Flag Day is here, June 14, and in a day when some people treat saying the Pledge of the Allegiance to the flag as a grave controversy, I’d like to raise a voice of celebration for the red, white and blue, and for the day set aside to honor it.
Next year, America will mark the bicentennial of our National Anthem and the flag that inspired it. Sadly, unless you live in a War of 1812 historic zone, you may have heard little hoopla over this anniversary, a sobering thing considering that most historians agree that this was the moment America became united—the United States of America.
Upon visiting the birthplace of the flag, Fort McHenry, a British man commented that no other country reveres her flag quiet the way America does.
I live in Maryland, surrounded by War of 1812 history—-the Chesapeake Campaign and Commodore Joshua Barney’s audacious Chesapeake Flotilla; the dark days surrounding burning of Washington; the destruction of the President's House, the Capitol and much of historic D.C.; the critical Battle of Baltimore; its star-shaped guardian--Fort McHenry; and the most famous and beloved of all flags, the Star Spangled Banner. The Smithsonian has gone to extensive efforts to preserve and study this American icon. The exhibit is beautiful and a must-see for anyone coming to Washington D.C.
There are fables and myths that abound over America’s banner. Though Flag Day celebrants visiting Philadelphia will still see Betsy Ross’s house front bearing a plaque commemorating her as the creator of the first flag, historians no longer ascribe that honor to her. That news breaks the hearts of a generation raised on that sweet tale, but while researching material for FREE MEN and DREAMERS, highly respected historians explained that though Betsy Ross was a flag maker, and was acquainted with Robert Morris and possibly George Washington, no document, no writing of Ross's, and no entry of any of the principles, confirms any part of the tale. In truth, Ross's grandson was in danger of losing the family home around the time of the centennial, and he began spinning that tale just in time to bring guests to his home to see where the flag was made. It saved the home, and tainted history.
Other historical truths may upset history lovers who were taught the same beloved, but inaccurate stories I heard growing up, but we needn't fear true accounts, no matter that they are different. I attest that the real story surrounding the events and patriots who made this history are even more compelling.
The Star-Spangled Banner did not fly continuously during the Battle of Baltimore.
A terrible storm began the night the British bombarded Fort McHenry, and Major George Armistead feared the combination of wind, and the rain which had soaked the large, woolen banner, would over tax the pole, possibly causing it to snap. Since the fall of the flag would signal the defeat of the fort, the Major ordered the large garrison flag lowered during the height of the storm. It was the smaller storm flag which flew through the night. The large garrison flag was raised before dawn so the British and the Americans would see that the fort had withstood the 23-hour bombardment. This change was hidden to Francis Scott Key during the night's fog, but it was the large banner that greeted him the next morning, inspiring him to take up pencil and the back of a letter to write the famed poem that became our anthem.
Bombs bursting in air did not tatter the flag.
I too was told those tears were sacred battle scars. As a child I had been taken to the Smithsonian to reverently stand and gaze upon the scarred fabric, and I was awed, but historical accounts from the Armistead family, and scientific analysis prove, that the tattered edges of the flag were made by the fort's commander, Major Armistead, who cut pieces off the end of the adored flag later that year, which he mailed to friends and patriots requesting a memento from the valiant banner. The true story is less dramatic, but carries its own patriotic charm, about a beleaguered people who rallied around this rectangle of fabric until it became precious--a thing to be treasured. That's no small matter, is it?
There are so many wonderful stories, many of which have already slipped from textbooks, and will be lost to the next generation. Stories about the Chesapeake Flotilla, and the real truth about the saving of the Constitution from the fires of Washington.
History evolves as documents are uncovered, archaeologists make new finds, and scientific testing improves. Truth should be what we seek. In the end, the real story will be as compelling as a fable, because it tells the true response of a people in their own day. Holding the line on truth in recording history will become more critical. Parents need to take the lead on this and expose their children to America's past. Don't count on flawed textbooks and teachers to do it all.
Visit The Flag House Museum in Baltimore which celebrates the historically documented Pickersgill women who sewed the famed and beloved, Star-Spangled Banner. The Flag House will be hosting its observance of the holiday, but a trip here is a spectacular treat anytime. Learn about how the flag was sewn at night, on the floor of the malt house, (brewery), the only floor large enough to lay it out.
Visitors to the Baltimore area should place Fort McHenry on their must-see list as well. This is the famed star-shaped fort that survived the British assault September 13-14, 1814, and was memorialized in Key’s National Anthem.
I'm honored the reviewers of my Free Men and Dreamers books attest to how much they have learned about America from reading my carefully researched books. Yes, they are historical fiction, so they read like sweeping novels, but the history was meticulously researched. I'm very proud of that.
So whether you read my books, visit the Smithsonian, Baltimore's plethora of flag sites, or others in your own community, there are lots of patriotic things for families to enjoy while teaching critical American history and instilling the crucial values of honor, gratitude, and patriotism.