BALTIMORE Md. (Reuters) - As Americans celebrate the 200th anniversary of their national anthem this weekend, an unusual guest will be on hand for the party: A warship from the same navy whose bombardment of Fort McHenry inspired the "Star-Spangled Banner."
The British Navy frigate H.M.S. Argyll is one of 30 naval vessels from seven nations that sailed into the port of Baltimore for the anniversary celebration that will culminate on Saturday night.
It fired a cannon salute as it entered the harbor earlier this week, evoking the "bombs bursting in air" that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the song he initially called "The Defence of Fort McHenry." He wrote the lyrics on a British truce ship the morning of Sept. 14, 1814 during the War of 1812, the last military confrontation between the young nation and its former colonial master.
Sir Peter Westmacott, the British ambassador to the United States, will join Vice President Joe Biden, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and other federal, state and local officials at ceremonies marking the anniversary.
"This is a sensitive matter for a British diplomat in the United States, because nobody seems to agree on who started the war or who won," Westmacott said. "Nonetheless, the War of 1812 was a crucial turning point in world history, because it was the final burst of conflict between Britain and America ... So when we commemorate the war, and the battle, we are in fact marking the beginning of a peace that blossomed into one of the most significant military alliances the world has ever known."
U.S. officials welcomed the British entourage.
"The War of 1812 was critically important to America. It is said to be the 'Second Revolutionary War,' which allowed our country to remain free and independent," said Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, in a phone interview. "Two hundred years ago, our countries were not friends. History reflects how that relationship of 200 years ago evolved. We celebrate our relationship."
Thousands of people are expected to visit Fort McHenry, a 43-acre stone-walled enclosure that rises from a peninsula over the harbor and still faces the heavy black cannons that were a staple of 19th-Century warfare, through Sunday for events that will also include tours of visiting naval vessels and tall ships from Canada, Norway, Germany, Spain and Turkey, musical performances by the U.S. Marine Corps Band and the largest fireworks performance in Baltimore’s history.
Aboard the Argyll, Commander Paul Hammond said it was an unusual experience to fire his ship's guns on the site of a naval battle.
"We probably experienced a minor version of what they experienced back in the 1800s," Hammond said. "At the time the Royal Navy had boats built specifically for firing and bombardment of the shore. Life onboard those ships was very harsh and very hazardous."
Editing by Scott Malone and Tom Brown