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Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

 

About the Flag

As the War of 1812 waged on, the citizens of Baltimore began to prepare for a possible British attack.  It seemed inevitable; the British considered Baltimore a “nest of pirates” due to the privateer clippers that were built in the city’s shipyards.  

During the summer of 1813, Fort McHenry’s commanding officer Major George Armistead wanted a flag that was "so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance." Mary Pickersgill, an experienced Baltimore City flagmaker, was contracted to create two flags– a 30 x 42’ garrison flag and a 17 x 25’ storm flag for use during inclement weather.

In seven weeks, Mary, along with her daughter Caroline, nieces Eliza and Margaret, and indentured servant Grace Wisher, made the two flags. For the larger flag, the two-foot wide stripes were made up of English wool bunting.  The cotton stars were two feet wide from point to point.  Since it was the practice at the time to add a stripe and star for each state as it entered the Union, there were 15 stars and stripes on the two flags (to represent the 13 original colonies and Vermont and Kentucky,  the next two states to enter the union).  The flags were delivered to Fort McHenry on August 19, 1813.

Following the Chesapeake Campaign and the War of 1812, the American flag developed into a dominant national symbol. The Star-Spangled Banner assumed a meaning beyond local celebration. This flag represents the broad ideals and values of the nation. Today, the American flag continues to evoke a special, patriotic feeling. In times of war, when returning from overseas, during space exploration, and at sporting events or other public gatherings, the American flag continues to represent freedom, democracy, and the intangible nature of "what it means to be an American."

Story of the Anthem

After the British captured and burned Washington DC, they returned to their ships anchored near Benedict.  They passed through the town of Upper Marlboro where a few stragglers and one deserter began plundering nearby farms. Dr. William Beanes and other American civilians seized six or seven of the stragglers and confined them to a local jail. When one escaped and informed his superiors of the arrest, a contingent of British marines returned to Upper Marlboro and arrested Beanes and the others, and held them in exchange for the release of the British prisoners. The Americans were subsequently released except Beanes, who was considered the instigator of the incident. In violation of the existing rules of war, he was placed in confinement aboard HMS Tonnant.

U.S. Attorney Francis Scott Key and John Stuart Skinner, the U.S. Agent for Exchange of Prisoners, were urged to seek the release of Dr. Beanes, and boarded the HMS Tonnant under a flag of truce.  They showed the British officials letters from wounded British soldiers who were left behind after the Battle of Bladensburg, giving testimony to the kindness and treatment given them by U.S. hands. This so moved British General Ross, who had ordered the arrest of Beanes, that he suggested to Cochrane that Beanes be released after the planned attack on Baltimore.

Beanes, Key, and Skinner had witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry from onboard the truce vessel. Key was inspired by the scene of the battle that he composed a song that eventually became the National Anthem. Key chose the tune, "To Anacreon in Heaven" by John Stafford Smith, because it was a popular American and British melody and he had previously adapted it to other lyrics.

Key, Beanes, and Stuart were released as the British retreated, and that night Key worked on his song. Handbills were quickly printed and copies distributed to every man who was at Fort McHenry during the bombardment. Key's words were first printed on September 20, 1814, in the Baltimore Patriot and Advertiser under the title "Defence of Fort M'Henry." By the end of the year, Key's words were printed across the country as a reminder of the American victory. In 1931, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation that made "The Star-Spangled Banner" the official National Anthem.

Americans took tremendous pride in their victory over the British at the Battle for Baltimore. Key’s "The Star-Spangled Banner" was set to music and rapidly circulated. The flag and the song – which would later become the National Anthem -- came to symbolize the nation. They have retained their iconic status through the ongoing evolution of the country and remain important national symbols in the United States and the rest of the world. It was as a result of the Chesapeake Campaign that, for the first time, many Americans began to think about what it meant to be an American. After the Battle for Baltimore, Americans had a moment to take stock and recognize that this significant victory and the survival of the Republic were worth celebrating.

From the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail Feasibility Study and Environmental Impact Statement, National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, Northeast Region, March 2004

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Learn more about these American Icons

Visit the sites
Fort McHenry
Site where Baltimore defended the nation on September 13-14, 1814 and where the Star-Spangled Banner flew to inspire Francis Scott Key’s to write the words that would later became our national anthem.

Maryland Historical Society
Home to Francis Scott Key’s original manuscript of the Star-Spangled Banner.

National Museum of American History
Home of the Star-Spangled Banner flag.  The museum also has an online exhibition about the flag.

Star-Spangled Banner Flag House
The 1793 home of Mary Pickersgill and the site where she made the 30' x 42' Star-Spangled Banner that flew over Fort McHenry.  

Read the complete song
The original song has four verses. Read it here. 

Maryland Historical Society featured on article on the Anthem in their newsletter's  Winter 2011 issue.

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