During the War of 1812 the entrance to the Baltimore Harbor was guarded by Fort McHenry. In the summer of 1813 Major George Armistead, commanding officer of Fort McHenry, asked for a “flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” A group of high-ranking officers were sent to call on Mary Young Pickersgill, a Baltimore widow who was an experienced flag maker. They asked her to make a large American flag to fly over Fort McHenry. Mrs. Pickersgill agreed and she and her daughter 13 year old Caroline set about to make the flag.
The flag was started in Mrs. Pickersgill’s upstairs bedroom but when time came to sew the flag together she realized that her house was not large enough. She asked the owner of Claggert’s brewery for permission to assemble the flag on the brewery’s floor in the evening when there were no patrons. He agreed and the two women were able to complete the flag by candlelight.
Because the citizens of Baltimore knew that President James Madison and his wife Dolley had already fled Washington to a safe place and knowing the British had attacked and captured Washington and set fire to the White House, they knew an attack by the British was imminent. Preparations were being made at Fort McHenry to protect Baltimore.
In August of 1814, shortly after the British left Washington, Dr. William Beanes, the physician that had been treating both American troops and British prisoners, was taken prisoner because he placed disorderly stragglers under citizen’s arrest. The townspeople, fearing that Dr. Beanes would he hung, asked Francis Scott Key to help. He agreed and was accompanied by Colonel John Skinner, a government negotiator who arranged prisoner exchanges.
On the morning of September 3rd, the two men set sail on a sloop flying a flag of truce to meet the Royal Navy. Several days later they were allowed to board the flag ship HMS Tonnant to speak with British officers, Major General Robert Ross, Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane and Rear Admiral George Cockburn where they negotiated for Dr. Beanes’ release.
Francis Scott Key and John Skinner brought with them letters written by wounded British prisoners telling of the care given to them by Dr. Beanes and the Americans. The British officers reviewed the letters and agreed to release Dr. Beanes. The three men were allowed to return to the truce sloop but could not return to Baltimore until after the attack because they knew the British strength and position and knew of the land attack planned on Baltimore.
On the morning of September 13, 1814, the British bombardment commenced. The assault continued for 25 hours. The three Americans watched the battle throughout the rainy night with trepidation. As long as they heard the bombardment they knew that Fort McHenry had not surrendered. And then, utter silence. Had Fort McHenry fallen? The naval assault as well as the land attack on Baltimore had been abandoned. The British had been incapable of obliterating Fort McHenry. A withdrawal was ordered.
At the break of dawn, Francis Scott Key placed a telescope to his eye and looked toward the Fort’s flagpole. He saw General Armistead’s glorious American flag, our Old Glory, caught in the morning breeze. Key was so moved by the sight of the flag he took a letter from his pocket and wrote some verses on the back of it. He finished the poem at the Indian Queen Hotel in Baltimore. The poem’s original name was “Defence of Fort McHenry.”
The poem was printed and distributed. It was published for the first time in the Baltimore Patriot on September 20, 1814. Music was added to the poem and in October an actor in Baltimore sang the new song in a public performance and called it “The Star Spangled Banner.”
General Armistead’s glorious flag was made from wool bunting and required 400 yards of material and measured 40 feet by 32 feet. Each of the fifteen stars was two feet from point to point and each of the eight red stripes and each of the seven white stripes were two feet wide. Mary Young Pickersgill and her daughter Caroline were paid the sum of $405.90. The flag was completed and presented to Major Armistead in August of 1813.
On March 3, 1931, the “Star Spangled Banner” was adopted as the national anthem of the United States.
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