Every hour it used to appear, this ghost from the past. A curtain would fall to reveal it, filling an entire wall of the National Museum of American History's great lobby at the Mall entrance. It was, of course, the huge American flag that flew over Baltimore's Fort McHenry on a hot summer night in 1814. "Was," because this object at hand, the original Star-Spangled Banner, is no longer "still there." The effects of age brought it down — something the British failed to do 186 years ago.
That giant flag, one of the Smithsonian's proudest treasures, is being cleaned and perked up in a large room about 150 feet away, and you can see it happening. Look into the conservation lab, and there's the old flag stretched out as though waiting for the surgeon to scrub up. But it's a team of conservators who do the operating here, sitting beside the fragile fabric, inching carefully around it, examining every flaw. They'll finish in 2002, they say.
An exhibition along the concourse offers enough background to challenge many notions you may have cherished about the glories of the War of 1812. One episode that's hard to forget, much as we'd like to, is the sack of our national capital in 1814. A British landing force put ashore from the Chesapeake Bay, marched inland in the humid heat of August and headed for "Washington City." We scraped up all the militia we could, and ventured to meet the invaders at the suburb of Bladensburg. At first glimpse of approaching redcoats with bayonets aglitter, most of us scampered home as fast as our weary legs could take us. The battle became known as the Bladensburg Races.
The British were tired too, but they pressed on to Washington, burned the Capitol and many other buildings, and stormed into the White House. Before setting it ablaze, the officers sat down to a sumptuous dinner laid out for President and Mrs. James Madison, who had hastily departed, Dolly Madison clutching Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington.
Though the war was hardly our finest hour, it did have its moments, and that's where the flag now at the Smithsonian made its bow. Leaving Washington smoking, the British troops, flushed with success (and wine), marched toward the Bay to rejoin their fleet and attack the vital seaport of Baltimore. We Americans, humbled but angry, finally rose to the occasion. Capable leaders appeared and strengthened Baltimore's defenses, beefing up Fort McHenry, which guarded the harbor, adding shore batteries. More militia arrived from Pennsylvania and Virginia, and a regiment of regulars showed up.
Earlier, in the second year of the war, Fort McHenry's new commander, Maj. George Armistead, had asked for a suitable flag to fly above it, "so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance." The request was granted, and Mary Pickersgill, who supplemented her widow's mite by making flags for Baltimore ships, started fabricating a standard-sized garrison flag — 42 by 30 feet, with 15 stars stretching 26 inches across and two-foot stripes — 15 of them, since the number of stripes didn't revert to the original 13 until 1818.
Now the British were really coming. Glutted with victory, and dead tired, they encamped at Upper Marlborough. On the way to Washington, they'd usurped the manor house of Dr. William Beanes, a feisty 65-year-old, eminent in his profession. Now, as the British reached town again, roistering redcoats disturbed Beanes and his dinner guests. They went out to stop the noise and got the drunk soldiers jailed. For this, the British brass ordered that Beanes be taken prisoner.
Aghast, the doctor's friends set about trying to get him released. A parley with the British command called for a skillful negotiator, able to exert charm yet put generals and admirals firmly in their place...Aha! Francis Scott Key!
Key was one of those people who knew everybody. By 1814, he was a lawyer and a popular success, with a wealthy wife and a fine home in Georgetown, the rich old neighbor of muddy little Washington. He liked to scribble poetry — a not unusual diversion two centuries ago. He was a godly man, a pacifist who hated this war yet served as an officer in a Georgetown artillery company. Altogether, this able, likable, well-connected dilettante was the perfect choice for an extremely dicey — if not impossible — mission.
Letters were exchanged across the battle lines. Grudgingly, the British agreed to let Key and Col. John Skinner, in charge of prisoner exchange, make their plea if they could meet the British fleet, sailing up the Chesapeake. Key and Skinner hailed the British flagship from their small vessel, were taken aboard and learned that Beanes was in danger of being hanged. Key went to work, pointing out that the doctor had treated wounded British soldiers with the same care and kindness as he had Americans. That won over the British command. Dr. Beanes could go, but he and his rescuers must stay with the fleet until Baltimore went the way of Washington. Under a guard of marines, Key's party ended up in their vessel, towed by the British flagship as it surged up the Bay.