Robert M. Poole was an editor and writer for National Geographic for 21 years. He retired from the magazine in 2004, the same year that his book Explorer's House, which tells the history of Alexander Graham Bell and five generations of National Geographic's founding family, was published. Poole has written for National Geographic, Preservation, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Smithsonian, where he has been a contributing editor since 2005. "My Smithsonian assignments have taken me to some interesting places—to Boston for an update on the world's largest art theft (at the Gardner Museum), to Ethiopia for a story on malaria, to Laos for a story on how the United States recovers and repatriates its war dead," says Poole. "Banner Days," in November's issue of Smithsonian, took him to Baltimore, where he pieced together the life of the Star Spangled Banner.
What drew you to this story?
The reopening of the National Museum of American History is the reason for the story. As you know, the whole renovation is centered on the Star Spangled Banner, which has been described as the Smithsonian's most valued artifact, also one of the nation's most instantly recognized icons, right up there with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. When someone really wants to insult the United States, what does he reach for? Not the Constitution. Not the Declaration. But a copy of the flag—and maybe a box of matches. How did it come to be such a symbol? Smithsonian senior editor Tom Frail and I discussed some of these questions when he asked me to write this piece for the magazine. We agreed that the best way to tell the story—and to peel back some of the layers of myth surrounding the flag—was to approach it as a biography, from its humble birth on the floor of a brewery in Baltimore to its enshrinement at the heart of the new museum of American history.
How much of the flag's history were you familiar with going into this assignment?
I knew the broad outlines of the flag's history. But I did not really understand its symbolic importance until I began to research the War of 1812, what it meant to Baltimore, how fragile (and lucky) the American victory in Baltimore turned out to be, and how this might have affected Francis Scott Key's emotional state upon seeing the big flag "by the dawn's early light" on September 14, 1814. It meant that this young, scrappy country might manage to survive after all—but the battle might well have gone the other way.
What surprised you the most about its history?
The biggest surprise for me was to learn about the Armistead family's involvement with the flag after the War of 1812. How they felt a personal responsibility for taking care of it. How they tried to protect it. How proud they were of Maj. George Armistead, their ancestor who commanded Fort McHenry during the decisive Battle of Baltimore. The most striking surprise was this—what a mixed blessing and curse the family's inheritance of the Star Spangled Banner proved to be. By the time Eben Appleton gave this national icon to the Smithsonian in 1912, I think he was relieved to have it off his hands, and to have it under the care of people who would protect it.
What was your favorite moment during your reporting?
Walking the grounds of the Fort McHenry National Historical Monument in Baltimore with Scott Sheads, the National Park Service historian who has been reliving the story of the Star Spangled Banner every day for some 30 years of working there. Making the rounds of that place—which still looks like a working fort—with such a person really gives you a sense of what the main characters in this drama saw when this decisive battle took place. It was a rare privilege to be there, and one of the things that makes working for Smithsonian a continuing education.