Memorial Day: Oh, Say Can You See?

Star Spangled Banner
This is the original flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814, inspiring Francis Scott Key to compose the poem that became America's national anthem.

For this Memorial Day, I thought I’d share this image of the original Star Spangled Banner, photographed in 1873 in the Boston Navy Yard. The image is on display in the U.S.S. Constitution’s museum. I photographed it on a trip to Boston last year. (Scroll down to see the full image.)

The Smithsonian Institute, which has possessed the flag since 1912, says that it originally measured 30 feet by 42 feet, but it has been reduced over time to 30 feet by 34 feet. Each star is about two feet in diameter. It has been on exhibit at the National Museum of American History since 1964.

The Smithsonian website tells the story of the flag’s significance.

During the War of 1812, the British suffered several naval losses at the hands of the young United States, but after the defeat of the French Emperor Napoleon in 1814, the Brits no longer needed to divided their attentions. They could focus their war efforts on the Americans.

That led to the sacking of Washington, D.C., and the burning of the U.S. Capitol and the White House. President James Madison barely escaped. The British then set their sites on Fort McHenry. Once it was sacked, the British Navy could enter Baltimore Harbor.

According to the Smithsonian:

At 6:30 AM on September 13, 1814, [Admiral Alexander Cochrane, the British naval commander] began a 25-hour bombardment of the fort. Rockets whistled through the air and burst into flame wherever they struck. Mortars fired 10- and 13-inch bombshells that exploded overhead in showers of fiery shrapnel. Major [George] Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry and its defending force of 1,000 troops, ordered his men to return fire, but their guns couldn’t reach the enemy’s ships. When British ships advanced on the afternoon of the 13th, however, American gunners badly damaged them, forcing them to pull back out of range. All through the night, Armistead’s men continued to hold the fort, refusing to surrender. That night British attempts at a diversionary attack also failed, and by dawn they had given up hope of taking the city. At 7:30 on the morning of September 14, Admiral Cochrane called an end to the bombardment, and the British fleet withdrew. The successful defense of Baltimore marked a turning point in the War of 1812. Three months later, on December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent formally ended the war.

Because the British attack had coincided with a heavy rainstorm, Fort McHenry had flown its smaller storm flag throughout the battle. But at dawn, as the British began to retreat, Major Armistead ordered his men to lower the storm flag and replace it with the great garrison flag. As they raised the flag, the troops fired their guns and played “Yankee Doodle” in celebration of their victory. Waving proudly over the fort, the banner could be seen for miles around—as far away as a ship anchored eight miles down the river, where an American lawyer named Francis Scott Key had spent an anxious night watching and hoping for a sign that the city—and the nation—might be saved.

Key witnessed the unsuccessful British bombardment that he memorialized in “The Star Spangled Banner” (“the rockets red glare / the bombs bursting in air”) from a truce ship eight miles off shore. Key was temporarily detained on the vessel while attempting to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes, a British prisoner of war. Beanes, a local Maryland physician, was accused of being responsible for the arrests of British stragglers and deserters during the campaign against Washington, D.C. He watched “the perilous fight” alongside Key and John Stuart Skinner, the regional U.S. Prisoner Exchange Agent, who was also detained on the truce ship.

Together, they watched the United States position itself permanently onto the world stage as the land of the free and the home of the brave.

It’s well to recall that little-remembered, yet pivotal episode in American history, which proved to the world that the adolescent American nation was one that, for all time, had to be reckoned with.

And while I am at it, a shout-out to my fifth great-uncle Bugbee Feathers, a New York militiaman and veteran of “the Eddy expedition” during the War of 1812. He and other men from his region were mustered and sent out on the march to repel a British invasion of New York state, timed to coincide with the British coastal attacks.

Led by General Gilbert Eddy, that group reached Granville, N.Y., on Sept. 16, 1814. They went no farther. That’s when word reached them that the British had already been defeated in the Battle of Lake Champlain on September 11. So their warrior services wouldn’t be needed.

Bugbee and his buddies were then discharged. Presumably, he went back home to Sand Lake, N.Y., in Rensselaer County. He died in 1864.

Good show, Uncle Bugbee!

Star Spangled Banner

This is the original flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814, inspiring Francis Scott Key to compose the poem that became America’s national anthem.


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