Vaise 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 witnessed. 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 Sept. 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 to which we sing Key’s words today.
Vaise’s guided tour finished, we took a walk inside and around the wood and brick fort. The rooms are reproduced barracks, some with 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 company was a gunpowder manufacturer.
Cannons point toward the modern Francis Scott Key Bridge. A historic marker at bastion number five overlooking the Patapsco River reads, “If you had been standing on this rampart on the morning of September 14, 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 the marker 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.
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 10 minutes on the hour from 11-3. Those who come at other times see an exact replica.
Key’s period cursive writing is surprisingly legible, and one can see how the lawyer turned poet edited his own copy. The first line of Key’s poem originally 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 flag that inspired Key was crafted in a narrow brick townhouse at 844 E. Pratt St. The building still stands, near the entrance of the city’s present day Little Italy neighborhood, and is known today as The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House. A roughly 45-minute tour tells the tale of professional flag maker Mary Pickersgill; and any entrance inside the house offers a chance to meet members of Pickersgill’s household staff, portrayed by living history interpreters.
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. (That’s not a typo. Each stripe represented a state until 1818 when the 13-stripe flag was officially established.)
Pickersgill, her daughter, three nieces and most likely a free African-American apprentice as well as an African-American slave all did their parts in crafting the behemoth flag. They plied their trade in both a public flag-making room downstairs and in Pickersgill’s private upstairs bedroom, where flag patterns and star-spangled bunting lay sprawled across a chair. The light, airy bedroom, replete with windows and far above the noisy, dirty street was especially conducive for sewing. The final product was so big that one stripe would have stretched from one end of the house to another. Pickersgill and company were forced to finish the flag in a brewery a block away.
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