For most Americans, all we know about the Star Spangled Banner is that Francis Scott Key wrote it as a result of seeing Fort McHenry being bombarded through the night. There is more information that makes it even more remarkable.
Guarding the entrance to Baltimore harbor via the Patapsco River during the War of 1812, Fort McHenry faced almost certain attack by British forces. Major George Armistead, the stronghold's commander, was ready to defend the fort, but he wanted a flag that would identify his position, and one whose size would be visible to the enemy from a distance. Determined to supply such a flag, a committee of high-ranking officers called on Mary Young Pickersgill, a Baltimore widow who had had experience making ship flags, and explained that they wanted a United States flag that measured 30 feet by 42 feet. She agreed to the job.
With the help of her 13-year-old daughter, Caroline, Mrs. Pickersgill spent several weeks measuring, cutting, and sewing the 15 stars and stripes. When the time came to sew the elements of the flag together, they realized that their house was not large enough. Mrs. Pickersgill thus asked the owner of nearby Claggett's brewery for permission to assemble the flag on the building's floor during evening hours. He agreed, and the women worked by candlelight to finish it. Once completed, the flag was delivered to the committee, and Mrs. Pickersgill was paid $405.90. In August 1813, it was presented to Major Armistead, but, as things turned out, more than a year would pass before hostile forces threatened Baltimore.
After capturing Washington, D.C., and burning some of its public buildings, the British headed for Baltimore.
Francis Scott Key, a Baltimore lawyer at the time, visited the enemy's fleet the day prior to the bombardment of Fort McHenry. He went aboard the ship to attempt to secure the release of a Maryland doctor, who had been abducted by the British after they left Washington. The lawyer was able to get the commander to agree to release the prisoner Dr. Beanes, but not until the next day and they both had to remain on board their ship until then. The commander also told them that they would be bombarding Fort McHenry that night. The fort commander was sent word to the Fort McHenry Commander, that whenever they wanted to surrender, all they had to do was lower the United States flag. As long as the flag was flying, the bombardment would continue. However, once they lowered the flag, it meant total surrender and the British would win the war.
An eerie silence fell across the early morning darkness and the young Baltimore attorney breathed a sigh of relief. It was after 1 A.M. on the morning of September 14, 1814 and it was the first time in more than 18 hours that things had been quiet. Since 7 A.M. of the previous day more than 1,800 bombs, cannonballs, and the new Congreve rockets had lit the sky and shattered the peaceful harbor. From the deck of his sloop behind the enemy fleet, the young Baltimore attorney breathed a sigh of relief. The flag was still there!
READ THIS PARAGRAPH SEVERAL TIMES. IT SHOWS JUST HOW MUCH FREEDOM MEANT TO THESE SOLDIERS! Upon discussing the previous night with survivors of the great battle, he learned just how much keeping the flag flying had meant to the soldiers. The flag itself was hit many times and had holes in it. In addition, several times through the night a cannon ball had hit the flag pole. It was hit enough times that the pole was actually leaning and in danger of toppling over. Brave men rushed to the pole to help prop it up with their bodies and arms. When one man holding the flagpole up was shot, another was ready to take his place. This is how they kept the flag flying all night!
Thrilled by the sight of the flag and the knowledge that the fort had not fallen, Key took a letter from his pocket, and began to write some verses on the back of it. Later, after the British fleet had withdrawn, Key checked into a Baltimore hotel, and completed his poem on the defense of Fort McHenry. He then sent it to a printer for duplication on handbills, and within a few days the poem was put to the music of an old English song. Both the new song and the flag became known as "The Star-Spangled Banner."
For his leadership in defending the fort, Armistead was promoted to brevet Lieutenant Colonel and acquired the garrison flag sometime before his death in 1818. A few weeks after the battle, he had granted the wishes of a soldier's widow for a piece of the flag to bury with her husband. In succeeding years, he cut off additional pieces to gratify the similar wishes of others; the flag itself was seen only on rare occasions.
When Commodore George H. Preble, U.S. Navy, was preparing a history of the American flag, he borrowed the Star-Spangled Banner from a descendant of Colonel Armistead, and, in 1873, photographed it for the first time. In preparation for that event, a canvas backing was attached to it; soon thereafter, it was put in storage until the Smithsonian borrowed it and placed it on exhibit in 1907.
The flag had become a popular attraction; in 1912, the owner, Eben Appleton, of New York, believing that the flag should be kept in the National Museum, donated it to the Smithsonian on the condition that it would remain there forever. Once in its possession, the Smithsonian hired an expert flag restorer to remove the old backing and sew on a new one to prevent damage during display.
The Star-Spangled Banner remained in the Arts and Industries Building (the old National Museum) as the new National Museum was constructed across the Mall. In 1964, when the Museum of American History opened, the flag was moved to a prominent place inside the museum's Mall entrance, an awe-inspiring testament to our nation's independence.
Though Francis Scott Key wrote additional poetry in the years following the battle at Fort McHenry, none ever came close to the popularity or literary acclaim of his Star Spangled Banner. He never knew that his poem was our National Anthem. It was not officially recognized as such until 1931.