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Baltimore Maryland -- Star Spangled Banner History

We sat in a small theater at Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine in Baltimore. The introductory film affording us the story of Francis Scott Key and "The Star Spangled Banner" was winding down. An instrumental recording of the National Anthem began to play.

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As the drapery covering an expansive window gradually unfurled and the anthem continued past the part about the ramparts we watched, the theater full of visitors gazed outside. There was Fort McHenry, our view dominated by a star-spangled banner, similar to the one Key glimpsed when he put pen to paper, and flying exactly where Key had seen it. Our fellow audience members spontaneously stood, faced the fort commenced singing "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The spirit of patriotism is alive in Baltimore, thanks to its singular place in history.

The Tale of the National Anthem

While Philadelphia may have Betsy Ross and the legend of the nation's first flag, Baltimore is the home of the Star Spangled Banner. Fort McHenry National Monument is the first stop on a trio of Baltimore sites that tell the tale of the National Anthem.

Fort McHenry National Monument

"Even if it was not for the Star Spangled Banner, this would be an important place," announces Fort McHenry interpreter. The Battle of Baltimore was fought two years into the War of 1812, a war that was not supposed to last long and a war that sorely divided the nation. The war's opponents said President James Madison began military action against Great Britain purely for political reasons, wanting to look strong while running for reelection. Proponents of the war, including the majority of Baltimoreans, called it the second war of independence. To them, the anti-war contingent were traitors to their nation.

Sound familiar?
Of course, the minutiae of the War of 1812 is more complex, but suffice it to say that the young nation's morale was at all time low. The British Navy had been attacking the United State's merchant ships and the Yanks decided the time had come to teach Great Britain a lesson. That was attempted by invading the British territory of Canada, yet each battle there resulted defeat after defeat.

But after the defenders of Fort McHenry withstood an onslaught from British frigates and bomb ships, the crush of thunder and ravaging rains the night of September 13-14, 1814, the poorly paid and under-equipped Americans had finally earned something special: respect.

As we stand looking o'er the ramparts towards the Patapsco River, our interpreter pointed out the approximate location of the ship where Francis Scott Key spent the night. Although he wrote poems and songs as a hobby, Key was an attorney by trade and was on a mission. His job was to negotiate the release of a friend, Dr. William Beanes, a prisoner on a British ship following an arrest for violating a pledge of good conduct in an earlier battle.

Photo by Michael Schuman He related the story of this Key to immortality. While docked in the truce ship about four miles from the fort, the lawyer jotted down notes about what he was witnessing. It wasn't pretty. An American soldier said, "We felt like pigeons tied by the legs to be shot at." Key finished his poem, then titled "Defence (sic) of Fort McHenry," a couple of days later, on the evening of September 16. The poem was published the next day and almost instantaneously sung to the tune of a popular British air titled, "To Anacreon in Heaven," the same melody we sing Key's words to today.

Our guided tour finished, we took a walk outside and inside the wood and brick fort. Inside the rooms are reproduced barracks and standing displays. The powder magazine is filled with faux gunpowder kegs stamped with the name: "E.I. Dupont de Nemours & Co., 1813." Long before Dupont became famous for making Nylon and Teflon, the young company was a gunpowder manufacturer.

Cannons on the bastions point towards the modern Francis Scott Key Bridge, while as at most National Park Service sites historic markers are plentiful. The one at bastion number five overlooking the Patapsco River reads, "If you had been standing on this rampart on the morning of September 11, 1814, you would have had a close-up view of the dramatic scene Francis Scott Key described in our National Anthem."

The same marker also addresses a nagging question posed by historians for years. It notes, "Many doubt Key could have seen the flag from two miles away." But it answers its own skeptical statement. The flag was large, it reads, 30 by 42 feet and Key probably watched the battle through spyglasses. In addition, the banner's colors would have shined when lit up by the exploding gunfire.

Maryland Historical Society Museum

Photo by Michael Schuman Key's original manuscript has lasted the years and is displayed at the museum of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore's Mount Vernon section. Because of the document's fragile condition, it is exhibited only for a few minutes hourly. Those who come late see an exact replica.

Key's period cursive writing is surprisingly readable, and one can see how the lawyer turned poet edited his own copy. The first line of Key's original poem read, "O say can you see through the dawn's early light." You can see where Key crossed out "through" and added the word "by."

The historical society museum holds significantly more than Key's poem. Step inside for a look at Maryland history, warts and all (one historic photo depicts a "gentiles only" outside at a resort called Beverly Beach in the 1950s), Maryland-created art and Maryland-made furniture. Kids can take part in a scavenger hunt through the museum and let loose in a hands-on room for children..

Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum

The flag that inspired Key was crafted in a narrow brick townhouse at 844 East Pratt Street. It still stands, near the entrance of the city's present day Little Italy neighborhood, and is known today as the Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum. The roughly 45-minute long tour offers a first hand understanding of the tale of professional flag maker Mary Pickersgill.

A widow who lived with her mother, Pickersgill was making a decent living sewing flags for soldiers and ship captains when she was asked by three Baltimore bigwigs -- Commodore Joshua Barney, Brigadier General John S. Stricker and Fort McHenry's Commander Major George Armistead -- to make a flag. Armistead said he wanted it, "so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance."

Pickersgill used 400 yards of English wool bunting and worked every day for six weeks, sometimes until midnight, to expedite the flag's completion. Each of the 15 stars measured two feet in length; each of the 15 stripes was two feet wide. (No, that's not a typo. Each stripe represented a state until 1818 when the 13-stripe flag was officially established.)

Mary, her daughter, three nieces and most likely a free African-American apprentice as well as an African-American slave all did their parts to make the behemoth flag. They plied their trade in both a public flag-making-room downstairs and Mary's private bedroom upstairs, where flag patterns and star-spangled bunting are today laid out on a chair across the room from the comfortable canopy bed. The light, airy bedroom, replete with windows and far above the noisy, dirty street below, was especially conducive for sewing. Come here any Saturday and you can meet members of Mary's household staff, portrayed by living history interpreters.

The final product was so big that one stripe would have stretched from one end of the house to another. Pickersgill and company had to finish the flag in a brewery a block away.

The flag story aside, a tour of the home offers an enlightening look at life in a comfortable household in the 1810s. In the dining room is an original chocolate pot owned by Pickersgill; since chocolate was an expensive commodity in Mary's day the proof is in the pot that the flag making business was good to her. Upstairs is a cleverly-designed chest that opened to become a convenience chair, permitting nineteenth century denizens to avoid treks to an outhouse on winter nights.

A museum building adjacent to the home hosts a permanent exhibit titled, "Preserv'd Us A Nation: The War of 1812 and the People of Chesapeake Bay," telling the tale of how area residents defended themselves during the war. Displayed here are fragments of the original flag. Yet the biggest museum draw may be its street-facing exterior wall, a full-sized glass replica of Pickersgill's Star-Spangled Banner.

Postscript to the story: Francis Scott Key's friend, Dr. William Beanes, was released by the British shortly after the Battle of Baltimore.

The War of 1812 ended in a draw, with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. Because of the day's slow communications, General Andrew Jackson defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans two weeks later. He was unaware that a peace treaty had been signed. (However, since the treaty had not yet been ratified by the United States government, the Battle of New Orleans was technically fought during the war.)

Mary Pickersgill's flag that inspired the Star-Spangled Banner was given to Colonel Armistead after he relinquished his command at Fort McHenry. Bits and pieces of the flag were snipped off and given away by the Armistead family as souvenirs, an acceptable 19th century activity. In 1907, the flag, by then cut down to 30 feet by 34 feet, was given by Armistead's descendents to the Smithsonian Institution. It is currently displayed at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. where it is being refurbished.

Congress proclaimed "The Star-Spangled Banner" the National Anthem in 1931.

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Michael Schuman is the author of 30 books and hundreds of articles. He has also won 14 NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) awards for excellence in travel writing.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: August 7, 2016

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