I COULDN'T pass through Baltimore without visiting Fort McHenry, an inspiring site echoing a notable moment in the history of our young nation. The fort was built in 1798 to stand guard over Baltimore Harbor and is located on a strategic peninsula between the Inner Harbor and Chesapeake Bay as protection from enemy attacks from the sea.
During a campaign conducted during the War of 1812, British warships attacked the Americans by continuously bombarding Fort McHenry with massive firepower that lasted over 25 hours. However, they were unable to pass the fort's defenses and penetrate Baltimore's Harbor. The entire battle was witnessed by a young American lawyer, Francis Scott Key, from a nearby truce ship. When he saw the oversized American flag flying triumphantly over the fort the following morning, he was so moved he began to compose his poem "Defence of Fort McHenry." The lyrics were later set to music and became our National Anthem, the Star Spangled Banner.
The oversized 15-star American flag had been created in anticipation of the British attack on the fort. Judging from its size, the flag's triumphant appearance in the early morning hours must have been especially inspiring to the young lawyer. The original flag is on display in all its glory at the Smithsonian Institutian in Washington, D.C.
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Additional information from the Smithsonian Institute files:
MAKING THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER
In June 1813, Major George Armistead arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, to take command of Fort McHenry, built to guard the water entrance to the city. Armistead commissioned Mary Pickersgill, a Baltimore flag maker, to sew two flags for the fort: a smaller storm flag (17 by 25 ft) and a larger garrison flag (30 by 42 ft). She was hired under a government contract and was assisted by her daughter, two nieces, and an indentured African-American girl.
The larger of these two flags would become known as the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Pickersgill stitched it from a combination of dyed English wool bunting (red and white stripes and blue union) and white cotton (stars). Each star is about two feet in diameter, each stripe about 24 inches wide. The Star-Spangled Banner’s impressive scale (about one-fourth the size of a modern basketball court) reflects its purpose as a garrison flag. It was intended to fly from a flagpole about ninety feet high and be visible from great distances. At its original dimensions of 30 by 42 feet, it was larger than the modern garrison flags used today by the United States Army, which have a standard size of 20 by 38 feet.
The first Flag Act, adopted on June 14, 1777, created the original United States flag of thirteen stars and thirteen stripes. The Star-Spangled Banner has fifteen stars and fifteen stripes as provided for in the second Flag Act approved by Congress on January 13, 1794. The additional stars and stripes represent Vermont (1791) and Kentucky (1792) joining the Union. (The third Flag Act, passed on April 4, 1818, reduced the number of stripes back to thirteen to honor the original thirteen colonies and provided for one star for each state — a new star to be added to the flag on the Fourth of July following the admission of each new state.) Pickersgill spent between six and eight weeks making the flags, and they were delivered to Fort McHenry on August 19, 1813. The government paid $405.90 for the garrison flag and $168.54 for the storm flag. The garrison flag would soon after be raised at Fort McHenry and ultimately find a permanent home at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. The whereabouts of the storm flag are not known.
THE WAR OF 1812 AND THE BURNING OF WASHINGTON
Although its events inspired one of our most famous national songs, the War of 1812 is itself a relatively little-known war in American history. Despite its complicated causes and inconclusive outcome, the conflict helped establish the credibility of the young United States among other nations. It also fostered a strong sense of national pride among the American people, and those patriotic feelings are reflected and preserved in the song we know today as our national anthem.
Britain’s defeat at the 1781 Battle of Yorktown marked the conclusion of the American Revolution and the beginning of new challenges for a new nation. Not even three decades after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which formalized Britain’s recognition of the United States of America, the two countries were again in conflict. Resentment for Britain’s interference with American international trade and impressment of American sailors combined with American expansionist visions led Congress to declare war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812.
In the early stages of the war, the American navy scored victories in the Atlantic and on Lake Erie while Britain concentrated its military efforts on its ongoing war with France. But with the defeat of Emperor Napoleon’s armies in April 1814, Britain turned its full attention to the war against an ill-prepared United States. Admiral Alexander Cochrane, the British naval commander, prepared to attack U.S. coastal areas, and General Robert Ross sought to capture towns along the East Coast to create diversions while British army forces attacked along the northern boundaries of the United States.
In August 1814, General Ross and his seasoned troops landed near the nation’s capital. On August 24, at Bladensburg, Maryland, about 30 miles from Washington, his five-thousand-member British force defeated an American army twice its size. That same night, British troops entered Washington. They set fire to the United States Capitol, the President’s Mansion, and other public buildings. The local militia fled, and President James Madison and wife Dolley barely escaped.
THE BATTLE OF BALTIMORE
With Washington in ruins, the British next set their sights on Baltimore, then America’s third-largest city. Moving up the Chesapeake Bay to the mouth of the Patapsco River, they plotted a joint attack on Baltimore by land and water. On the morning of September 12, General Ross’s troops landed at North Point, Maryland, and progressed towards the city. They soon encountered the American forward line, part of an extensive network of defenses established around Baltimore in anticipation of the British assault. During the skirmish with American troops, General Ross, so successful in the attack on Washington, was killed by a sharpshooter. Surprised by the strength of the American defenses, British forces camped on the battlefield and waited for nightfall on September 13, planning to attempt another attack under cover of darkness.
Meanwhile, Britain’s naval force, buoyed by its earlier successful attack on Alexandria, Virginia, was poised to strike Fort McHenry and enter Baltimore Harbor. At 6:30 AM on September 13, 1814, Admiral Cochrane’s ships began a 25-hour bombardment of the fort. Rockets whistled through the air and burst into flame wherever they struck. Mortars fired 10- and 13-inch bombshells that exploded overhead in showers of fiery shrapnel. Major Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry and its defending force of one thousand troops, ordered his men to return fire, but their guns couldn’t reach the enemy’s ships. When British ships advanced on the afternoon of the 13th, however, American gunners badly damaged them, forcing them to pull back out of range. All through the night, Armistead’s men continued to hold the fort, refusing to surrender. That night British attempts at a diversionary attack also failed, and by dawn they had given up hope of taking the city. At 7:30 on the morning of September 14, Admiral Cochrane called an end to the bombardment, and the British fleet withdrew. The successful defense of Baltimore marked a turning point in the War of 1812. Three months later, on December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent formally ended the war.
Because the British attack had coincided with a heavy rainstorm, Fort McHenry had flown its smaller storm flag throughout the battle. But at dawn, as the British began to retreat, Major Armistead ordered his men to lower the storm flag and replace it with the great garrison flag. As they raised the flag, the troops fired their guns and played “Yankee Doodle” in celebration of their victory. Waving proudly over the fort, the banner could be seen for miles around—as far away as a ship anchored eight miles down the river, where an American lawyer named Francis Scott Key had spent an anxious night watching and hoping for a sign that the city—and the nation—might be saved.
THE INSPIRATION OF FRANCIS SCOTT KEY: FROM POEM TO ANTHEM
Before departing from a ravaged Washington, British soldiers had arrested Dr. William Beanes of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, on the charge that he was responsible for the arrests of British stragglers and deserters during the campaign to attack the nation’s capital. They subsequently imprisoned him on a British warship.
Friends of Dr. Beanes asked Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key to join John S. Skinner, the U.S. government’s agent for dealing with British forces in the Chesapeake, and help secure the release of the civilian prisoner. They were successful; however, the British feared that Key and Skinner would divulge their plans for attacking Baltimore, and so they detained the two men aboard a truce ship for the duration of the battle. Key thus became an eyewitness to the bombardment of Fort McHenry.
When he saw “by the dawn’s early light” of September 14, 1814, that the American flag soared above the fort, Key knew that Fort McHenry had not surrendered. Moved by the sight, he began to compose a poem on the back of a letter he was carrying. On September 16, Key and his companions were taken back to Baltimore and released. Key took a room in the Indian Queen Hotel and spent the night revising and copying out the four verses he had written about America’s victory. The next day he showed the poem to his wife’s brother-in-law, Judge Joseph Nicholson, who had commanded a volunteer company at Fort McHenry. Nicholson responded enthusiastically and urged Key to have the poem printed. First titled “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” the published broadside included instructions that it be sung to the 18th-century British melody “Anacreon in Heaven” — a tune Key had in mind when he penned his poem. Copies of the song were distributed to every man at the fort and around Baltimore. The first documented public performance of the words and music together took place at the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore on October 19, 1814. A music store subsequently published the words and music under the title “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
During the 19th century, “The Star-Spangled Banner” became one of the nation’s best-loved patriotic songs. It gained special significance during the Civil War, a time when many Americans turned to music to express their feelings for the flag and the ideals and values it represented. By the 1890s, the military had adopted the song for ceremonial purposes, requiring it to be played at the raising and lowering of the colors. In 1917, both the army and the navy designated the song the “national anthem” for ceremonial purposes. Meanwhile, patriotic organizations had launched a campaign to have Congress recognize “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the U.S. national anthem. After several decades of attempts, a bill making “The Star-Spangled Banner” our official national anthem was finally passed by Congress and signed into law by President Herbert Hoover on March 3, 1931.