Many of the 1,400 students at Fort McHenry on Friday had heard about the defense of Baltimore in 1814 against a British amphibious invasion, an American triumph that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen what would become the national anthem.
Taking part in the "Young Defenders" event enabled the youngsters to experience the historic moment, as they shrieked to the near-deafening sounds of cannon blasts and captured the demonstrations on cell phone cameras.
"We hear about it in class, but to actually see it is totally different; you understand the environment from actually seeing it," said Jennifer Vukov, 16, of Dundalk, a junior at Patapsco High School.
She joined classmates in a program that's part of "Defenders' Day and Star-Spangled Weekend." The three-day event marks the Maryland holiday that celebrates the anniversary of one of the turning points in the War of 1812, as militia beat back a British land force and soldiers at Fort McHenry withstood a 25-hour bombardment by British invaders.
U.S. National Park Service officials say that "Young Defenders" is a way to create interest among local youngsters in a historic site that many have never visited. They said that Friday's gathering of students was the largest since Fort McHenry began holding "Young Defenders" events in 2003. Students came from several schools in Baltimore City as well as from neighboring counties.
"The story of the defense of Fort McHenry and the Battle of Baltimore has a greater relevance for kids who grew up in Baltimore," said Gay Vietzke, superintendent of the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine. "This is a story about the citizens of Baltimore choosing to defend their own city, their own homes.
"The national capital was literally in flames. They burned the White House a week or so before these events," Vietzke added. "And rather than giving in, folks here in Baltimore decided that they would defend this city. There is a tremendous story that relates to civic pride and love for your city."
Some parents accompanied their children on what for many was a class field trip.
"I came here when I was a kid. It's an important part of history," said Tiffany Frey of Morrell Park, who attended with her daughter, Maqueila Morales, 9, and other students from Morrell Park Elementary School.
Students drilled as soldiers with wooden replica muskets, staged mock sword battles with re-enactment actors and watched cannon-firing exercises.
Near the conclusion of the program, the students formed a giant American flag by standing in a grid and placing colored placards above their heads. The moment was similar to a 1914 scene that marked the 100th anniversary of the battle.
While many of the students in attendance visited as part of field trips, Davon Woodard, 17, of West Baltimore was there for work. The senior at Coppin Academy has been serving as a part-time youth ranger at Fort McHenry since June.
"I didn't know about Fort McHenry until I started working here," Woodard said. "Then I learned about the Battle of Baltimore and why the Key Bridge is where it's at. It was a good learning experience."
Woodard works on call during a portion of his regular school day, receiving excused absences from school. Among the job's perks, he says, is the Park Service uniform, complete with a forest green sweater and tie.
"At first I said, 'What do I have on?'" said Woodard when he first tried on the uniform. "I don't even look like a kid from West Baltimore anymore. I look like somebody important, somebody with a purpose."