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The most beloved flag of all

The most beloved flag of all

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Before the successful defense of Fort McHenry the American flag was little more than a military real-estate marker. But after Britain’s assault on Sept. 14, 1814, when the red white and blue colors defiantly attested to whom the victory had gone, a national icon — the first of the young nation — was born.

Mary Pickersgill’s team of seamstresses sewed two flags for the fort during the summer of 1813. One was a large garrison flag nearly one-fourth the size of a basketball court, and the second was a smaller, storm flag. The larger flag was requisitioned by Major George Armistead to be large enough that “the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.”

And see it they did, as did others on that September day in 1814, when the defiant wave of fabric not only indicated that Baltimore had miraculously survived Britain’s bombardment, but that a change was likewise occurring in the human fabric of the infant nation the flag represented.

Caught between the warring nations of France and Britain, America had suffered a decade of embargoes and blockades that crippled its fragile economy until the northern, merchant-driven states were threatening secession.

For two years, the states along the Canadian border and along the Atlantic coast had been bitterly assailed. During the summer of 1813, British forces meted out the most horrid atrocities upon Hampton, Virginia’s most defenseless citizens.

The Defense of Fort McHenry (Star-Spangled Banner)

O! say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

In 1814, Europe subdued Napoleon, and as peace negotiations began in Ghent, Great Britain, released its battle-tested soldiers upon America. British ships pounded the Chesapeake region, plundering and burning what they could not carry.

In August, British forces stormed Washington D.C., ransacking and burning its grand Capitol, the President’s House, and other symbols of the republic. Three weeks later the British armada moved to the Patapsco River near Baltimore. Some thought the young republic might not survive.

One can easily imagine Francis Scott Key’s worry and fear. He had been welcomed aboard the British flagship, anchored in the Patapsco River, but after hearing the British plans to torch Baltimore, he soon found himself detained.

Was it the atrocities committed at Hampton that inspired this letter written to his friend, John Randolph of Virginia?

“To make my feelings still more acute, the admiral had intimated his fears that the town must be burned; and I was sure that if taken, it would be given up to plunder. I have reason to believe that such a promise was given to their soldiers. It was filled with women and children!”

The severe winds and rain of a rolling storm had forced McHenry to lower the garrison flag, replacing it with the smaller, less visible storm flag. But when the assault ceased and the winds calmed, Major Armistead ordered the garrison flag hoisted once more, and upon seeing it, Key recorded his joy:

“I hope I shall never cease to feel the warmest gratitude when I think of this most manifest deliverance. It seems to have given me a higher idea of the ‘forbearance, long-suffering & tender mercy’ of God than I had ever before conceived.”

Moved by the moment, he removed a letter from his pocket upon which he penned a description of the event in a poem titled “Defence of Fort McHenry.”

This poem struck a chord with the American people, attesting not only that the infant republic had survived Britain’s best shot, but it had finally arrived as a united people as well. The poem became the “Star- Spangled Banner” anthem, and Americans would never see their flag the same way again.

In 1997, Christopher George, a Baltimore journalist/author, brought his British uncle to Fort McHenry. There, they met with Scott Sheads, the Historian of Fort McHenry, who explained, “The American flag has a special symbolism that no other nation’s flag has. It was the first American icon; the first time the nation had come together.”

The British gentleman agreed, admitting that no other country reveres its flag quite the way the people of the United States reveres theirs. His nephew, Mr. George said, “perhaps it’s because the flags of other countries have evolved over thousands of years, while the American flag and this nation were born at the same time.”

I had the privilege of chatting with Sheads in the enlisted men’s barracks of Fort McHenry where he further explained the singular affect this flag had on American patriotism and our national identity. He attested that two-thirds of the soldiers assigned to Fort McHenry had been born on foreign soil, but that after Sept. 14, 1814, we became a united people “under one symbol of freedom,” the American flag.

As the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the "Star Spangled Banner" draws near, may we all do our best to hold true to the purposes it achieved in 1814 when it became our symbol of unity and freedom.

Laurie LC Lewis is the author of the award-winning "Free Men" and "Dreamers" historical fiction series. "Oh Say Can You See?" Vol. 4, covers the writing of the "Star- Spangled Banner." Vol. 5, "In God Is Our Trust," is set for a summer 2011 release.

Laura (lc) Lewis


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