“To research for living history, I read a lot of original letters in the archives at Fort McHenry. There was one letter that stuck out in my mind from a citizen of Baltimore. He was sitting on his rooftop watching the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. I could almost imagine myself, on the roof of my own house, looking at the battle and knowing that if the Americans lose, the British are sailing into my backyard and burning my house down. It really shows the immediacy of the situation. The wars in Iraq, Vietnam, and World War II were all removed from America, but this was right here in Baltimore. That’s what Francis Scott Key saw when he wrote ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’
Working at Fort McHenry is great because the early 19th century is definitely my favorite era to portray for a couple of reasons. I love the history behind the Battle of Baltimore, but I’m also a closet Jane Austen fan, and her books happened around that time.
At the Fort, we do this thing called ‘Stump the Ranger,’ and sometimes the visitors try to prove they know more than you. When they stump me, I’m honest about it. I won’t try to bull my way through it. One visitor asked a lot of questions about the British bombs, what their range was, and how they went off—way more than a normal visitor would ask. I asked him why he was so interested, and he said he worked on the Manhattan Project making the atom bomb. It’s neat when the visitors can teach the rangers.
I love sharing Baltimore’s history with visitors because local history helps people appreciate their community better. When people think nothing important happened here, then it’s easy to say, ‘I’m not doing anything important either.’ But, gosh, something important happened here! Knowing how historically important our area is can really motivate people to make a difference just by taking pride in their community. They might say, ‘I’m not going to let this junk lay around. I’m going to pick up trash. I’m going to get involved with my community organization.’ There is a parallel between taking pride and ownership and protecting the community in 1814, and doing the same thing today. Local history fosters that community stewardship.
Another important thing living history does is it reaches young people. For example, we have a demonstration where the kids load the cannon—not with actual gunpowder, of course! But they go through the motions. There are a lot of things we do that engage youth, and that’s my weakness. I love kids, I guess because I’m a big kid at heart. People ask my wife how many kids she has, and she says she has two children, our 2 ½-year-old daughter and me.
Once we did a swearing in ceremony for new Americans who immigrated here, and one person said that was one of the best memories they ever had. They were Americans for all of five minutes and there they were hoisting the American flag! They understood the significance of the Fort and the flag as much as someone whose ancestors were in the War of 1812. See, it’s not all about the facts. Could they name every general? No, but they got that meaning.
Our biggest event at the Fort is Defenders’ Day. This year it’s September 11-13. We host parades, patriotic musical performances, a ceremony in the amphitheater of the Inner Harbor, a mock ship-to-shore bombardment, and a fireworks show. Saturday evening is the closest you will ever get to being here the night of the Battle of Baltimore, and I would encourage everyone to come down. Shucks, it’s free. Governor Martin O’Malley was even inspired to write a song after watching the ceremony. It’ll give you a whole new appreciation for the national anthem and how it came to be.
Some real exciting stuff has been going on at Fort McHenry lately. Ken Burns, who directed a bunch of historical documentaries, is filming a documentary for PBS on our national parks. Most of the film concentrates on parks out west like Yellowstone and Yosemite, but we wanted to make sure Fort McHenry and Hampton National Historic Site, where I also work, didn’t get lost in the shuffle since they’re national parks, too. We filmed short vignettes that will air on MPT either right before or after the PBS episodes. Our vignettes showcase different people who work at the Fort.
Everyone can identify with the story of Fort McHenry. It transcends race, gender, age, everything. I started volunteering at Fort McHenry back in 1987 and now I have the best job in history. The power of history is its influence on the present. I really live by that, it’s not some hokey schlock.”