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Three Vietnam War veterans stood on the ramparts of Fort McHenry, gazed onto the Patapsco where British warships launched hundreds of rockets and mortar shells almost 200 years ago, and imagined the scene that unfolded during the Battle of Baltimore.

"I know rain was pouring down, and with all the shooting and shelling for more than 24 hours, they had no idea if they were going to survive," said Chuck Gallinger, 69, of Oshkosh, Wis., who served in Southeast Asia in 1966.

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Gallinger and his friends — in town for a reunion of their unit, the 709th Maintenance Battalion of the 9th Infantry — had stopped for a taste of the Star-Spangled Spectacular, Baltimore's bicentennial celebration of its defense against the British and the writing of the national anthem.

Francis Scott Key began writing what would become the lyrics to "The Star-Spangled Banner" right after the Americans' unlikely victory at Fort McHenry.

As most Americans know, the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) was fought to win independence from England. Many say the Civil War (1861-1865) was fought over the issue of slavery.

Sandwiched between the two, and triggered by less clear-cut causes, the War of 1812 (1812-1815) stands out less sharply if you're not paying attention.

Gallinger is among those who have heeded history. He knows what was at stake in the days-long Battle of Baltimore, how it went and why hundreds of thousands plan to flood Baltimore this weekend to commemorate those events.

"If you forget history, you're going to repeat it," Gallinger said. "This shows you have to be willing to fight for what you have."

Most historians agree that in the three decades after the War for Independence, England, still one of the world's geopolitical powers, was slow to embrace that war's outcome.

The Royal Navy was still in the habit of "impressing" American merchant sailors — capturing them and forcing them to join their own ranks — as well as harassing U.S. commercial ships trying to do business in Europe. Americans also learned British troops stationed in Canada had been inciting attacks by Indian tribes within U.S. territories.

Some politicians wanted to use such insults as a pretext for invading Canada and seizing territories they felt should have been granted the new nation at the end of the Revolution. Others said confronting England would boost American morale.

President James Madison, backed by narrow votes in both houses of Congress, declared war on June 18, 1812, the first time the U.S. ever took such an action against another nation.

"They were a huge power, and we were minuscule in comparison. It was a David-and-Goliath war from the beginning," said Joe Lilly of Cape St. Claire, 31, a self-described history buff visiting Fort McHenry with his wife, Heather, this week.

The enemy committed more of its forces after 1814, when its involvement in the Napoleonic Wars ended, and quickly chose Washington and Baltimore as prime targets — Washington because it was the nation's capital, Baltimore because it was a thriving port and hotbed of anti-England sentiment.

British forces sacked Washington in late August 1814, burning public buildings from the White House to parts of the Capitol, then proceeded up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore.

At Fort McHenry, visitors hundreds of years later hadn't forgotten that insult, nor what was at stake in the Battle of Baltimore.

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"The Brits wanted [this] colony back," said Bob Gregoire of Bismarck, N.D., one of the Vietnam vets.

Another visitor, Tom Linzey of Eureka Springs, Ark., 57, hails from Essex. He remembers fishing as a boy at a spot in the bay near where Key, held by the British on a truce ship, wrote the famous lyrics.

Linzey was raised knowing what happened here and why it mattered.

"If it weren't for Maj. [George] Armistead and [Maj. Gen. Samuel] Smith, it could all have gone the other way," he said of the military leaders who led the defenses of Fort McHenry and North Point, respectively. "The country was at stake."

His wife, Shirry, said she was impressed by Baltimoreans who sank their own ships to help blockade the passage from the fort to the Inner Harbor, pointing to that very spot a few hundred feet below where she stood on the southern rampart.

"This day is just awesome," she said, her red-white-and-blue T-shirt gleaming in the sunlight. "This is a goose-bump kind of place."

At the fort in 1814, a mostly volunteer militia dug in on Sept. 12 and 13 and absorbed a bombardment that Armistead estimated at 1,500 to 1,800 shells, with only minor damage to the fort, as well as four dead and 24 wounded.

As the sun rose the next morning, Key, a lawyer and amateur poet, looked up to see the American flag still flying and began writing "The Defence of Fort M'Henry," the poem he set to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven," a popular British song, and which was ultimately proclaimed the national anthem.

Perhaps surprisingly, many of the visitors to the fort and to the Inner Harbor, where the ceremonial tall ships are anchored, were familiar with key battles fought then and previously.

Les Ernest of Essex stood beside the Kalmar Nyckel — a replica of a Dutch-built ship that brought Swedish settlers to what is now Delaware in the 17th century — snapping pictures.

Ernest, 48, grew up in Dundalk about a mile and a half from Battle Acre, the site of the crucial Battle of North Point, where the Maryland militia stalled the British land invasion on Sept. 12, 1814.

As Ernest pointed out, Maryland riflemen mortally wounded Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, the officer who had led the sacking of Washington and was to have led the assault on Baltimore.

Ernest, a 30-year Army veteran, didn't hide his pride at the thought.

"General Ross was killed not far from my house," he said.

Herman Kruelle of Gardenville, 71, and a friend, Margaret Johnson-Jones, sat one day this week on a bench across from the Coast Guard frigate Eagle, its huge U.S. flag flying from the stern.

Kruelle said watching "The War of 1812 on the Chesapeake: Home of the Brave," a documentary on Maryland Public Television, inspired him to take part in the celebration.

He was disappointed that only one British tall ship was in town — the Sultana, a reproduction of a schooner England used in the 1700s — but he was excited that he'd be at Martin Airport on Sunday to watch the Blue Angels take off for a scheduled air show.

Johnson-Jones recalled that the British raided her hometown, Havre de Grace, in May 1813, well before the fighting in Baltimore, torching more than 40 homes.

"Baltimore was lucky it didn't get destroyed like Havre de Grace," she said.

Back at Fort McHenry, few thought luck had much to do with it.

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To Joe Lilly, the determination of the American defenders in the face of British force was the kind of thing his countrymen should never forget.

"At dawn, they said, 'We're still here; come get some.' That's the American spirit," he said.

Gallinger and friends said that what Americans here faced here was worse than anything they'd encountered in Vietnam, and they did their jobs with great courage.

As Linzey looked over the Patapsco, he called it crucial to remember what the fight was about.

"If it weren't for these men, we'd all be speaking English," he said. "English with an accent."

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