Four choirs and one wind ensemble performed at the fort's first maritime and musical education experience as the 1814 Battle of Baltimore was re-enacted — with ersatz cannon blasts and authentic smoke — in the background. A few children held their ears or jumped at the suddenness of the volleys, but they kept on singing.
"This way kids get to feel the Battle of Baltimore," said Janet Caslow, spokeswoman for the Baltimore National Heritage Area.
Damyra Barksdale, 10, had just wrapped up a medley with schoolmates at Friendship Academy in Cherry Hill when several cannons again fired simultaneously.
"I felt that one right down in my shoes!" she said, adding she was glad she didn't have to sing over that round.
The lessons resounded with the children.
"People should learn about history and war," said Rashard McAllister, 12. "We should know about who fought for us and sacrificed their lives so we can be here today."
The children toured the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in what many said was their most memorable trip. The school groups took turns solemnly unfurling a full-sized replica of the flag that flew over the fort 198 years ago.
"After the battle, our flag was still waving," said Diamond Johnson, 9. "That meant we were still a country."
The students showed off what they had learned, answering a park ranger's questions in one loud voice.
"This flag is made of nylon," said National Park Service Ranger Vince Vaise, chief of interpretation at Fort McHenry. "What was the original?"
"Wool!" the children answered.
In the harbor, nearly a dozen ships, including the Pride of Baltimore II and the Schooner Virginia, out of Norfolk, circled the fort and sailed much closer than the British warships did in 1814. On one schooner, definitely in the line of fire, students from the Maritime Industries Academy watched the action on shore and heard the story from a historian on board.
"At first, the students thought we were actually being bombarded," said Edwin D. Craig, junior ROTC instructor at the high school. "They came away with a better understanding of the war."
Brian Schneckenburger, city educational specialist in visual and performing arts, helped organize the day's events to familiarize students with Baltimore's role in the conflict that many call the country's second war for independence. The decisive battle also prompted Francis Scott Key to write what would become the national anthem.
Amy Rosenkrans, director of humanities for the city schools, said she would like to involve more schools in the event and make the maritime and music day at the fort an annual tradition.
"There is a major push during the War of 1812 commemoration to acquaint students with what happened in Baltimore 200 years ago," Schneckenburger said. "As citizens of Baltimore, it is important to learn of the city's role in the war effort, the impact the war had on the city and the role music of the era played in the conflict."
Mount Royal Academy brought its own accompaniment with music teacher Lethia Farmer on the keyboard and 13-year-old Joquam Victory on an electric guitar. The sounds of 21st-century instruments reverberated across the water as the choir sang the national anthem with their hands on their hearts and then followed with the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," a song associated with the Civil War.
"The generals' names and dates are important," Vaise said. "But more important is the vivid impression we leave on the minds of all these kids today. I think they won't ever forget it."