Star-Spangled Banner Back on Display

After a decade’s conservation, the flag that inspired the National Anthem returns to its place of honor on the National Mall

After almost two centuries, the flag's frail state became plain. The icon's new high-tech home will protect it from exposure to bright light, humidity and ambient pollution. (Smithsonian Institution)
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"Baltimore was a very good place to have a flag business," says Jean Ehmann, a guide who shows visitors around the Pickersgill house, now a National Historic Landmark known as the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House. "Ships were coming and going from around the world. All of them needed flags—company flags, signal flags, country flags."

There is no record of when Armistead's men first raised their new colors over Fort McHenry, but they likely did so as soon as Pickersgill delivered them: a sizable British flotilla had just appeared on Baltimore's doorstep, sailing into the mouth of the Patapsco River on August 8. The city braced itself, but after the enemies eyed each other for several days, the British weighed anchor and melted into the haze. They had surveyed the region's sketchy defenses and concluded that Washington, Baltimore and environs would be ripe for attack when springtime opened a new season of war in 1814.

That season looked like a disaster in the making for the Americans. When summer arrived in Canada, so did 14,000 British combatants ready to invade the United States across Lake Champlain. On the Chesapeake, 50 British warships under Vice Adm. Sir Alexander Cochrane headed for Washington, where, in August 1814, the invaders burned the presidential mansion, the Capitol and other public buildings. The British then headed for Baltimore, in part to punish the city's privateers, who had captured or burned 500 British ships since hostilities erupted two years before.

After maneuvering their ships into position and testing the range of their guns, the British opened the main assault on Baltimore on September 13. Five bomb ships led the way, lobbing 190-pound shells into Fort McHenry and unleashing rockets with exploding warheads. The fort answered—but with little effect. "We immediately opened Our Batteries and Kept up a brisk fire from Our Guns and Mortars," Major Armistead reported, "but unfortunately our Shot and Shells all fell considerably Short." The British kept up a thunderous barrage throughout the 13th and into the predawn hours of the 14th.

During the 25-hour battle, says historian Sheads, the British unleashed about 133 tons of shells, raining bombs and rockets on the fort at the rate of one projectile per minute. The thunder they produced shook Baltimore to its foundations and was heard as far away as Philadelphia. Hugging walls and taking the hits wore on the defenders. "We were like pigeons tied by the legs to be shot at," recalled Judge Joseph H. Nicholson, an artillery commander within the fort. Capt. Frederick Evans looked up to see a shell the size of a flour barrel screaming toward him. It failed to explode. Evans noticed handwritten on its side: "A present from the King of England."

Despite the din and the occasional hits, the Americans sustained few casualties—four out of a thousand were killed, 24 wounded—as the fort's aggressive gunnery kept the British at arm's length.

After a furious thunderstorm broke over Baltimore about 2 p.m. on September 13, the storm flag was likely hoisted in place of its larger sibling, although official descriptions of the battle mention neither. After all, says Sheads, it was "just an ordinary garrison flag."

High winds and rain lashed the city throughout the night, as did the man-made storm of iron and sulfur. Fort McHenry's fate remained undecided until the skies cleared on September 14 and a low-slanting sun revealed that the battered garrison still stood, guns at the ready. Admiral Cochrane called a halt to the barrage about 7 a.m., and silence fell over the Patapsco River. By 9 a.m. the British were filling their sails, swinging into the current and heading downriver. "As the last vessel spread her canvas," wrote Midshipman Richard J. Barrett of HMS Hebrus, "the Americans hoisted a most superb and splendid ensign on their battery, and fired at the same time a gun of defiance."

Major Armistead was absent from celebrations inside the fort that day. Brought low by what he later described as "great fatigue and exposure," he remained in bed for almost two weeks, unable to command the fort or to write his official account of the battle. When he finally filed a 1,000-word report on September 24, he made no mention of the flag—now the one thing most people associate with Fort McHenry's ordeal.

The reason they do, of course, is Francis Scott Key. The young lawyer and poet had watched the bombardment from the President, an American truce ship the British had held throughout the battle after he negotiated the release of an American hostage. On the morning of September 14, Key had also seen what Midshipman Barrett described—the American colors unfurling over the fort, the British ships stealing away—and Key knew what it meant: threatened by the most powerful empire on earth, the city had survived the onslaught. The young nation might even survive the war.


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