Monumentally Speaking . . .
Christopher T. George

Birth of a National Icon
Fort McHenry

O n a cold morning in early January, my uncle, Douglas Matchett, visiting my family from England, and I stood with Fort McHenry's ranger historian Scott Sheads on the parade ground of the fort waiting for the mayor of Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke, and the fifth graders of Francis Scott Key Elementary to arrive for the premiere of the fort's new program, The "Twilight's Last Gleaming," as part of the City of Baltimore's Bicentennial.

Douglas, Scott, and I chatted about the special symbolism of the "Star Spangled Banner." Scott pointed out,"'The American flag has a special symbolism to Americans that no other nation's flag has. It was the first American icon, the first time the country had come together."

My uncle, now aged 82, has lived for a number of years in Germany as well as,in England. He agreed with Scott's assessment - no other country reveres its flag quite the way the people of the United States revere theirs. I remarked, "Perhaps it's because the flags of other countries have evolved over thousands of years, while the American flag and this nation were borm at the same time."

At that moment, a voice blurted out over Scott's walkie talkie, and the Mayor of Baltimore, the fort's superintendent, Cathryn (Kay-ci) Cook, the schoolchildren of Francis Scott Key Elementary, and TV cameramen and media representatives came tramping through the fort's sally-port onto the parade ground. Kay-ci Cook told the children that Fort McHenry is one of 370 national parks where American history is celebrated but that the fort holds a special place as its first national monument and its only historic shrine. Alan Waldon of the Patriots of Fort McHenry (wearing- appropriately ! -a Star Spangled Banner tie and a gray derby hat) instructed the children, "We have to remember who we are and where we came from in order to realize where we are now and where we're going to go." To my mind, Waldon's admonition is important to remember not only in terms of the flag. History should not be forgotten. It makes us what we are.

Scott Sheads took the group onto the windswept ramparts of the fort. He told the children, "Baltimore City has something very special. The flag that flew over Fort McHenry (in the Battle of Baltimore of 1814) was something that has united our country people of all colors and backgrounds." He added, "What has happened under the flag has not always been good, but it is a flag that gives us the freedom to disagree with each other, no matter who we are or where we are." In the early years of Baltimore, people of all backgrounds and heritages mingled in Baltimore - Germans, French, Swiss, English, Africans. The nation's flag helped to unite them all under one symbol of freedom. (The commander of Fort McHenry during the British bombardment, Major George Armistead, for example, came from a German family)

Scott told the children that at the end of August 1814, the nation's capital of Washington, D.C. lay in ruins after a British army commanded by Major General Robert Ross defeated the American militia at Bladensburg and put the public buildings of the city to the torch. Three weeks later, it would be Baltimore's turn to be bombarded by the British. Scott said, "It seemed this young American republic of ours would be finished."

Incredibly, through a gruelling 23- hour bombardment from early on September 13 until dawn on September 14, Fort McHenry held out. A young American lawyer, Francis Scott Key, on board a truce ship to negotiate the release of a doctor who had been arrested by the British, was moved to write a poem, which he titled "Defence of Fort McHenry ."

Scott explained, 'It was the first time that someone had put down in words their feelings about their country and the flag ." Impressed by the poem, Key's brother-in law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson, himself a commander of militia artillery at the fort during the bombardment, rushed it into print. The poem was put to the music of a British drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven." A month later, in a playbill of October 17, it was announced that after a play at the Baltimore Theatre, "Mr. Hardinge will sing a much admired new song, written by a gentleman of Maryland, in commemoration of the gallant defence of Fort McHenry, called The Star Spangled Banner." Just over II6 years later, on March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed an act into law to make "The Star Spangled Banner" the national anthem of the United States. The fifth graders were able to help unfurl the giant 3O-by 42-foot 15-star flag that is a replica of the huge flag that flew over the fort in I814. I ran upstairs to a balcony above the 1814 enlisted men's quarters with a Channel 13 WJZ-TV camera man to take a photograph of the unfurling of the flag. The children and the dignitaries fought to control the flag in the breeze. Children laughed as the wide stripes and stripes bucked in the wind in their hands.

The day proved too windy to fly the giant "Star Spangled Banner" over the fort. Therefore, following the instructions of ranger Scott Sheads, two fifth graders and Mayor Schmoke hoisted the smaller 17- by 25-foot storm flag. Interestingly, as I remarked to one of the fifth graders' teachers, Baltimore flag maker Mary Pickersgill's commission in summer 1913 to make the original Star Spangled Banner included the stipulation that she make a smaller 17-by 25-foot storm flag. Because the days of the September bombardment of Fort McHenry, September 13-14, 1814, were rainy and windy with periods of torrential rain, it is likely that it was this smaller storm flag that flew over the fort on the morning of September 14 when Key wrote the poem that became our national anthem.

Scott Sheads, whose most recent book Fort McHenry , published last year by Nautical Aviation Publishing Company, is a best seller, theorizes that because of the bad weather and the distance that Key was from the fort during the bombardment, he did not see the flag as many accounts and paintings would have us believe. The British bombardment fleet was located near the present day Francis Scott Key Bridge, about two miles below the fort, but it is probable that Key's ship was eight miles further out, in Old Roads Bay, off North Point, where the British support ships and troop transports were anchored.

Scott maintains that the words of "The Star Spangled Banner" hold the clue to the actual situation: "The Rockets' red glare, the Bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night, that our Flag was still there. .." in other words, because the British were still bombarding the fort, Francis Scott Key knew that it had not been captured and that the Stars and Stripes must still be flying. The story that ranger Scott Sheads told the fifth graders in January will be told throughout 1997 as part of Baltimore's Bicentennial. Every Saturday at 4:00 P.M. through mid-March, the half-hour flag changing program, The "Twilight's Last Gleaming" will be held at the fort. Thereafter, it will be held every day at 4:00 PM. The public will have an opportunity to partake in the unfurling of the giant "Star Spangled Banner" and to help hoist the flag over the fort. They will hear a talk on the importance of the flag and its significance to the City of Baltimore and to our nation.

Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine is located at the foot of Fort Avenue in Baltimore harbor. Call 410-962-4290 for hours. There is a nominal admission charge.

[Device] Christopher T. George is a local free-lance writer and poet and the author of the recent picture book on our city, Baltimore Close Up, from Arcadia Publishers, on sale at local bookstores.

Questions or comments about this article for Mr. George.

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