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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Rather than return to his home outside Washington, D.C., Key checked into a Baltimore hotel that evening and finished a long poem about the battle, with its "rockets' red glare" and "bombs bursting in air." He conveyed the elation he felt at seeing what was probably Mrs. Pickersgill's big flag flying that morning. Fortunately for posterity, he did not call it Mrs. Pickersgill's flag, but referred to a "star-spangled banner." Key wrote quickly that night—in part because he already had a tune in his head, a popular English drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heaven," which fit the meter of his lines perfectly; in part because he lifted a few phrases from a poem he had composed in 1805.

The next morning, Key shared his new work with his wife's brother-in-law Joseph Nicholson, the artillery commander who had been inside Fort McHenry throughout the battle. Although it is almost certain that the flag Key glimpsed at the twilight's last gleaming was not the one he saw by the dawn's early light, Nicholson did not quibble—Key was, after all, a poet, not a reporter. Nicholson was enthusiastic. Less than a week later, on September 20, 1814, the Baltimore Patriot & Evening Advertiser published Key's poem, then titled "Defence of Fort M'Henry." It would be reprinted in at least 17 papers around the country that fall. That November, Thomas Carr of Baltimore united lyrics and song in sheet music, under the title "The Star-Spangled Banner: A Patriotic Song."

Key's timing could not have been better. Washington was in ruins, but the war's tide was turning. On September 11, as Baltimore prepared to meet Admiral Cochrane's assault, Americans trounced a British squadron on Lake Champlain, blocking its invasion from Canada. With Britain's defeat in New Orleans the following January, the War of 1812 was effectively over.

Having won independence a second time, the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief. As gratitude mixed with an outpouring of patriotism, Key's song and the flag it celebrated became symbols of the victory. "For the first time, someone put into words what the flag meant to the country," says Sheads. "That is the birth of what we recognize today as a national icon."

Major Armistead, showered with honors for his performance at Fort McHenry, had little time to enjoy his new fame. Although he continued to suffer bouts of fatigue, he remained on active duty. At some point the big flag left the fort and was taken to his home in Baltimore. There is no record that it—officially government property—was ever transferred to him. "That is the big question," says Sheads. "How did he end up with the flag? There is no receipt." Perhaps the banner was so tattered from use that it was no longer considered fit for service—a fate it shared with Armistead. Just four years after his triumph, he died of unknown causes. He was 38.

The big banner passed to his widow, Louisa Hughes Armistead, and became known as her "precious relic" in the local press. She apparently kept it within the Baltimore city limits but lent it out for at least five patriotic celebrations, thereby helping to lift a locally revered artifact into the national consciousness. On the most memorable of those occasions, the flag was displayed at Fort McHenry with George Washington's campaign tent and other patriotic memorabilia when Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette visited in October 1824. When Louisa Armistead died in 1861, she left the flag to her daughter, Georgiana Armistead Appleton, just as a new war broke out. That conflict, the bloodiest in America's history, brought new attention to the flag, which became a symbol of the momentous struggle between North and South.

The New York Times, reacting to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, railed against traitors who fired upon the Stars and Stripes, which "shall yet wave over Richmond and Charleston, and Mobile and New Orleans." Harper's Weekly called the American flag "the symbol of the Government....The rebels know that, as surely as the sun rises, the honor of the country's flag will presently be vindicated."

In Baltimore, a Union city seething with Confederate sympathizers, Major Armistead's grandson and namesake, George Armistead Appleton, was arrested attempting to join the rebellion. He was imprisoned in Fort McHenry. His mother, Georgiana Armistead Appleton, found herself in the ironic position of decrying her son's arrest and pulling for the South, while clinging to the Star-Spangled Banner, by then the North's most potent icon. She had been entrusted to protect it, she said, "and a jealous and perhaps selfish love made me guard my treasure with watchful care." She kept the famous flag locked away, probably at her home in Baltimore, until the Civil War ran its course.

Like other Armisteads, Georgiana Appleton found the flag both a source of pride and a burden. As often happens in families, her inheritance generated hard feelings within the clan. Her brother, Christopher Hughes Armistead, a tobacco merchant, thought the flag should have come to him and exchanged angry words with his sister over it. With evident satisfaction, she recalled that he was "forced to give it up to me and with me it has remained ever since, loved and venerated." As the siblings squabbled, Christopher's wife expressed relief that the flag was not theirs: "More battles have been fought over that flag than were ever fought under it, and I, for one, am glad to be rid of it!" she reportedly said.

With the end of the Civil War and the approach of the nation's centennial in 1876, Georgiana Appleton was pressed by visitors who wanted to see the flag and by patriots wishing to borrow it for ceremonies. She obliged as many of them as she thought reasonable, even allowing some to snip fragments from the banner as souvenirs. Just how many became obvious in 1873, when the flag was photographed for the first time, hanging from a third-floor window at the Boston Navy Yard.


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