The American Flag That Inspired an Anthem

Star Spangled Fort McHenry

We fly the American flag on National Holidays. It’s not too often, however, that we stop to think about the flag that inspired an anthem, the flag that Francis Scott Key saw “so gallantly streaming" on the morning of September 14, 1814, the Star-Spangled Banner.

Stars and Stripes Forever

The Star-Spangled Banner, otherwise known as the Great Garrison Flag, was sewn by Mary Young Pickersgill, her daughter, two nieces, and an African American indentured servant over the summer of 1813.

Pickersgill created the flag using white cotton for the stars, undyed wool for the white stripes and blue and red dyed wool for the canton and red stripes. These specific colors and design set a precedent for today’s American Flag.

Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead, commander of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, commissioned the flag to be 30 feet tall and 42 feet wide. Armistead wanted a flag “so large that the British could not fail to see her”. And see her they did. 90-feet above the ground, the grand flag was flown during the Battle of Baltimore in September of 1814, wherein the British Navy attempted to overcome American Forces.

As the well-known story goes, American lawyer and amateur poet, Francis Scott Key had been negotiating the release of a friend from British captivity, and was being held on a British truce ship for the duration of the battle. As the sun rose the morning after the battle he saw the flag, proudly waving over Fort McHenry as a beacon of young America’s resilience and courage. That magnificent sight brought forth his poem, "Defence of Fort M'Henry", which was later set to a popular tune and retitled “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

O say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner, O long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation.
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Amazingly, after everything the flag has endured over the previous two centuries, it remains intact to this day. The flag has gone through multiple restorations and seen several different placements within the National Museum of American History.

Today, the Star Spangled Banner has been fully revitalized and rests safely in public view as an eternal reminder of the strength, sacrifice, and glory that has brought us to where we are today as the Great Nation of the United States of America.

[video] Star-Spangled Salute — in this video by the Smithsonian Institution, a historian briefly details the making of the Star Spangled Banner, and actors relive the Battle of Baltimore and celebrate the flag that inspired our national anthem.

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