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Fort McHenry (U.S.)


Last modified: 2015-01-09 by rick wyatt
Keywords: united states | fort mchenry | star spangled banner |
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[Fort McHenry flag, September 13-14 1814] image by Hugh Pickrel

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Description of the flag

The 15 star and 15 stripe flag is flown day and night at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, a national park maintained by the U.S. government. This is the site of the Battle in 1814 that gave birth to the national Anthem of the U.S. It is lighted at night as is the current flag over the capital.
William M. Grimes-Wyatt and Nick Artimovich, 1996

The American Flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 served as the focal point of Francis Scott Key's poetic efforts. The flag is currently in the possession of the Smithsonian Museum of American History. The flag has 15 stars and 15 stripes. On the 10th stripe from the top in the approximate center is what appears to be an inverted "V". It might simply be an attempt to repair a tear.
Hugh Pickrel

Proportions: most of mine are based on a photograph of the actual flag in the Smithsonian collection (I have omitted the inverted V) or from the receipt to the flag maker, which gives the dimensions as 30' x 42 3/4'.

Stars Orientation: in the early days of the republic (pre-Civil War) it seems to have been fairly common to arrange the stars like this, in alternating columns oriented horizontally, rather than vertically as is the convention today.

"V" sign: I wouldn't be at all surprised if it meant something, as people in those days tended to be a lot more casual about decorating the flag with unit designations and battle honors and whatnot. And if it's a patch, why put a red patch on a white stripe?
Steve Jacquot

In "The Reading Eagle", Charles J. Adams III gives more details on the history of the flag:

"[...]Another [referring to Betsy Ross' story] legendary banner was the star-spangled one that flew over Baltimore's Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Its creation is rooted not in legend, but in fact. And, its creator was also a Pennsylvania woman a native Pennsylvanian, at least. She was Mary Young, who was born in Philadelphia in 1776. She married John Pickersgill in 1795 and moved with him to Baltimore where she took up what had been her mother's trade. After her husband's untimely death in 1805, Mary set up shop as a signal flag and banner maker for the busy maritime shipping trade in Baltimore harbor. With a respected reputation for her work, Mary Young Pickersgill drew the attention of George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry. With the threat of attack imminent in the summer of 1813, Armistead ordered a flag “so large that the British will have no trouble seeing it from a distance.

"The flag, and the job, was immense. Mary needed the assistance of several family members and hired hands to complete the 30-by-42-foot banner and a smaller garrison flag. The job was completed in six weeks. That attack didn't happen until the summer of 1814, when a young lawyer detained on a British ship watched the siege of Fort McHenry and marveled at the flag's endurance during the Battle of Baltimore. He was, of course, Francis Scott Key, and the rest is history. And, that history comes alive at the Flag House in Baltimore. It is the former residence and shop of Mary Pickersgill, and it is where she died in 1857.

The original Star-Spangled Banner isn't there it's a few miles down I-95 in the Smithsonian Institution. But, the splendid see-through “Great Flag Window” at the Flag House is a full-scale exact representation. It is also the facade of the Star-Spangled Banner Museum that adjoins the Flag House. The circa 1793, National Historic Landmark house is furnished with 18th- and early-19th-century items including several from the Pickersgill family inventory. Opened for guided tours since 1927, it is one of the oldest museums in museum-rich Baltimore.[...]" [no longer available]
Ivan Sache, 19 January 2007

If you take the tour of Ft. McHenry then you will learn the story of the Star Spangled Banner on the night of the British bombardment on Sept. 13th, 1812. It was raining and the garrison flag that Mary Pickersgill had made, already taking a reinforced flag pole as it was, starting absorbing lots of rain water thus increasing its weight. The flag pole began to bend over. So the troops of the fort pulled down the larger flag, then hoisted the smaller storm flag. The large flag was taken into one of the barracks and fires were built under it to help dry the flag. In the morning, before the sun had come up, the rain stopped and the larger flag, now dry, was hoisted back upon the fort's flag pole. Thus when Francis Scott Key say it flying that morning after the night's bombardment, he never knew that it had actually been taken down and a smaller flag hoisted in its place.
Greg Biggs, 19 January 2007

But in the poem, Key writes that he had seen the flag (or rather, a flag) throughout the night, as rockets went off around it. I suppose it would have been easy to tell which flag it was. If it was down during the battle, were the holes in it not caused by the bombardment?
Nathan Lamm, 20 January 2007

This may be somewhat a bit of hyperbole from Key. Considering the range to the fort from the British warships, the rainstorm most of the night, the smoke from the guns of the warships and from the explosions in and over the fort (the black powder used them makes loads of white smoke), and I have pretty good doubts that Key would have been able to see all that much of any flag - and even if he had, the point of his poem was that "A" star spangled banner was still there. Only my conjecture.
Greg Biggs, 22 January 2007

Key (to the best of my knowledge) wrote a poem (entitled "To the Defense of Fort McHenry"). His brother-in-law suggested the poem's rhythm could easily be set to music, an existing piece entitled "To Anacreon in Heaven".
David Kendall, 20 January 2007

Key's point was that the flag (that is, a US flag) was flying over the fort at sunset on September 13, a US flag flew over the fort through the night, and a US flag was still flying when the sun came back up on the morning of September 14. He wouldn't have cared which US flag, and of course it was well understood at the time that flags were replaced in battle--they became too tattered to be serviceable, their poles were shot off, etc. What mattered was that the fort hadn't fallen, which was signified by the presence of the US flag.

As for holes being caused by the bombardment or not, keep in mind that the British opened fire before sunrise on the 13th and kept it up for 25 hours, so the large flag would have been under fire for well over 12 hours--plenty of time to get shot up.

Of course, to Key any flag would have been a "star spangled banner." It's only in retrospect that we apply that term specifically to the big garrison flag. By the way, my recollection of 1830s period regulations is that the storm flag to which Greg refers would have been roughly four times as large (twice as wide and twice as long) as the modern storm flag, approximating the size of the modern post flag, or about 9-10 feet (~3 meters) hoist and something like 18 feet fly.
Joe McMillan, 20 January 2007

Perhaps "Rockets...bombs...gave proof" can be taken to mean not that Key saw the flag- after all, if he couldn't see it at dawn, he probably couldn't see it at night- but that the fact that the British were still firing meant that they knew the "flag was still there," i.e., that the Fort hadn't surrendered. In other words, it was the fact of the bombardment rather than the light it provided that was important, although Key phrased it to fit both contexts.

By morning, the bombardment was over, which meant either the Fort had surrendered or the British given up. Hence the search for the flag.
Nathan Lamm, 23 January 2007

History of the flag at Fort McHenry

1813 Flag was commissioned by Major Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry. It was sewn by a Mrs. Pickersgill of Baltimore. The flag was larger then. Armistead wanted a flag large enough for ships to see it from a distance.
1814 The battle occurred, and the flag won its glory. Armistead was promoted to Lt. Colonel by Madison, and given the flag when he retired.
1818 Armistead died, and legend says that the flag was used in his funeral. Afterwards, his daughter Georgiana Armistead retained possession of the flag.
1824 The flag was used in a reception for General Lafayette. Sometime afterwards, Georgiana gave the flag to her son, Even Appleton.
1860's The flag, ironically, was sent to England for safe keeping during the Civil War.
1873 The flag was displayed in the Charleston Naval Yards, and on June 24th, one of the first photographs was taken of it. The inverted red "V" was on it at that time.
1876 The flag was loaned to the Smithsonian for the Centennial Celebration.
1912 Even Appleton donated the flag to the Smithsonian.
1914 Almari Flowler was commissioned to replace the original "sack cloth" backing with linen.

The staggered row pattern of the stars was standard practice for Naval flags, and American flag appeared in many different designs and numbers of stripes and stars. It was not until 1818 that the design for the flag was standardized by act of Congress. A congressman by the name of Windemer introduced a bill to standardize the flag in 1816, but the bill did not pass until 25 March 1818. The law went into effect on 4 April 1818.

The flag is of a smaller length than originally made because patches were cut from the end for souvenirs.

The red patch has a "B" embroidered on it. It is not known who sewed it there, and it has not been removed. It is the practice of the Smithsonian to keep artifacts intact, and not take them apart. Legend has it that the patch covers the autograph of Lt. Colonel Armistead.

Fort McHenry's Rangers Plowman and Sweadt
Norman G. Rukert, Fort McHenry: Home of the Brave an illustrated history
Smithsonian Museum of American History - Joe Young - flags and banners specialist with the Armed Forces Division

Hugh Pickrel


The Star Spangled Banner that is currently being restored by the Smithsonian does have an upside down "V" or incomplete "A" on one of the white stripes. I do not think anyone can say for sure, but it is believed that the "A" was added in honor of Colonel George Armistead who commanded Fort McHenry. The flag was in his family's possession from his retirement until it was donated to the Smithsonian in 1907.
John Niggley, 25 May 2000