Constellation, Fort McHenry slug it out

Star-spangled flag yet waves after ship re-enacts 1814 attack

September 09, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The first voyage of the Constellation since its return to the Inner Harbor went off with a boom, a fizzle and clouds of billowing smoke yesterday as the ship exchanged cannon fire with a line of soldiers defending Fort McHenry.

It was a historical re-enactment that took a few creative liberties to mark Defenders' Day, the annual celebration of the American victory of Sept. 13, 1814, when a small but determined group of Baltimore volunteers fended off a British invasion and bombardment.

"Load the cartridge. ... Fire! ... That was a weak shot!" shouted a sailor aboard the 146-year-old ship as a group of soldiers atop a bulwark on the fort fired round after round from their muskets and a cannon at the slowly turning ship.

"A bucket of grog to you if we can knock out that infantry column!" shouted Larry Bopp, leader of the ship's company.

Kaboom! KABOOM! The second and third blasts from the ship's gun shook the deck, spat mountains of smoke over the water and echoed off the fortress' walls.

The dramatization's historical inaccuracies were obvious: the Civil War-era ship firing on the early 19th-century fortress, and Americans attacking Americans.

But the event was meant for fun more than authenticity. It began a weekend of festivities and fireworks celebrating the attack on Fort McHenry that inspired Francis Scott Key to write his poem, "Star-Spangled Banner."

Yesterday's event also marked the resurrection of the tradition of taking the Constellation on one short voyage a year - out into the harbor and back - and turning it around so that its sides weather evenly, said Chris Rowsom, the ship's executive director.

Yesterday was the first "turnaround" trip for the 1854 sloop of war since it returned to public view in the Inner Harbor on July 2, 1999, after a three-year, $8 million restoration, Rowsom said.

For several years before the rehabilitation project was launched in 1996, the ship had not taken its "turnaround" voyages because managers feared it was so fragile that towing it out into the harbor could cause damage, Rowsom said.

This is the second year that the Living Classrooms Foundation, an educational organization that operates the Constellation and other historic sites around the harbor, has organized the "Star Spangled Banner Weekend."

At 5 p.m. yesterday, a group of volunteers in uniforms matching those used in the War of 1812 marched with a fife and drum corps down Pratt Street from the Flag House to the Inner Harbor, carrying a 42-foot-long replica of the banner.

At 9 a.m. today, re-enactors will begin a series of public events in the fort's park. They will include military drills and musket-firing exercises.

At 6 p.m. today, the 389th Army Band from the Aberdeen Proving Grounds is scheduled to perform at the fort, followed by a more authentic re-enactment of the bombardment.

Starting at 8:50 p.m., technicians aboard a raft in the harbor will shoot fireworks, blast cannons and launch smoke canisters at the fortress.

"This is a great day and a great celebration for Baltimore," said state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.

The former Baltimore mayor and governor of Maryland told the more than 50 passengers on the Constellation yesterday about the ship's history as the centerpiece of the Inner Harbor's renaissance.

After a bell rang and the crew pulled up the gangway, the tugboats Capt. Russi and Mitzie Hughes nudged the Constellation out into the harbor under a brilliant blue sky heaped with pillow-like clouds.

As the ship slid on the glassy water past the Domino Sugar plant and toward the fort, volunteers dressed in blue and white Navy uniforms began preparing to fire a 20-pound parrot gun.

The crew yanked on ropes to position the gun at the stern of the ship. They reamed the barrel out with a rod. Then, a young crewman - a "powder monkey" - scrambled over with a charge of gunpowder packed in tin foil, which a gunner rammed into the barrel.

The first shot was a dud - producing little noise but a huge cloud of white smoke.

Meanwhile, the ship came under attack. Beneath an enormous, billowing flag, soldiers on a wall of the fort blasted away with muskets and a cannon.

The tugboats turned the ship for better aim at the fort, then the gun crew fired again. This time, the gun worked well - setting off several deafening explosions.

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