The Star-Spangled Banner is not just the name of our National Anthem, it is also the name of the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that turned into America’s song. In July 1813, Major General George Armistead was the commander of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. He went to the commander of Baltimore defenses to request a huge flag. “We, sir, are ready at Fort McHenry to defend Baltimore against invading by the enemy…except that we have no suitable ensign to display over the Star Fort, and it is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.”
The Making of the Star-Spangled Banner
The commander approved the request and Armistead went to work. He hired a 29-year-old widow who was also a professional flag maker, Mary Young Pickersgill. The plans called for a flag measuring 30 by 42 feet. It was to have 15 stars and 15 stripes to represent each of the states at that time.
Mary, along with her daughter, three nieces, and a 13-year-old indentured servant, spent ten hours a day for six weeks working on the flag. It took about 300 yards of English wool bunting to complete while the stars, measuring two feet in diameter, were made from cotton – an item considered to be a luxury at the time. At first, they worked on the flag in Mary’s home, now the Flag House private museum, until they needed more room to work and moved the project to Claggett’s brewery across the street. The finished flag was delivered to the fort on August 9, 1813.
For her efforts, Mary was paid $405.90. She was also hired to make a smaller version, known as a storm flag, for $168.54. This smaller flag was the one that was actually used during the battle and the larger one was raised the next morning after the battle was won.
The Path of the Flag
The Armistead family ended up in possession of the Star-Spangled Banner. After Fort Henry’s commander died, his wife, Louisa, inherited it. There is a red upside-down “V” sewn onto the flag, which many suspect Louisa had stitched, intending it to become the letter “A.” Historians credit her with coming up with the idea of giving away pieces of the flag in her husband’s memory to soldiers who had defended the fort while serving under his command.
Over the years, the family continued the tradition of giving away pieces of the flag until 1880, with Armistead’s grandson giving away the last piece. A search has gone on for decades trying to locate these missing pieces. Some are owned by the American History Museum while others are probably in private collections. There is still one star that has never been found. “There’s a legend that the star was buried with one of the soldiers from Fort McHenry; another says that it was given to Abraham Lincoln,” said Kathleen Kendrick, the curator for the Star-Spangled Banner preservation project. “But no real evidence has surfaced to support these stories, and the true fate of the star remains one of the Smithsonian’s greatest unsolved mysteries.”
The flag eventually made its way to the Smithsonian, albeit smaller than its original size and damaged from years at the fort and wear and tear. In 1914, efforts were put underway to restore it, starting with the canvas backing that had been added in 1873. The museum hired Amelia Fowler to restore it, and with the help of ten needlewomen, they finished the project in eight weeks. For her efforts, Fowler was paid $1,243.
Two centuries later, and the flag that inspired America’s National Anthem has survived and can still be viewed.