Resting for many years deep in the silt at the bottom of the Patapsco River, adjacent to Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, this 12 pound cannonball’s underwater fate belies its brief moment of glory. For this cannonball was fired during the momentous battle that led to the genesis of our country’s national anthem.
We all know the story from our elementary school days. Francis Scott Key, a Maryland-born lawyer, was inspired by the sight of the U. S. flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the September 1814 Battle of Baltimore. Although British shells rained down relentlessly for 25 hours, the fort held (Lineberry 2007). Key, watching the battle throughout the night from about eight miles away, was relieved to see in “the dawn’s early light” the American flag flying above the fort – a sign of American victory. Later that morning, Key penned a poem he entitled “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” Within a month, it had been published in at least nineteen American newspapers (NMAH 2016). Key himself set the poem to music, using a popular English melody written around 1775 and entitled “To Anacreon in Heaven”. The first documented public performance of Key’s work set to music occurred on October 19, 1814 at the Holiday Street Theater in Baltimore (SI 2016). The song was later retitled “The Star Spangled Banner”. Although it was a popular patriotic song throughout the nineteenth century, “The Star Spangled Banner” did not become our country’s national anthem until 1931.
After the battle, the flag came into the possession of Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry during the British bombardment. Descendants of the Armistead family displayed the flag on several public occasions, but came to realize its significance as an object of American public interest. Eben Appleton, grandson of George Armistead, lent the flag to the Smithsonian Institution in 1907 and made it a permanent gift to the nation just five years later (SI 2016). During the Armistead family ownership of the flag, they gave over 200 square feet of it away—one small snippet at a time—to friends and veterans. Many of these pieces have since been donated to the Smithsonian and other museums.
The 30 x 42 ft. flag, made by Baltimore resident Mary Pickersgill in 1813, can still be viewed at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. It underwent a multi-year conservation process starting in 1999, with a new gallery opened in 2008 for its display (NMAH 2016). The conservation was done in a glass walled lab, with over 12 million visitors able to view the conservators at work.
In preparation for the bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812, the Maryland Historical Society created a replica Star Spangled Banner. More than 1,000 volunteers used authentic style fabric and hand stitching to remake the flag, which was displayed across the state at War of 1812 re-enactments and other public events (MHS 2016).
Cate Lineberry. The Story Behind the Star Spangled Banner. Smithsonian.com. March 1, 2007. Website http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-story-behind-the-star-spangled-banner-149220970/?no-ist accessed May 20, 2016.
National Museum of American History (NMAH). The Star Spangled Banner. Website http://amhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/the-lyrics.aspx accessed May 20, 2016.
Maryland Historical Society (MHS). See Our Star Spangled Banner Replica. Website http://www.mdhs.org/see-our-star-spangled-banner-replica accessed May 20, 2016.
Smithsonian Institution (SI). Star-Spangled Banner and the War of 1812. Website http://www.si.edu/Encyclopedia_SI/nmah/starflag.htm accessed May 20, 2016.