(This is a newspaper article written for Flag Day 2008 by LC Lewis)
If you have ever found your eye tearing over the flutter of the red, white and blue; or felt the harrowed pangs of patriotism pound within your breast at the sight of a passing American flag, thank the most famous flag of all— the Star Spangled Banner—for the privilege.
Before the battle of Baltimore and the successful defense of Fort McHenry, the American flag was relegated to serve primarily as a political marker, identifying the current possessor of a position or piece of property. Rarely carried into battle, it was the troops’ company flag that served as their rallying banner and emblem of their fighting spirit. But after September 14th, 1814, when the red white and blue colors were seen fluttering above Fort McHenry through the smoke-filled dawn, defiantly attesting to whom the victory had gone, a national icon—the first of the young nation—was born.
Two ensigns of liberty were sewn by Mary Pickersgill and other ladies in her family during the summer of 1813—a large garrison flag, and a smaller, storm flag. The larger, garrison flag was, by all standards of the day, an un-extraordinary flag. Though nearly one quarter the size of a basketball court, it was not uniquely large as garrison flags go, even though, upon his arrival at Maryland’s Fort McHenry, Major George Armistead had specifically requisitioned it to be large enough that “the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.”
And see it they did, as did others, like Francis Scott Key, who on that September day in 1814, seemed to realize that the defiant wave of the red, white and blue fabric not only indicated that Baltimore had miraculously survived Britain’s bombardment, but that a change was likewise occurring in the human fabric of the infant nation the flag represented.
Caught in the cross-hairs between the warring nations of France and Britain, America had suffered a decade of embargoes and blockades, and with her fragile economy crippled, the northern, merchant-driven states were threatening secession. For two years, the states along the Canadian border and along the Atlantic coast had been bitterly assailed, but the Potomac, whose rocky waters wound along Washington; and the lucrative Chesapeake Bay, whose waters afforded access into Baltimore; also suffered years of pin-prick attacks and plunder.
During the summer of 1813, forces under British command were set loose upon the innocent citizenry after conquering Hampton, Virginia where they meted out the most horrid atrocities to the tenderest and most defenseless persons. Neither were Maryland’s port cities spared as towns such as Havre de Grace and the eastern shore’s villages of Fredericktown and Georgetown were torched.
Europe finally subdued Napoleon, and despite the fact that peace negotiations were beginning in Ghent, Great Britain released her full complement of battle-tested soldiers upon the American theater. In July and August, British ships pounded the tributaries of the Bay, seizing goods and burning what they could not carry. In August, their ground forces stormed into Washington D.C., ransacking and burning the infant nation’s un finished but grand Capitol, and the White House, in retaliation for America’s attack on York. Three weeks later the British armada lined up across the mouth of the Patapsco River near Baltimore.
Some thought the young republic might not survive, but from that battle rose the first truly American icon—the symbol of liberty, the American flag.
One can easily imagine the fevered pitch of worry and fear that overtook Francis Scott Key as sat upon the British flagship anchored in the Patapsco River. Having been welcomed aboard on a diplomatic mission to negotiate the release of a captive friend, he soon found himself detained after overhearing the British plans to lay the torch to Baltimore. Though he had managed to spirit his own family out of the Washington area before the burning of the Capital, he expressed his fears about Baltimore’s fate in a letter written to his friend, John Randolph of Virginia:
“To make my feelings still more acute, the Admiral had intimated his fears that the town must be burned; and I was sure that if taken, it would be given up to plunder. I have reason to believe that such a promise was given to their soldiers. It was filled with women and children!”
He knew what atrocities had been committed elsewhere. The pattern had been set.
Fretting and praying through the night over the fate of the city, one can understand the emotions stirred in him as America’s colors waved freely above the smoke-filled skyline of Fort McHenry, the guardian of Baltimore. He didn’t know at the time that the severe winds of a rolling storm had forced the men of McHenry to lower the large flag at some point, replacing it with the smaller, more resilient storm flag. He only knew that the “rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air gave proof through the night that the flag was still there.” When the assault ceased and the winds calmed, Major Armistead ordered the garrison flag hoisted once more, and upon seeing it, Key recorded these thoughts:
“I hope I shall never cease to feel the warmest gratitude when I think of this most
manifest deliverance. It seems to have given me a higher idea of the ‘forbearance,
long-suffering & tender mercy’ of God than I had ever before conceived.”
Moved by the moment, he removed a letter from his pocket and wrote brief notes describing the scene and his emotions, and from these notes he penned a poem entitled “Defence of Fort McHenry” which later became known as our National Anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.”
This poem struck a chord with the American people. Its imagery of that “Star Spangled Banner” which stood like a red, white and blue beacon of liberty, attested not only that the infant republic had taken Britain’s best shot and survived, but it that it had finally arrived as a united people. Americans would never see their flag the same way again.
In 1997, Christopher George, a Baltimore journalist/author, brought his aged uncle who was, interestingly enough, visiting from England, to Fort McHenry. There, they met with Mr. Scott Sheads, the Historian of Fort McHenry as well as the Curator of the Star Spangled Banner Exhibit at the Smithsonian. After discussing the significance of America’s flag to its people, Sheads explained, “The American flag has a special symbolism that no other nation’s flag has. It was the first American icon; the first time the nation had come together.”
The British gentleman agreed, admitting that no other country reveres its flag quite the way the people of the United States reveres theirs. His nephew, Mr. George postulated that “perhaps it’s because the flags of other countries have evolved over thousands of years, while the American flag and this nation were born at the same time.”
In January of 2007, I had the privilege of sitting down with Mr. Sheads in the Enlisted Men’s Barracks of Fort McHenry. As we sat within those simple walls, he further explained the singular affect this flag had on American patriotism and our national identity. He attested that two-thirds of the soldiers assigned to the barracks of Fort McHenry had been born on foreign soil, but that after September 14th, 1814, we became a united people “under one symbol of freedom,” the American flag.
“What has happened under the flag has not always been good,” Sheads once told a group of school children, “but it is a flag that gives us the freedom to disagree with each other, no matter who we are or where we are.”
We are drawing near to the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the Star Spangled Banner. Some will carry on the effort to change the National Anthem and some may continue to desecrate the flag as a means to express their disagreement with the government and its policies. May we all remember the flag’s beginnings, and do our best to hold true to the purposes it achieved in 1814, when it became our symbol of unity and freedom.