The War of 1812 between the Americans and British lasted for three years. Only a few weeks after the British burned Washington D.C., destroying the Capitol, the President’s House, and the Treasury, they headed toward Baltimore. The only thing that stood in their way was Fort McHenry, which lay on an island in the Chesapeake Bay.
On September 13, 1814, the fort was attacked by sixteen British ships. It seemed likely that the British would be victorious. Major George Armistead, commander of the fort, wasn’t going to give up without a fight, which went on throughout the night. The British lobbed 200-pound bombshells at the fort. The bombshells often went off in the air and the sky was red and smoky. Would the British win?
Major Armistead knew that Fort McHenry would probably be a target for the British navy. He requested a flag be made to fly over the fort. He wanted the flag to be huge – big enough for the British to see from miles away.
Mary Young Pickersgill, a widowed flagmaker, was hired to sew the flag. With the help of several family members, she completed the flag in six weeks. The flag measured 42 feet long by 30 feet high – the size of a very, very large room. Each stripe was two feet wide and the stars measured two feet from point to point. Mary used 300 yards of English wool bunting cloth to make the flag. She was paid $405.90 for her work.
A few days before the attack, a young American lawyer, Francis Scott Key, boarded a British ship to negotiate the release of an elderly doctor. The British agreed, but kept Francis and the doctor under guard so they couldn’t warn the Americans of the impending attack.
All through the night of the attack, Francis stood aboard a ship, watching the attack on the fort. At times, it was hard to see clearly through the smoke, but it was very noisy. He knew that as long as he heard noise, the fighting continued and the fort hadn’t surrendered.
At dawn, the fighting stopped. Francis was afraid that the British had won. As the sun came up and the smoke cleared, he saw the American flag – the huge American flag – still waving proudly. He was overcome with happiness.
That night in his hotel room, Francis wrote a poem to express how he felt. A few days later, the poem was published in a Baltimore newspaper, along with instructions to sing it to the tune of “Anacreon in Heaven,” a well-known song at the time. People loved the song!
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson decreed that the song, now known as, ”The Star Spangled Banner” be played at all state occasions. In 1931, it became our national anthem.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: What happened to the flag that Mary worked so hard to make?
Answer: The Armistead family owned it for many years. Sometimes they cut pieces off the flag to give to family members or honored soldiers. Eventually the flag was donated to the Smithsonian. The flag has recently undergone a renovation. The entire flag can be seen at the Smithsonian Museum.
Visit an online exhibit of the Star-Spangled Banner. Here, you’ll find pictures, games, and interesting facts about the flag.