On a rainy September 13, 1814, British warships sent a downpour of shells and rockets onto Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, relentlessly pounding the American fort for 25 hours. The bombardment, known as the Battle of Baltimore, came only weeks after British forces attacked Washington, D.C., burning the United States Capitol, the Treasury and the White House (then known as the President’s House). It was another chapter in the ongoing War of 1812.

A week earlier, Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old American lawyer, had boarded the flagship of the British fleet on the Chesapeake Bay in hopes of persuading the enemy to release the physician William Beanes, a friend who had recently been arrested. Key’s tactics were successful, but because he and his companions had gained knowledge of the impending attack on Baltimore, the British did not yet let them go. Allowed to return to their own vessel, the Americans remained under heavy scrutiny. On September 13, Key and Beanes watched as the barrage of Fort McHenry began some eight miles away.

“It seemed as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone,” Key later wrote. But when darkness arrived, he saw only red erupting in the night sky. Given the scale of the attack, he was certain the British would win. The hours passed slowly, but in the clearing smoke of “the dawn’s early light” on September 14, he saw the American flag—not the British Union Jack—flying over the fort, announcing an American victory.

A depiction of the September 1814 Battle of Baltimore
A depiction of the September 1814 Battle of Baltimore Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Key put his thoughts on paper while still on board the ship, setting his words to the tune of a popular English song. His brother-in-law, commander of a militia at Fort McHenry, read Key’s work and had it distributed under the name “Defense of Fort M’Henry.” The Baltimore Patriot newspaper soon published it, and within weeks, Key’s poem, now called “The Star-Spangled Banner,” appeared in print across the country, immortalizing his words and forever naming the flag it celebrated. The song remained popular throughout the 19th century, emerging as a symbol of unity during the Civil War, but only became the U.S.’s official national anthem in 1931.

The flag that inspired Key’s composition still survives today, though it’s fragile and worn by time. First lent to the Smithsonian Institution in 1907, this iconic artifact is now on view in its own state-of-the-art gallery at the National Museum of American History (NMAH).

“The Star-Spangled Banner is a symbol of American history that ranks with the Statue of Liberty and the Charters of Freedom,” said Brent D. Glass, the museum’s then-director, in 2007. “The fact that it [was] entrusted to the National Museum of American History is an honor.”

The frayed, tattered Star-Spangled Banner
The Star-Spangled Banner arrived at the Smithsonian Institution in 1907. National Museum of American History

The flag’s beginnings

The flag’s history starts not with Key, but rather a year earlier, with Major George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry. Knowing that his fort was a likely British target, Armistead, in the summer of 1813, told the commander of Baltimore’s defenses that he needed a flag—a big one: “We, sir, are ready at Fort McHenry to defend Baltimore against invading by the enemy … except that we have no suitable ensign to display over the Star Fort, and it is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.”

Armistead soon hired a 37-year-old widow and professional flagmaker, Mary Young Pickersgill, to make a 30-by-42-foot garrison flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes, one for each of the then-15 states. Over the next six or so weeks, Pickersgill, her daughter, two of her nieces, a 13-year-old indentured servant and possibly her mother used 300 yards of English wool bunting to sew the flag. They made the stars, each measuring two feet in diameter, from cotton—a luxury item at the time. Initially, the group worked in Pickersgill’s home (now a private museum known as the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House), but as their work progressed, they needed more room, so they moved to a brewery across the street. On August 19, 1813, the flag was delivered to Fort McHenry.

An 1873 photo of the Star-Spangled Banner
An 1873 photo of the Star-Spangled Banner Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A 1912 painting of Francis Scott Key observing the American flag on the morning after the Battle of Baltimore
A 1912 painting of Francis Scott Key observing the American flag on the morning after the Battle of Baltimore Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

For making the Star-Spangled Banner, Pickersgill was paid $405.90 (almost $8,000 today). She received another $168.54 (around $3,300 today) for sewing a smaller, 17-by-25-foot storm flag, likely using the same design. It was this storm flag—not the garrison flag now known as the Star-Spangled Banner—that actually flew during the battle. The garrison flag, according to eyewitness accounts, wasn’t raised until the morning of September 14, 1814.

Armistead remained in command of Fort McHenry for the rest of his short life. Historians are unsure how the Armistead family came into possession of the flag, but upon the military officer’s death in 1818, his wife, Louisa Hughes Armistead, inherited it. She likely sewed a red upside-down “V” (or perhaps the start of the letter “A,” for Armistead) onto the flag. Louisa is also thought to have begun the tradition of giving away pieces of the flag to honor her husband’s memory, as well as the memories of the soldiers who defended the fort under his command.

When Louisa died in 1861, she passed the flag down to her daughter, Georgiana Armistead Appleton, over the legal objections of her son. “Georgiana was the only child born at the fort, and she was named for her father,” said Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, then a textile conservator at NMAH, in 2007. “Louisa wanted Georgiana to have it.”

A 1962 depiction of Mary Young Pickersgill creating the Star-Spangled Banner
A 1962 depiction of Mary Young Pickersgill creating the Star-Spangled Banner Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The missing pieces

In 1873, Appleton lent the flag to George Preble, a flag historian who had previously thought the artifact was lost. That same year, Preble had the first known photograph of the flag taken at the Boston Navy Yard. He then exhibited it at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, where it remained until 1876.

While the Star-Spangled Banner was under Preble’s care, Appleton allowed him to give away pieces of the flag as he saw fit. She, too, had given away cuttings of the flag to other Armistead descendants, as well as family friends. Appleton once noted, “Had we given all that we have been importuned for, little would be left to show.” This family tradition continued through 1880, when Armistead’s grandson gave away the last documented piece, according to Thomassen-Krauss.

Several of these cuttings from the Star-Spangled Banner have been located over the years, including about a dozen owned by NMAH. “We’re aware of at least a dozen more that exist in other museums and private collections,” said curator Kathleen Kendrick in 2007.

A fragment of the Star-Spangled Banner
A fragment of the Star-Spangled Banner Maryland Historical Society via National Museum of American History

But a missing 15th star has never been found. “There’s a legend that the star was buried with one of the soldiers from Fort McHenry; another says that it was given to Abraham Lincoln,” Kendrick explained. “But no real evidence has surfaced to support these stories, and the true fate of the star remains one of the Smithsonian’s great unsolved mysteries.”

Preserving a national icon at the Smithsonian

After Appleton’s death in 1878, the flag passed to her son Eben Appleton, who lent it to Baltimore for that city’s 1880 sesquicentennial celebration. It remained in a safe deposit vault in New York City until 1907, when Eben lent it to the Smithsonian. Five years later, he made the gift permanent, saying he wanted the flag to belong “to that Institution in the country where it could be conveniently seen by the public and where it would be well cared for.”

Women at work repairing the Star-Spangled Banner on a set of makeshift tables in the Smithsonian Castle in 1914
Women at work repairing the Star-Spangled Banner on a set of makeshift tables in the Smithsonian Castle in 1914 Smithsonian Institution Archives

When the flag arrived at the Smithsonian, it was smaller, just 30 by 34 feet, damaged from years of use at the fort and the removal of pieces as souvenirs. Recognizing the need for repairs, the Smithsonian hired Amelia Fowler, an embroidery teacher and well-known flag preserver, to replace the canvas backing that had been added in 1873. While working for the United States Naval Academy, Fowler had patented a method of supporting fragile flags with a linen backing that required a honeycomb pattern of stitches. With the help of ten needlewomen, Fowler spent eight weeks in 1914 restoring the flag, receiving $1,243 (around $39,000 today) for the materials and work.

For the next 50 years, apart from a brief move during World War II, the Star-Spangled Banner was displayed in what is now the Arts and Industries Building. The glass case holding the flag wasn’t long enough to show the entire piece of fabric, so its lower half was folded up.

It was only in 1964 that the public was able to view the flag in its entirety. That year, the flag became the centerpiece of the new National Museum of History and Technology (now NMAH), which had ample space to allow the national treasure to hang freely. The Star-Spangled Banner remained in Flag Hall until 1998, when it taken down to undergo extensive conservation.

Removing 1.7 Million Stitches in under a Year

Started in 1996, the Star-Spangled Banner preservation project was planned with the help of historians, conservators, curators, engineers and organic scientists. Conservators began working on the flag in 1999, when construction of a conservation lab at the museum was completed. Over the next several years, they clipped 1.7 million stitches from the flag to remove the linen backing that had been added in 1914, lifted debris using dry cosmetic sponges and brushed the flag with an acetone-water mixture to remove soils embedded in fibers. Finally, they added a sheer polyester backing to help support the flag.

“Our goal was to extend [the flag’s] usable lifetime,” said Thomassen-Krauss. The intent was never to make the flag look as it did when it first flew over Fort McHenry. “We didn’t want to change any of the history written on the artifact by stains and soil,” the conservator added. “Those marks tell the flag’s story.”

While the conservators worked, the public looked on. By 2006, when NMAH closed for a two-year renovation, more than 12 million people had peered into the museum’s glass conservation lab to observe the process.

A family viewing the Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
A family viewing the Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. National Museum of American History

NMAH reopened in November 2008, with the Star-Spangled Banner now displayed in its own climate-controlled gallery. As Glass said ahead of the reopening, “The survival of this flag for nearly 200 years is a visible testimony to the strength and perseverance of this nation, and we hope that it will inspire many more generations to come.”

Reflecting on the Star-Spangled Banner’s significance, Kendrick said:

The Star-Spangled Banner resonates with people in different ways, for different reasons. It’s exciting to realize that you’re looking at the very same flag that Francis Scott Key saw on that September morning in 1814. But the Star-Spangled Banner is more than an artifact—it’s also a national symbol. It evokes powerful emotions and ideas about what it means to be an American.

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