local flagmaker, Mary Pickersgill, to sew an ensign “so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.” The resulting 30-foot-by-42-foot “star-spangled banner” flew over the fort in defiance.

Just before the battle started, Francis Scott Key, a well-known attorney, sailed out to Cockburn’s flagship on a small American sloop under a flag of truce. He was seeking the release of a prominent physician who had been taken prisoner by the British. Key was politely received by the officers and negotiated the doctor’s freedom.

However, because the Americans had seen and heard the British plans for the attack, they were detained under guard, first aboard the H.M.S. Surprise, then on their own sloop. Key and his compatriots watched the bombardment while anchored behind the British line, about eight miles down the Patapsco River from the fort.

In truth, the Battle of Fort McHenry was not really a battle at all: British guns could shoot farther than the American cannons, so their fleet simply stayed out of U.S. range and blasted the garrison with impunity. The attack failed because the British Navy could not demolish the fort, and the American troops (unlike in Washington) stood their ground and fought the British army to a standstill.

The assault lasted 25 hours, through the night of Sept. 13, 1814. The city’s residents extinguished all lights to deny the British easy targets in the darkness, so “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” provided the only visibility.

When morning came and the deeply religious Key saw the flag was still flying over the fort after the long, deafening, and wholly one-sided bombardment, he was moved to write a poem he titled “The Defence of Fort McHenry.”

Key’s full poem has four stanzas, was widely reprinted as a handbill, became wildly popular among the demoralized Americans, and turned into a symbol of patriotism and national identity. The lyrics were set to the melody of a popular British drinking tune and quickly entered American culture. However, the first stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” did not officially become the national anthem until an act of Congress in 1931 — almost 120 years after the siege.

Although the British attack failed, the Americans did suffer casualties at Fort McHenry: Four killed and 24 wounded. Purely by luck, a bomb that crashed through the fort’s powder magazine failed to explode.

While not defeated, the British were stopped — which, for the Americans, was an enormous victory. When the British finally abandoned their siege of Baltimore, they returned to Tangier Island and not long afterward left the Bay entirely.

On July 4, connect your cruising plans with the flag’s history. Plan a visit to Bermuda, or Tangier Island, or Baltimore and its famous fort.

The best way to take in the flag’s maritime history is to see it from the water — by boat.

Stephen Blakely is a writer based in Washington, DC, who sails his 26-foot Island Packet, Bearboat, on the Chesapeake Bay.

See related article: "Old Glory's sailing roots"

This article originally appeared in the Mid-Atlantic Home Waters Section of the July 2009 issue.