BALTIMORE — The United States is in the midst of commemorating the bicentennial of a war that is largely forgotten but that almost tore the nation apart. Most of us remember incidents from the war — the burning of Washington, D.C., Dolley Madison saving the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, and the writing of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
But ask Americans in which conflict those incidents took place, and you can bet many will say the Revolutionary War. In reality, it was the War of 1812, which to many is as obscure as the Gadsden Purchase. In an introductory film at the Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine, we hear that it was here in Baltimore during the waning months of the war that the national anthem was composed.
We sat in an exhibit gallery at the new visitors center at the fort. The introductory film with the story of Francis Scott Key and “The Star-Spangled Banner” was winding down. A choral rendition of the national anthem began to play. As the shade covering an expansive window gradually unfurled and the anthem continued past the part about the ramparts, the gallery 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 and commenced singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The spirit of patriotism is alive in Baltimore, thanks to its singular place in history.
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.
“Even if it was not for The Star-Spangled Banner,’ this would be an important place,” announces Fort McHenry interpreter Vince Vaise. 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 re-election. Proponents of the war, including the majority of Baltimore residents, called it the second war of independence. To them, the members of the anti-war contingent were traitors.
Of course, the minutiae of the War of 1812 is complex, but suffice it to say that the young nation’s morale was at an all-time low. The British Navy had been attacking the United States’ 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 in defeat after defeat.
But after the defenders of Fort McHenry withstood an onslaught from British frigates and bomb ships, the crash of thunder and ravaging rains the night of Sept. 13-14, 1814, the poorly paid and under-equipped Americans had finally earned something special: respect.
As we stood looking o’er the ramparts towards the Patapsco River, interpreter Vaise 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: 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.
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.
A museum 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 Dec. 24, 1814. Because of the day’s slow communications, Gen. 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 Col. Armistead after he relinquished his command at Fort McHenry. Pieces of the flag were snipped off and given away by the Armistead family as souvenirs, an acceptable 19th century custom. In 1907, the flag, by then cut down to 30 feet by 34 feet, was given by Armistead’s descendants to the Smithsonian Institution. It is currently displayed at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Congress proclaimed “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem in 1931.
If you go:
Fort McHenry National Monument is open year-round daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year‘s Day. Hours: summer (May 25 to Sept. 2): 9-6; rest of year: 8-5; the last video presentation begins an hour before closing. Admission: $7 ages 16 and older, free under age 16. Park ranger programs, strongly recommended, are offered hourly from 10-4 in summer and three times a day the rest of the year. Living history re-enactments take place continuously 11-4 on summer weekends.
Note: Defenders’ Day, the annual commemoration of the Battle of Baltimore, will be held Sept. 13-15, 2013.
Information: Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, 2400 East Fort Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21230-5393, (410) 962-4290 www.nps.gov/fomc
The museum of the Maryland Historical Society Museum is open Wednesday-Saturday from 10-5, Sunday from 12-5, closed Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas and New Year‘s Day. Admission: $9 adults; $7 seniors; $6 students with ID and ages 3-18; free under age 3; and free for all ages on the first Thursday of each month. Information: Maryland Historical Society, 201 West Monument St., Baltimore, MD 21201, (410) 685-3750 www.mdhs.org
The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10-4, with last tour starting at 3:15; closed Thanksgiving, Dec. 24, Christmas, New Year‘s Eve and New Year‘s Day. Admission: $8 adults, $7 seniors and military, $6 students, free under age 5. Information: The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, 844 East Pratt St., Baltimore, MD 21202, (410) 837-1793 www.flaghouse.org
Michael Schuman graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 1975 and received a MFA in professional writing in 1977 from the University of Southern California. He lives with his family in New England and can be reached at [email protected] .