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Fort McHenry guards 'Star-Spangled' history


The introductory film at Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine tells the story of Francis Scott Key and The Star-Spangled Banner. As the movie ends, an instrumental version of the national anthem begins.

As the drapery covering an expansive window gradually unfurls and the anthem continues past the part about the ramparts we watched, the theater's visitors gaze outside. There is Fort McHenry, the 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. The audience spontaneously stands, faces the fort and begins singing along.

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

Philadelphia may have Betsy Ross and the legend of the nation's first flag, but 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," says 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. 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 Baltimoreans, called it the second war of independence. To them, the antiwar contingent were traitors to their nation.

A place of history

As we stand looking o'er the ramparts toward the Patapsco River, Vaise points out the approximate location of the ship where Key spent a rocky night of battle in September 1814. 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.

While docked in a truce ship a few miles from the fort, the lawyer jotted down notes about what he saw. It wasn't pretty. An American soldier said, "We felt like pigeons tied by the legs to be shot at." Key's poem, then titled Defence of Fort McHenry, was published in just a few days and almost instantaneously sung to the tune of a popular British song titled, To Anacreon in Heaven. That's the same melody we sing Key's words to today.

Vaise's guided tour finished, we take a walk inside and around the wood and brick fort. Cannons on the bastions point toward the modern Francis Scott Key Bridge. A historic marker at bastion No. 5 overlooking the Patapsco River reads, "If you had been standing on this rampart on the morning of Sept. 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 2 miles away." But the marker answers its own skeptical statement. The flag was large, it reads, 42 feet wide by 30 feet deep, and Key probably watched the battle through spyglasses. In addition, the banner's colors would have shone 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 a.m. to 3 p.m. Those who come at other times see a 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."

Tackling a large job

The flag that inspired Key was crafted in a narrow brick townhouse on E Pratt Street. 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 flagmaker Mary Pickersgill; an entrance inside offers chances to meet members of Mary's household staff, portrayed by 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 to make a flag by some city leaders. Fort McHenry's commander, Maj. George 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 complete the flag. Each of the 15 stars measured 2 feet in diameter; each of the 15 stripes was 2 feet tall. (That's not a typo. Each stripe represented a state until 1818, when the 13-stripe flag, one for each of the original colonies, 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 in crafting the behemoth flag. The final product was so big that one stripe would have stretched from one end of the house to the other. Pickersgill and company were forced to finish the flag in a brewery a block away.

Like song, flag lives

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 flag.

The War of 1812 ended in a draw, with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on Dec. 24, 1814. Because of the period'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.

Pickersgill's flag that inspired The Star-Spangled Banner was given to 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 activity. In 1907, the flag, by then cut down to 34 by 30 feet, was given by Armistead's descendents to the Smithsonian Institution. It is displayed at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History in Washington, where it is being refurbished.

Congress proclaimed The Star-Spangled Banner the national anthem in 1931.

Michael Schuman is a freelance writer based in Keene, N.H.


National history

Fort McHenry National Monument is open from 8 a.m to 5 p.m. daily. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission: $7 ages 16 and older, free under age 16. Guided tours, strongly recommended, are offered hourly from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in summer and three times a day rest of the year.

Note: Defenders' Day celebration, the annual commemoration of the Battle of Baltimore, is Sept. 13 and 14.

Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, end of E Fort Avenue, Baltimore; (410) 962-4290;

The Maryland Historical Society Museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; closed Monday and Tuesday, Fourth of July, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, students with ID and ages 13 to 17, free under age 13. Information: Maryland Historical Society, 201 W Monument St., Baltimore; (410) 685-3750;

The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; closed Thanksgiving, Dec. 24, Christmas, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Admission: $7 adults, $6 ages 65 and over, $5 ages 18 and under, students and military personnel with ID. Information: the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, 844 E Pratt St., Baltimore; (410) 837-1793;

Fort McHenry guards 'Star-Spangled' history 06/27/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 30, 2008 12:40pm]
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