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One Star-Spangled Buoy

See and feel what inspired Francis Scott Key

Every American knows the story of Francis Scott Key watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, then penning the Star Spangled Banner as dawn broke to reveal the Stars and Stripes still flying proudly over the fort. He watched the battle from a prime harbor seat: a British war ship on which he was detained.
You can be in the same spot Key was 200 years ago and gaze at the flag flying over the fort just as he did. Of course, it’s not the exact same flag, and the Baltimore skyline has changed in the last two centuries.
    You’ll need a boat for this experience, but that’s easy. Plenty of tour boats out of Baltimore’s inner harbor will take you to the exact location and recount the story. There’s no problem finding the spot. It’s by the Key Bridge, and marked with a special red, white and blue buoy.
    My first visit was on a tour boat, with the family. But toddlers were too young to understand the significance of what they were seeing, so I vowed to come back when they could appreciate the experience. We took our boat to Baltimore for the Fourth of July, finding the colorful buoy on our own. This time the kids knew enough to recount the story to my wife and me. Of all the historic sites we visited while they were growing up, this remains one of the more memorable.
    I made my third visit last week, on the press boat as the Coast Guard cutter James Rankin set the buoy. Every year since 1972 the Coast Guard has set the buoy in the spring and retrieved it in the fall. The Rankin is equipped and trained to set buoys, so the crew made quick work of getting the marker placed. When the buoy was afloat, the James Rankin backed off a dozen yards; the National Anthem was played over the ship’s intercom system while everyone stood at attention. The Coast Guard crew on the Rankin and on our press boat saluted. You were there, and you felt it.

From Buoy to Banner

    You can see the very same flag that Key witnessed and the manuscript that he penned at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. From Flag Day June 14 to July 6, the Maryland Historical Society is lending the museum Francis Scott Key’s original manuscript of the Star-Spangled Banner lyrics, where it will be united for the first time with the flag Key saw at “dawn’s early light.”