Flag at Fort McHenry

This is the first known photograph of the American flag taken on June 21, 1873 by George Henry Preble. The flag was flown over Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland during an infamous battle between the British and the United States during the War of 1812.

At 6:00 a.m. on September 13, 1814, British warships began to attack Fort McHenry with guns and rockets in an attempt to take over the strategic Baltimore Harbor. For 25 hours American soldiers stood their positions, unable to do much but watch the British shoot at them. Their own cannons did not have the range to touch the British ships. The British, on the other hand, had longer-reaching guns and could hit the fort. However, they were wildly inaccurate. So the British sat in the harbor attempting to damage the fort while the Americans sat in the fort hoping their enemies’ guns would continue to be erratic. The British finally ceased their attack the next morning after using most of their ammunition. When the smoke cleared, only one British soldier was wounded while the Americans lost four and had twenty-four wounded.

The large Star Spangled Banner Flag that inspired the lyrics of the US national anthem when it flew above Fort McHenry in the 1814 Battle of Baltimore. Shown here on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of History and Technology, around 1964. Many pieces were cut off the flag and given away as souvenirs early during its history. A linen backing, attached in 1914, shows the original extent of the flag.

The large Star Spangled Banner Flag that inspired the lyrics of the national anthem when it flew above Fort McHenry in the 1814 Battle of Baltimore. Here it is shown on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of History and Technology, around 1964. A linen backing, attached in 1914, shows the original extent of the flag. Photo Credit: Smithsonian

The reason the attack on Fort McHenry is forever ingrained in the history books is because of one witness, a Washington lawyer, who wrote a poem about the attack. The poem, originally called “The Defense of Fort McHenry” but was later renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner” and became the United States’ national anthem. It was penned by Francis Scott Key who came to the fort to negotiate the release of a friend that was taken prisoner by the British. He witnessed the bombardment from a ship about eight miles away. Inspired by the sight of a lone, large American flag still waving strongly at the end of the battle, Key reflected what he saw in the famous poem: “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof though the night that our flag was still there.”

The oversized American flag he saw (shown in the above photo) was sewn by Mary Pickersgill. In anticipation of the British attack, she was given $405.90 to create the 30 by 42 feet flag. Pickersgill, a thirty-seven-year-old widow, had made ships’ colors and signal flags before and often filled orders for military and merchant ships. In making this particular flag, she was assisted by her thirteen-year-old daughter Caroline, her nieces Eliza Young (also thirteen) and Margaret Young (fifteen-years-old) along with Grace Wisher, a thirteen-year-old indentured servant. It took them seven weeks to make this flag along with a smaller flag.

After the battle, the flag was kept by the family of the fort’s commander – Major Armistead – for about 90 years as it passed from his widow, Louisa Armistead, to his daughter Georgiana Armistead Appleton and finally to his grandson Eben Appleton. In 1912, the family gave the Star-Spangled Flag to the Smithsonian after loaning it to the institute for almost a decade. It can now be viewed at the National Museum of American History. Portions of the flag (including the 15th star) are missing as pieces were occasionally given away as gifts or souvenirs.

Read the Follow-Up to this post

Further Reading
Mary Young Pickergill,” Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.
The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem [Family of Major Armistead],” National Museum of American History.
The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem [Making the Flag],” National Museum of American History.
Star-Spangled Banner and the War of 1812,” Encyclopedia Smithsonian.
Program for the National Star-Spangled Banner Centennial, Baltimore, Maryland, September 6 to 13, 1914.

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