• Dante Mazza

American Landmark: The Star Spangled Banner

Updated: Jul 20, 2021


The Star Spangled Banner on display at the Smithsonian

August 2013

 

American Landmarks is an irregular feature focusing on buildings, sites, objects, and structures which have not been officially designated as any of the four landmark types covered on this site, but have still been deemed by me to be important icons of America.

 

From 1812-1814, the young United States of America found itself fighting another war against Great Britain, the nation from which it had so recently won Independence.

While the war concluded with essentially no change in the territorial status quo, significant battles were fought and both sides experienced devastating defeats. The British occupied the new American capital city of Washington, D.C. and burned the White House and Capitol Building. The Americans in turn decimated a British force at the Battle of New Orleans.

Perhaps the most famous episode of the War of 1812 however, did not result in many casualties or the destruction of much property. In fact, the battle is famous not for what was destroyed, but rather for what survived. The event in question is the siege of Fort McHenry, and the surviving property is a flag: the one that was still there.

A young attorney named Francis Scott Key witnessed the attack on fort McHenry from a boat just outside Baltimore Harbor. When the dust cleared on the morning of September 14, 1814 he was so moved by the sight of the American flag flying high over the fort that he composed a poem to capture his emotions.

The Star-Spangled Banner is a song adapted from Key's poem which serves as the National Anthem of the United States of America. His words are now familiar to every American:

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming, Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming? And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there, O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The flag that was still there, the Star Spangled Banner that inspired the words of our National Anthem, is now a treasure of the collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. This American Landmark occupies a sacred place in the history of our nation.

 

The War of 1812

On May 12, 1784, the United States and Great Britain exchanged ratified copies of the Treaty of Paris in the French capital where it had been negotiated. The American Revolutionary War had officially come to a close.

Now formally recognized as a new and independent nation, the United States set about getting its business in order. The Articles of Confederation which had originally governed the nation were replaced by the modern Constitution. George Washington was unanimously elected the first President of the United States. The capital city was moved from Philadelphia to New York City, then back to Philadelphia and finally to the newly created city of Washington, D.C. on the Potomac River.

By the turn of the century, Great Britain was again at war, this time with France, their longtime rival that had backed the Americans during the Revolution. Despite President Thomas Jefferson's care to maintain a sense of neutrality, both sides worried that American merchants were shipping supplies to the other. With this in mind, the British and French navies began stopping and searching American ships.

The British Royal Navy was especially aggressive toward the Americans. Since under British law it was essentially impossible to discard one's status as a subject of the King, the Royal Navy viewed all Americans who had been born as British subjects citizens of its kingdom who were eligible to serve in its military. Thus, British forces took to "impressing" American sailors, forcing them into the Royal Navy to fight for a King they no longer recognized as their own.

Americans were outraged. Their dismay only grew after a series of highly public confrontations between British and American ships. Sometimes the Royal Navy was so bold as to stop American ships and impress American sailors within sight of the American shoreline.

By 1812, President James Madison decided the British had gone too far. On June 1st, he sent Congress a message detailing the offenses Great Britain had committed against the United States. After much debate and close votes in both the House and the Senate, Congress declared war on the British. The War of 1812 had begun.

For over two years, war raged across the nation from upstate New York to then Spanish-held Florida. American forces tried and failed to invade British Canada. Both sides and their Native American allies clashed in parts of the modern Midwest like Indiana and Michigan. Americans won major naval battles on the Great Lakes but were faced with a massive British blockade on the Atlantic Coast. The legendary USS Constitution saw action on the high seas.

In August of 1814, the British launched their Chesapeake Invasion, striking the United States as its core. British troops marched on Washington and burned the White House and the Capitol building. Only a sudden rain overnight quenched the flames and saved both buildings from total destruction.

Despite its status as the national capital city, Washington at the time was little more than a small town. Having swept through DC easily, the British set their sights upon a far more desirable target: the major city and strategic port of Baltimore, Maryland.

 

Making the Flag

Baltimore had been expecting a British attack since the war broke out. In the summer of 1813, Major George Armistead decided the fort under his command could use a flag. He reportedly desired one "so large the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance."

Commodore Joshua Barney, also stationed at Fort McHenry, recommended a seamstress in his own family: his sister-in-law Mary Pickersgill. Mary had been born and raised in Philadelphia, where her mother was also a celebrated flag seamstress and passed the trade down to her daughter. Pickersgill was charged with sewing both a massive garrison flag to fulfill Armistead's wish and a smaller storm flag for inclement weather.

Such a monumental task could hardly be accomplished alone, so Pickersgill hired the help of her daughter, two nieces, other local seamstresses, and some free women of color. Her elderly mother, who had taught her the trade, is also thought to have helped as well. The team worked late into the night creating the two flags, working from a house on Pratt Street in Baltimore Mary had purchased with the profits from her business.

By the time it was finished in 1813, the flag now known as the Star Spangled Banner weighed 50 pounds and could only be hoisted to the top of Fort McHenry's flag pole by the force of nine men. Though it was designed to fly in the face of the British, the flag would have to wait nearly a year before they arrived and created its moment in history.

 

Key's Mission

On their way toward Washington, the British had stopped and occupied the town of Upper Marlboro, county seat of Prince George's County, Maryland, where they made the home of Dr. William Beanes their headquarters. Beanes was a well-regarded physician and a true patriot, but he put up no resistance to the British and fully allowed the use of his home. The British in turn took almost no spoils of war and did very little damage to the town, saving their destructive fury for the national capital up the road.

Only after the British had burned Washington and were retracing their steps through Upper Marlboro did Dr. Beanes strike back. When straggling British soldiers started looting the town on their return trip, Beanes and a group of other prominent citizens captured some and threw them in the Prince George's county jail.

Unfortunately, some prisoners escaped and alerted British General Robert Ross to the situation. General Ross sent a contingent of soldiers back to Upper Marlboro to arrest Dr. Beane for his actions. Beane was reportedly awakened in the middle of the night and forced out of bed at gunpoint, then made to ride a horse 30 miles to the riverfront town of Benedict, where he was loaded onto a Royal Navy ship as a prisoner of war.

Beane's friends were outraged that the elderly and prominent doctor had been taken captive. Local military commander Brigadier General William H. Winder wrote a letter to General Ross demanding Beane's release, but his effort fell flat. President Madison then gave his approval for the prisoner of war exchange officer for the area, John Stuart Skinner, and Georgetown attorney Francis Scott Key to meet up with Ross' ship in the Chesapeake Bay and negotiate Beane's release.

 

The Battle of Baltimore

Key and Skinner were well received by the British on their flagship the HMS Tonnant. Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane was busy preparing for the bombardment of Baltimore and seemed too preoccupied to worry about whether or not he should let Beane go, despite the objections of Rear Admiral George Cockburn, who disliked the doctor very much. General Ross found himself far more willing to release Beane after Key and Skinner presented him with letters describing how well the wounded British troops left behind in Maryland had been treated by the Americans.

Ross decided to release Beane, but could not let Key and Skinner head back to shore since they had seen far too much of the Royal Navy's preparation for the bombardment of Baltimore. Key, Skinner, and Beane were placed in their own small boat, which was tied to a British warship and heavily guarded.

Helpless, the three men could only watch as dozens of rockets and bombs flew through the air toward Fort McHenry. They could initially make out the large garrison flag flying high above the fort but lost sight of it as darkness fell and the attack intensified.

The Royal Navy pounded Fort McHenry with heavy fire for 24 hours. Massive shells crashed through the walls of the fort, knocking out parts of its own firepower and killing some defenders. One British bomb even landed in the powder magazine but failed to explode. Over 1,500 shells would be fired at the fort by the time the battle was over.

To make matters worse, the weather that fateful night was miserable. Pouring rain, lightning, and thunder combined with the relentless stream of bombs and rockets from the British fleet made it impossible for anyone in Baltimore to sleep.

Key, Skinner, and Beane waited along with the rest of the city, and the nation, to see if the British would be successful in their assault.

 

Poem, Song, National Anthem

When the weather cleared and the sun began to rise, the three Americans looked eagerly toward shore for signs of which way the battle had turned out. They could see a flag, but it was difficult to make out in the morning mist. When a beam of sunshine illuminated the banner and a gust of wind unfurled it, all three men were overjoyed.

The Star Spangled Banner that Mary Pickersgill had sewn in her home flew triumphantly over Fort McHenry. Major Armistead had ordered it raised to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" early that morning. The Americans had been victorious. Baltimore was safe.

Key immediately set about writing a poem to commemorate the victory. Settling into a room at the Indian Queen Tavern, Key began writing his famous words.

Legend says that an alert singer later realized the words fit well to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven", an old British drinking song. Some historians however, think Key planned to set the words to that tune from the beginning. No matter which way it happened, the National Anthem sung today has the same tune as "To Anacreon".

Key wrote four verses of his poem, relying on his memory of the night's events. A line in his fourth verse read "and this be our motto -'In God Is Our Trust'". A variation of that phrase ("In God We Trust") became the national motto of the United States in the 1950s and is featured on all US currency.

Key's poem, originally titled "The Defense of Fort M'Henry" was published by a local Baltimore paper as a broadsheet, and was distributed all over town. Papers in other cities picked it up as well, and soon the entire East Coast could read and take pride in Key's immortal words.

See an original printing of the song, in the collection of the New York Public Library

The song's profile rose immensely during the Civil War, when some made comparisons between the situations at Fort McHenry and Fort Sumter. The tune became a favorite with the military as well, and by World War I, it had been designated as the official song to be played at military ceremonies. Soldiers were ordered to stand at attention while it was played, and some citizens began following suit.

The song was not without its detractors however. Some thought it was too hard to sing, or simply did not like the way it sounded. Others thought the lyrics glorified war, or were uncomfortable with the fact that the tune was originally that of a drinking song. Despite these objections, after a long debate in Congress, "The Star Spangled Banner" was officially designated the National Anthem of the United States by law in 1931.

 

Preserving the Banner

While Key's words could be and were reproduced thousands of times, the flag that inspired them is one of a kind.

After the war, the flag became a personal keepsake of the family of George Armistead, who died just four years after the Battle of Baltimore. His widow, Louisa Armistead, kept the flag in the family, and likely sewed onto it the large red uncrossed "A" which sits in the middle of one of the flag's white stripes.

Upon Louisa's death, the flag was inherited by Georgiana Armistead, who was named after her father and looked after the banner during the Civil War years. Occasionally, the family allowed special friends to cut away pieces of the flag for souvenirs, which accounts for its many missing fragments today. Georgiana allowed New England naval officer and historian George Henry Preble to borrow the banner for a while, and he had it sewn onto a canvass backing, photographed, and taken on tour. His lectures and articles on the history and significance of the banner helped build its reputation as a national patriotic symbol.

Next to inherent the banner was Eben Appleton, the New York stockbroker grandson of George Armistead. After lending the flag to Baltimore for a celebration of its sesquicentennial anniversary, Appleton took the opposite approach and kept it locked up in a New York City safe deposit box. Despite the immense public pressure to loan it out for patriotic events and public viewing, Appleton kept a tight hold on the flag until 1907, when he loaned it to the Smithsonian Institution. That loan became a permanent gift in 1912, and the banner has been Smithsonian property ever since.

At first, the Star Spangled Banner was displayed under glass in the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, located next to the original Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It remained in place there until World War II, when fears of Axis bombing lead to it and other American treasures being evacuated to a secret bunker in Virginia. Once the war was over, the flag returned to Arts and Industries until 1964, when it was presented as the centerpiece of the main hall in the new National Museum of American History building.

After 30 years of public display in light and dust, the banner was in serious need of preservation and restoration. To meet this need, the Smithsonian embarked on an eight year, $8.5 million endeavor to protect the flag for future generations.

The banner was taken down from its hanging position in the hall, carefully vacuumed, and moved to a new conservation lab elsewhere in the building. The lab had a viewing area so visitors could keep track of the restoration as it happened.

The first step was to remove the linen backing which had been sewed on the flag in 1914. Conservators removed all of the nearly 1.7 million stitches holding the two together. With the backing removed, the conservation team became the first people in 85 years to see the other side of the banner. They took full stock of its condition, noting every rip and stain and the quality of all the fibers.

The team then used small sponges to remove the dirt from both sides of the flag. Analysis revealed no evidence of a direct hit by bomb or rockets, evidence that this flag was hoisted in the morning and the storm flag Pickersgill had also sewn was flown during the battle itself. Several patches sewn onto the flag over time had tried to force it into a perfect rectangular shape, placing harmful stress on the banner. These were all removed during the conservation process. Conservators developed a special mixture of water and acetone which they used to get the last of the dirt out of the banner. Then the flag was photographed and attached to a new backing, this one made of polyester, and far less stiff than the first.

Finally, the Star Spangled Banner was placed inside a $19 million chamber to protect it from any damaging elements. It was placed on a table which was subsequently raised to a 10 degree angle, allowing visitors a better view. The banner remains in that chamber to this day, available for all to see. Photographs of the flag are currently not allowed.

 

Significance

Unique among American objects, the Star Spangled Banner occupies a sacred place in our nation's history. It is the star of one of the most dramatic episodes of that history, a delayed moment of triumph which renewed the independence and strength of the nation. The Banner is a symbol of the daring and tenacious spirit which has defined the United States since its inception. As inspiration for our national anthem, it is a national treasure that unites all Americans around our common causes and values.

Though in its moment of highest glory it inspired a single man, the banner is now displayed openly for all to see, waiting to inspire future generations to write songs and histories of their own. The flag that inspired a song now inspires a nation, one with as much future anticipate as it has past to celebrate.

 

For Further Information:


A Closer Look: Up close view of the flag with explanations of key features from the Smithsonian website

The Star Spangled Banner: Official Smithsonian website

Through The Perilous Fight by Steve Vogel: An excellent book detailing the war and history of the banner in an exciting and accessible narrative format


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