Major George Armistead wanted a flag so big that the attacking British would have no trouble seeing it. He had just arrived at Fort McHenry with orders to take command of the fort that guarded the water entrance to Baltimore.
Just 33, Armistead had distinguished himself at the capture of Fort George from the British at the mouth of the Niagara River on May 27, 1813. When he presented the captured British flags to president James Madison in Washington, the president ordered him to take command of Fort McHenry.
Armistead immediately commissioned Mary Pickersgill, a Baltimore flag maker, to sew two flags for the fort: a smaller storm flag (17 by 25 feet) and a larger garrison flag (30 by 42 feet). Picture its size, nearly half the size of a basketball court. Mary was assisted by her daughter, two nieces, and an indentured African-American girl. Two months later on August 19, she delivered the flags, and Armistead raised the larger garrison flag to fly over the fort.
On September 13, 1814, British warships attacked, pouring shells and rockets onto Fort McHenry, relentlessly pounding the fort for 25 hours. The bombardment followed the British attack on Washington, D.C.
A week earlier, Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old American lawyer, had boarded the flagship of the British fleet on Chesapeake Bay in hopes of persuading the British to release a friend who had been arrested. Key succeeded, but because he knew about the impending attack on Baltimore, the British refused to release him. Key watched on September 13 as the attack on Fort McHenry began eight miles away.
He was certain the British would win, but as the first light of dawn arrived on September 14, he saw the American flag, not the British Union Jack, flying over the fort, announcing an American victory.
Key put his thoughts on paper while still aboard the ship, setting his words to the tune of a popular English song. His poem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” appeared in print across the country. More than a century later in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order designating it the national anthem of the United States.
American flags were everywhere when I was growing up in World War II Baltimore. Feelings of national pride were a given. My brother and a cousin served in the military, as did many of my neighbors. Our family considered ourselves patriotic, loyal Americans, but we never had an American flag flying in front of our house.
Last week, I bought a 3-by-5 foot American flag that I intend to mount on a pole in front of my house. It’s not nearly as large as Mary Pickersgill’s huge star spangled banner, but it makes the same proud statement. Something inside me is driving me at this moment to declare publicly my loyalty to and pride in a nation that is again under attack, not by British warships but by a corrupt political party and its leader.
I have never felt prouder to be an American.