Honoring protectors

Celebration: Defenders' Day brings a War of 1812 battle to life, with renewed patriotic meaning.

September 12, 2004|By Sarah Schaffer | Sarah Schaffer,SUN STAFF

The soldiers and militiamen of the garrison took their places to raise the flag as the fife-and-drum band played. When the Star-Spangled Banner was hoisted over Fort McHenry, the crowd knew it was time to begin another celebration of Defenders' Day.

Thousands of re-enactors and tourists gathered at the historic fort yesterday to commemorate the time 190 years ago when Baltimore was defended against British attack during the War of 1812.

The fort's large 15-star and 15-stripe flag was flown at half-staff yesterday to mark another anniversary: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Re-enactor Jim Brooks said this year's patriotic program was especially meaningful because it coincided with Sept. 11 observances.

"People who have come here today have come for a reason - to get a sense of something bigger than themselves. [They] want to find a way to mark a significant anniversary, to immerse themselves in something deeply American," said Brooks, who traveled from his home in Washington dressed for the weekend as a first sergeant in the U.S. Corps of Artillery.

For eight years, Brooks has participated in the fort's celebration, which typically features an encampment, historic weaponry displays and other activities. "It's the biggest event we do all year. It's the most historically accurate and the most symbolically rich," he said.

He and several dozen costumed participants spent most of the afternoon talking about history with tourists, many of whom inquired about what it must have been like to experience the battle.

What Brooks and the others told them was this: About 1,000 men fought for America in the Battle of Baltimore, an engagement that began Sept. 12, 1814, and lasted for two rainy days. The U.S. troops fought off the British army and defended the old port city against its naval fleet.

It was a victory that inspired Maryland lawyer Francis Scott Key to pen what would become the national anthem. Since shortly after the battle ended, Baltimore has celebrated the event with Defenders' Day. It was made a state holiday in 1908. In the past, dignitaries including former presidents and governors have celebrated it.

Although earlier generations might have marked the occasion with reverence, many 21st- century citizens have forgotten about the event - and the war itself, some say.

"It's just too foreign for people to wrap their heads around," said Todd Post, a self-described history buff who traveled from Arlington, Va., to watch the program.

Post said he believes a lack of museum exhibits and public monuments dedicated specifically to the conflict makes remembering the pivotal battle harder.

"Nothing in the D.C. area highlights the War of 1812. It's kind of a big deal, but nobody knows about it," Post said.

History was hard to ignore yesterday, however, when men in blue jackets and black caps fired cannons, sang wartime songs and performed military drills.

It was a living-history environment that 24-year-old Jim Bailey believed would draw a crowd of his peers.

"It's hard for our generation to relate to what happened 190 years ago. But hearing the guns [and] seeing the smoke ... will suck them in," said the Fort McHenry park ranger, as he watched men fire a cannon near the waters of the Patapsco River.

For Bailey, who stood sweating under the heavy woolen clothes of an 1812-era Army lieutenant, the fort's annual program promotes learning that is both immediate and exciting.

"Hopefully, they'll walk away with the thought of, `Wow, history is cool,'" he said.

Defenders' Day activities continue from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. today at the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historical Shrine.

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