Francis Scott Key penned the words to the Star-Spangled Banner during the War of 1812. He was inspired after seeing the flag flying in the dawn over Fort McHenry, proof that the Americans had held their ground. Key was on a ship in the harbor during a night of prolonged and intense British bombardment of the fort. That much is common knowledge.
What is hardly remembered is that among the defenders of Fort McHenry on that historic night were several observant Jewish militiamen. They were scions of Baltimore’s elite Jewish families, among them Mendes Cohen, his brother, Philip Cohen, and Samuel Etting.
While their involvement is not noted in the exhibits, a visit to this historic site is a must during one of the free admission days in April, this year on Sunday chol hamoed and the following Sunday. (The rest of the year admission is $10 for visitors 16 and older.) Imagine yourself, a Jew living in Baltimore in the early 1800s, fighting to defend your home from the British invaders. Learn how communication was maintained among the far-flung states, how the seaport of Baltimore was defended from attack after the British ransacked and burned Washington, D.C., and see exhibits detailing the story of the struggles of a young nation against its former motherland. The vista on the grounds at the river’s edge toward Baltimore is quite scenic. And the view from the ramparts of the fort is impressive.
At the Visitor Center, check for the daily schedule of talks and tours and, weather permitting, times of the hoisting of the flag above the fort. Families with children may want to pick up a free Junior Ranger activity booklet. Adults are encouraged to help their children complete the answers as they explore the Visitor Center exhibits, the fort, and the grounds. Return the completed booklet at the end of your visit and earn a Junior Ranger certificate and badge.
Also at the Visitor Center, watch the short orientation film, shown all day on the hour and half-hour. View the exhibits and listen to the different renditions of the national anthem.
Walk along the path from the Visitor Center to the fort beyond. See the different structures that comprise the fort complex. Walk up to the cannon placements. Watch and listen to exhibits on the life of soldiers, both enlisted men and their officers, and learn how the fort’s defenses were planned and maintained.
Picnic on the lawn or sit on one of the benches on the banks of the Patapsco River. The view straight ahead is of the working Port of Baltimore. You may catch a container ship being loaded or unloaded. To your right, the view toward Sparrow’s Point, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay, is quite lovely. It’s difficult to imagine this serene place as the site of the bloody mayhem and destruction of war. Watch the boat traffic on the Patapsco and the vehicular traffic cross the elegant bridges of I-95 and I-695. The latter is the Key Bridge, named for Francis Scott Key, and is the longest bridge in Baltimore — not to be confused with the Key Bridge over the Potomac River between Washington, D.C., and Rosslyn, Virginia. Pets are welcome on the park grounds outside the wooden fence that surrounds the fort.
Fort McHenry was constructed in 1800 to defend the crucial Port of Baltimore. It was built in the shape of a five-pointed star surrounded by a dry moat, or trench. The Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812 occurred on the night of Sept. 13-14, 1814. Francis Scott Key, a Washington, D.C. lawyer, witnessed the bombardment of the fort from a truce ship in the harbor. He was there to negotiate the release of a civilian prisoner of war held by the British. The flag flying over the fort was oversized, hoisted there in anticipation of the British attack. When Key saw that flag still flying at dawn, it meant that his countrymen had held firm. He was inspired to write a poem he entitled The Defense of Fort McHenry, which was later renamed The Star-Spangled Banner. It was adopted as the national anthem in 1931.
At that time of the War of 1812, the United States fielded a small professional army and relied on citizen-soldiers to come to her defense. Judith Cohen, a widow, and her seven children had moved from Richmond, Virginia, to Baltimore in 1807. They were of Sephardic heritage. Three sons, Jacob, Philip, and Mendes, joined a volunteer company formed to defend Baltimore, Nicholson’s Artillery Fencibles.
Each member of the Fencibles provided his own food rations. It has been reported that at 6 a.m. Sunday through Friday mornings, a small covered cart left the northwest corner of Howard and Market Streets heading to the fort. It contained provisions for the Jewish defenders from their families. The Jewish Historical Society of Maryland is unable to verify that the food included kosher meat, although it is known that militiaman Samuel Etting’s father Solomon was a shochet (kosher slaughterer). The Society does attest that six of the militiamen at Fort McHenry during that historic night were Jewish.
Mendes Cohen was among them. He is renowned for having been instrumental in the 1826 enactment by the Maryland Legislature of a law allowing Jews to hold public office and serve on juries. Until then, there existed a requirement to swear an oath on the New Testament in order to serve in those capacities. After the law was passed, Mendes Cohen was able to be elected captain of the Maron Rifles, a company of Baltimore volunteers in the Maryland Militia. In 1846, he was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates. (However, the Maryland Constitution itself was not modified to allow Jews to serve in public office until 1867.)
The presence of our kinfolk at the Battle of Baltimore helped the United States militarily. It is regrettable that the State of Maryland lagged in granting Jews full civil rights. Jews had secured those rights in Virginia in 1785 under the Virginia Act of Religious Freedom written by Thomas Jefferson and, under federal auspices, at its inception under the Constitution of the United States.
Mendes Cohen should be remembered as a hero for having exemplified civic involvement and religious observance. While his feats are not well known, his actions have reverberated down the centuries to us today, living with full equality in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
Dinah Rokach moved to Kemp Mill in 2013. She is the sister of Joshua Rokach, a long-time resident, whose minyan she attends. As a retiree, she is free to see the many attractions in the area and is happy to share her discoveries.
Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine
2400 East Fort Ave.
401-962-4290, ext. 250
The Visitor Center includes an orientation film, exhibits, and a gift shop.
The fort includes barracks, exhibits, structures, and cannons.
Grounds for picnicking and strolling outside the wooden gates.
Admission to the Visitor Center and fort is free this year only on Sundays April 16 (Chol HaMoed Pesach), April 23, Nov. 12, and Friday Aug. 25 from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. For visitors under 16, admission is free all year, except when Fort McHenry is closed on Thanksgiving, Dec. 25, and Jan. 1.
Free admission to the grounds. Open year-round, except Thanksgiving, Dec. 25, and Jan.1, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (extended hours for bird walks, see below).
Upcoming Special Events:
Join a free naturalist-led bird walk on Wednesdays May 3 and June 7, from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays April 19, 26, May 3 and 10, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Meet in the parking lot to the left outside the gate of Fort McHenry. Help survey the bird population. Bring binoculars if you own them. The walks are cancelled in bad weather. For more information call 410-665-0769 for morning walks and 443-417-5015 for evening walks.
By car: Fort McHenry is three miles southeast of the Baltimore Inner Harbor and just off I-95. Follow the brown Fort McHenry directional signs. From I-95 northbound, take Exit 55 Key Highway and follow Fort McHenry signs. Free parking.
By mass transit: Metro red line to Union Station or orange line to New Carrollton. (Check wmata.com for service advisories before heading out.) Exit the metro station and walk to the MARC train platform, take the Penn Line to Baltimore/Penn Station. Outside the terminal on St. Paul Street, take the free Charm City Circulator Bus purple line to the Light Street & Lee Street stop; change there for the free Charm City Circulator Bus Banner line to the Fort McHenry stop. MARC trains and Charm City Circulator buses operate on Sundays. For MARC schedules and information, go to the mta.maryland.gov website, search MARC-train. Check the Sunday schedule. For Charm City Circulator Bus schedules and routes go to charmcitycirculator.com.