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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The flag that saved Baltimore

Major George Armistead was one of five brothers who fought in the War of 1812. A veteran of the Quasi War with France in the waning years of the 18th century, he received a promotion to major in the 3rd Artillery Regiment on March 3, 1813. He was a hero in the capture of Fort George near the mouth of the Niagara River in Canada on May 27, 1813.

He delivered the captured British flags to President Madison in Washington, who immediately put Major Armistead in charge of Fort McHenry, which protected the Baltimore harbor. Designed by Frenchman Jean Foncin and named for the second Secretary of War, James McHenry, the post and its commander faced the severest test on September 13, 1814, and passed with flying colors.

Those colors were red, white and blue, stitched together by Mary Young Pickersgill, a widow who had learned flagmaking from her mother, Rebecca Young, who had begun making flags -- Continental Standards -- during the Revolutionary War.

The War of 1812 was the culmination of decades of frustration in the relations between Great Britain and the United States. The British did not like that the United States wanted to annex Canada and supported France in the Napoleonic Wars. The Americans did not like the British seizing their merchant ships and the British presence in Canada.

Armistead was born on April 10, 1780, in Newmarket, Caroline County, Virginia. He rose through the military ranks and married Louisa Hughes of Baltimore. Her father was a silversmith. His assignment as commander of Fort McHenry meant he could stay in Baltimore with his wife. The post was in a five-sided star shape. Its main defense was artillery,

Upon taking command, he had to shore up the defenses. He needed no Paul Revere to tell him the British were coming. Victory over Napoleon meant Great Britain could concentrate on punishing America.

But as he made his preparations, Armistead had one complaint to Major General Samuel Smith, a U.S. senator who was also head of the Maryland militia. Armistead wrote Smith: "We, sir, are ready at Fort McHenry to defend Baltimore against invading by the enemy. That is to say, we are ready 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 seeing it from a distance."

Smith had an answer. A little while later, Armistead and Smith led a party that called upon called upon Missus Pickersgill at her home on the corner of Albemarle and East Pratt Streets in downtown Baltimore. They wanted her to sew two flags of 15 stars and 15 stripes, although there were 18 states at the time. From 1795 to 1818, this was the official flag. After that it went back to 13 stripes and one star for each state. One Fort McHenry flag would be a garrison flag of 30 feet by 42 feet, and the other a storm flag of 17 feet by 25 feet.

This was the commission of a lifetime for a 37-year-old woman who had been widowed at 29. Not only had her mother sewn flags in the Revolution, but her uncle, Colonel Benjamin Flower, saved the Liberty Bell by moving it to Allentown ahead of the British capture of Philadelphia in 1777.

This time, the British would not take Baltimore.

Mary Young Pickersgill's work on this project was described in a letter in 1876 from her daughter to Armistead's daughter: "The flag being so very large, mother was obliged to obtain permission from the proprietors of Claggetts brewery which was in our neighborhood, to spread it out in their malt house; and I remember seeing my mother down on the floor, placing the stars: after the completion of the flag, she superintended the topping of it, having it fastened in the most secure manner to prevent its being torn away by (cannon) balls: the wisdom of her precaution was shown during the engagement: many shots piercing it, but it still remained firm to the staff. Your father (Col. Armistead) declared that no one but the maker of the flag should mend it, and requested that the rents should merely be bound around."

Well, a brewery is a fitting place to create the flag that inspired a national anthem based a drinking song.

The flag was made of British wool and weighed 50 pounds. It took 11 soldiers to raise the flag. The Army paid her $405.90 for the garrison flag, and $168.54 for the smaller one.

A year later, the flag's real purpose would be put into action. Armistead's cunning and heroism are what the flag came to represent. He had the militia sink 22 merchant vessels in Baltimore harbor to keep the British from circumventing his fort. Then he set up his artillery and waited. At 6 a.m. on September 13, 1814, the British began shelling the fort from outside the range of Armistead's artillery. This frustrated the major who tried everything he could to increase the range of his fire. By 10 a.m., he gave up and decided to sit back and wait for the British to run out of ammunition.

And they did. For the longer range of the British guns and rockets was of little use to them. Their rockets and guns were terribly inaccurate. In 25 hours of shelling, the British managed to kill four soldiers and a civilian woman. They also wounded 25 Americans. The Americans managed to wound one British sailor. That was it. This epic battle was a dud.

The battle was fought in a rainstorm. The rain was the reason Fort McHenry flew the smaller storm flag instead of the garrison flag. But as the sun rose on the morning of September 14, 1814, Major Armistead made sure he had 11 men hoisting the big flag -- the Fort McHenry Flag. And as the flag was raised, he fired cannons to alert the British to the new dawn.

Our flag was still there.

The sight was breath taking. After hours and hours of bombardment, the banner yet waved.

Aboard a truce ship, which was to take him to meet with the British to discuss prisoner exchanges, 29-year-old lawyer Francis Scott Key saw the flag raised at daylight and knew the nation had won the battle and the war. His account in "The Star Spangled Banner" tells of the shock and awe of seeing that flag rise amid the smoke along the water.

This was a psy ops victory. Major Armistead prepared for this moment when he had written General Smith requesting the flag. The battle was won in the planning stage. And maybe the rain was just an excuse to fly the smaller flag, knowing that flying a larger banner the next day would have an even greater and more devastating effect on the British mind.

Key wrote his ode to the battle in the style of Anacreon, an ancient Greek poet who wrote drinking songs and was popular among hard drinking American writers in the early 19th century. Edgar Allan Poe was among those who had written poems in this style. If only Key had spent less time in the tavern and more time in church, we might have a national anthem we could sing.

But the heroics of Fort McHenry were worthy of a national anthem. President Madison promoted Armistead to lieutenant colonel, backdating the promotion to the day before the battle. However, historian Benson Lossing said the preparations for the battle did Armistead in, weakening his heart. Armistead died on April 25, 1818, at 38. He received a large funeral from a grateful city with a burial with full military honors at Old St. Paul’s Cemetery in downtown Baltimore.

His flagmaker Mary Young Pickersgill received a great deal of attention -- and orders. By 1820 she was able to buy the house she rented. No longer having to worry about money, Missus Pickersgill became active in chairties and became president of the Impartial Female Humane Society, which helped the poor receive food and schooling.

As for Francis Scott Key, his story and glory are far more known. But he really did not do anything. Armistead came up with the idea and Pickersgill made the flag. But Key gets all the credit.

This is why people become writers.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.


  1. And look at the state of Baltimore today.

  2. McHenry's name was James, not Kames, but you have told this story well!

  3. Thanks. Fixed. Now to bang my head on the wall