When Fort McHenry visitors aim a stumper of a question, the inquiry gets fired at the thin man who looks a lot like Abraham Lincoln.
His name is Scott S. Sheads, a tall, rail-slender park ranger whose idea of a good time is to spend the night in a sleeping bag in one of the fort's old jail cells.
"It's not at all hard to imagine the ghosts in this place, the spies, the bushwhackers and the women of the blackest dye," the bashful guide said the other day as he escorted visitors into the fort's prison room. He has been the fort's official historian since 1978.
Mr. Sheads, 43, who grew up in Rodgers Forge, has completed a 160-page history of the fort that is being published today. The book details the historic shrine's origins (French military
engineers conceived it) and its life since.
The book is especially rich in its coverage of the Civil War period, the fort's busiest years, when about 20,000 people were locked up there for varying lengths of time.
Fort McHenry then was the military headquarters of Baltimore, keystone of the 8th Army Corps, an installation and prison where about 2,000 political prisoners were jailed at times.
Of that number, 28 were newspapermen (none from The Sun, Mr. Sheads said), and 31 were members of the General Assembly whose political sentiments were not in harmony with Washington.
In many ways, Scott Sheads lives Fort McHenry history. At 6, he wrote his first school project on the place, with crayon pictures.
Some of his ancestors were Pennsylvania German farmers. Others were peace-loving Quakers. Sheads fought for both sides in the Civil War.
The ranger is not much interested in 20th century technology.
In a deep cavity below the fort's brick walls, he makes the gunpowder cartridges for rifles used at re-enactments. That earns him the title of historic weapons officer.
A regular volunteer crew member on the Pride of Baltimore II, he does not own a car. At night, he walks out the main gate and along Fort Avenue to his home, a small rowhouse on Andre Street near the Locust Point grain elevator.
His one concession to modern ways is a personal computer, on which he keeps a database on all the names of military staff members and prisoners at Fort McHenry. He gets an average of five letters a week from descendants researching family history.
Even his personal life takes on the pace of less hectic times. On late fall afternoons, with the smell of raw sugar being unloaded at the Domino Sugar plant in the air, Mr. Sheads often settles in for a repast of soup, bread and iced tea at Hull Street Blues, a restaurant and bar not far from fort and home.
"When I want to get away from my cat," he said.
The Fort McHenry of today is synonymous with Francis Scott Key's "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the huge flag that flies there day and night.
Once, while changing one of the huge flags, Mr. Sheads was apprehended by a gust of wind and hurled across the parade ground. Another time, he had the palms of his hands cut to the bone by out-of-control flag ropes.
It was in the War of 1812, specifically Sept. 12, 1814, that Fort McHenry attained the historic status held by only a few other United States historical shrines.
"The Star-Spangled Banner has overshadowed everything here," Mr. Sheads said. "Even the battle itself."
However, he feels the fort's history is much more varied and rewarding than merely its service during the defense of Baltimore against the British navy.
For instance, Fort McHenry saw heavy activity during World War when it became an Army hospital and center for reconstructive surgery, perhaps the largest Army hospital in the country at that time.
Some years earlier, Walter Reed, the famous Army surgeon and yellow fever specialist, served there. Other fort luminaries include Robert E. Lee, who supervised construction of the harbor's Fort Carroll before the Civil War and went on to become the Confederacy's most famous general.
Thousands of captured Confederate soldiers were housed at the fort after Civil War battles.
"There are letters of the period that say you could hear the artillery thunder in Baltimore all the way from Gettysburg and Antietam," Mr. Sheads said.
Generations of Baltimoreans tend to associate the fort with the big black cannon along a parapet pointed over the harbor. The historian documents that in the 1860s two 10-inch Columbiads were aimed, not at ships in the Patapsco River, but at the Washington Monument in the heart of affluent Mount Vernon.
"The Civil War in Baltimore was not a shoot-'em-up battle," Mr. Sheads said. "But it was a social battle. The town was very divided. You could be arrested if you rode a horse up Charles Street, waved your hat and shouted, 'Three cheers for Jefferson Davis!' "
Mr. Sheads' book, which costs $27, is available from Nautical & Aviation Publishing Co., 8 W. Madison St.