If you are American, chances are you know the words to the US national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner. It’s about a flag referred to by the same name. The song tells a story of an historic event. While most Americans know the words, many don’t know the bigger story. In which American city did the event take place? (Ok, most school children learn this… Baltimore.) The British were attacking Baltimore.
Here are 15 things I bet you didn’t know… (one for each star and stripe on the Star-Spangled Banner!)
- The song is about a battle in 1814 during the War of 1812. yeah, really. (the War of 1812 lasted from 1812-1815; you’re not the only person who gets confused by this)
2. The British hated Baltimore, then America’s third largest city – they called it a nest of pirates for good reason. It was a center for privateering, government-sanctioned piracy that cost the British economy lots of money.
3. British Rear Admiral George Cockburn (pronounced COE-burn), who the American newspapers dubbed “The Great Bandit,” terrorized the Chesapeake Bay area prior to the event described in the national anthem. He was also involved in the attack on Baltimore.
4. Baltimore businesswoman Mary Pickersgill sewed the Star-Spangled Banner. She was born in 1776 and grew up in Philadelphia. Her mother sewed flags and most likely knew that other flagmaker, Betsy Ross. (the competition)
5. Mary Pickersgill sewed at least two flags for Fort McHenry. (one is enshrined in the Smithsonian, where is the other one? No one knows!)
6. The Star-Spangled Banner was about 1/4 the size of a basketball court — “was” because it shrank over the years as people were allowed to snip off pieces as souvenirs. Even a star is missing! (don’t worry, it’s safe now)
7. The Star-Spangled Banner had 15 stars and 15 stripes. The two additional states were Vermont and Kentucky. There were 18 states in 1814 but the flag design hadn’t been changed. Four years later the law designated the number of stripes at 13 for the original colonies.
8. British Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, the top man in charge, had decided against an attack on Baltimore, then changed his mind suddenly when he heard the tidal forecast.
9. The attack on Baltimore occurred shortly after the British had burned the new capital city, Washington, D.C. (there are still burn traces at the White House!)
10. Francis Scott Key, a Georgetown lawyer ended up stuck behind British lines, with a front row seat to the attack. Held against his will, this was not where he wanted to be.
11. Francis Scott Key, the American who penned the words to the US national anthem, had a tune in mind (about 85 other songs were written to the same tune, including the most popular political tune of the day). Did he write a poem or lyrics? The debate continues.
12. There is an American flag on display in Gloucester Cathedral in England in honor of the man from Gloucester, an organist, who wrote the tune.
13. A well-liked British commander, General Robert Ross, was killed during the battle. No one knows who shot him – but plenty of people tried to take credit.
14. The British Congreve rockets (rockets’ red glare) were a brand-new technology that most Americans hadn’t seen before. They made a lot of noise and light, but rarely hit their target.
15. African Americans fought on both sides of the battle and the British recruited a unit of former slaves they called the Colonial Marines. They fought at Washington and Baltimore (and many later ended up living on the island of Trinidad).
16. One future American president fought in the battle of Baltimore – James Buchanan, Pennsylvania’s only president. He was #15, just before Lincoln. He served as a private in the Pennsylvania militia.
17. Key died before his poem became the official national anthem (it took Congress almost three decades to finally accomplish this in 1931).
18. The flag Key saw has survived for over 200 years and today is owned by the American people and on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. (It underwent a more than $10 million conservation not long ago)
OK, I couldn’t limit it to 15. There is so much more to this fascinating story, and a few history mysteries as well. Who shot General Ross? Where were Thomas Kemp and Mary Pickersgill during the battle? Find out more in my book Star-Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle and the American Anthem.