On September 13 and 14 Americans will commemorate the bicentennial of the Battle of Baltimore, a mostly forgotten battle in U.S. history… except that it gave the United States its national anthem. The song is a stirring tribute of the battle by a man inspired at the sight of his young country’s flag still flying in defiance over a fort after a long night of incoming bombs and rockets by the formidable British navy.
I had the privilege of working on a major project to preserve the flag, the Star-Spangled Banner, when I worked at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. At one point I experienced a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with this national icon. I remember putting my face within a foot of its fibers and feeling two distinct emotions: awe from the power of this historic object imbued with symbolism and shock at the flag’s worn condition. Today after years of conservation, the flag appears to float in space, resting on a large angled table in dim light. Its fragility remains obvious, but its power continues to stir patriotic American hearts.
My job was to develop a hands-on activity to tell the story of the Battle of Baltimore. I ended up focusing on a fascinating map from the National Archives, a large 3 x 6 ft. hand-drawn map, colored with watercolors, drawn by American military mapmaker James Kearney in 1814 and titled “Sketch of the Military Topography of Baltimore and its vicinity and of Patapsco Neck to North Point.”
I had been looking for a primary source that could tell five distinct stories of the battle — different perspectives on one event. The map was perfect. What my research uncovered was a fascinating story that most Americans don’t know. Here are five players in the story.
A local seamstress named Mary Pickersgill sewed a very large flag. Major Armistead, commander of nearby Fort McHenry, placed an order with Pickersgill for two flags for the fort. A smaller storm flag to fly in bad weather and a large garrison flag (30 by 42 feet or one-quarter the size of a basketball court) to fly in good weather. Mary received $405.90 for the garrison flag. Her restored house in open to the public as a museum, the Flag House.
Motive. Why Baltimore? A shipbuilder named Thomas Kemp owned one of the largest shipyards in Fells Point and built four of the most famous privateers, including the Chasseur, the pride of Baltimore. Privateers based in Baltimore had captured or sunk nearly five hundred British ships since the start of the war. In 1814 a British paper wrote: “There is not a spot in the whole United States where an infliction of Britain’s vengeance will be more entitled to our applause than on this sink of jacobinical infamy – Baltimore.”
Opportunity. The American navy was virtually nonexistent in the Chesapeake Bay, the local militias were in disarray… the British thought they could do whatever they wanted. After attacking and burning Washington, D.C., Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane of the British navy focused on Baltimore. Fort McHenry stood in the way of an easy attack on the harbor. He would bombard the fort and also direct a land attack from North Point. Oh, and he received a secret letter to help him plan. The letter still exists.
Defense. American Major General Samuel Smith was tasked with leading Baltimore’s defenses. He devised a brilliant plan to completely block the harbor.
With the scene set, the British commenced the attack. The log books of the British ships still exist and one can read the scratchy writing from the HMS Erebus, specially modified for firing rockets. “Tues. Sept. 13, 1814, 5:45 – made sail for off the enemy’s fort. at 7 observed the bombs commence bombarding… fired rockets at the fort.”
Another person watching, from the deck of a British ship, was American lawyer Francis Scott Key. How he got stuck behind enemy lines is a story itself. He ended up being the inspired poet that twenty years later explained: “The song, I know, came from the heart… in that hour of deliverance and joyful triumph, my heart spoke; and ‘does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song?’ was its question. with it came an inspiration not to be resisted.”
British midshipman, Robert Barrett, witnessed the bombardment and later wrote “as the last vessel spread her canvas to the wind, the Americans hoisted a splendid and superb ensign [flag] on their battery…” Which leads to a debate among historians. Was it the big or little flag that Key saw in the early morning hours?
In any case, Key’s poem was published several days after the battle and spread up and down the East Coast and eventually became the American national anthem in 1931. (And no, it was not set to the tune of a popular drinking song – more about that in this link.)
For much more of this story, read my new book A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History.
If you haven’t visited Fort McHenry or the Flag house, you should. You’ll have your own moment of inspiration.