On Saturday many of us will celebrate the 4th of July with family, fireworks and food.
This year, with the pandemic, our celebrations will be a little different. However, flying the flag and celebrating our freedom continues to be what the holiday is all about.
Several years ago the Fun Club toured the Washington D.C. area on a wonderful trip titled Heritage Highlights. Today seems like an appropriate time to reminisce about an exhibit at the Smithsonian that made me stop and take notice. The original Star Spangled Banner is beautifully displayed in the National History Museum which is one of the Smithsonian buildings.
Star Spangled Banner
Do you remember the story of the “Star Spangled Banner”? During the War of 1812, the United States and Great Britain were once again at odds. After the British burned the U.S. Capitol and other buildings in Washington D.C., they set their sights on Baltimore which was America’s third largest city at the time.
Early in the morning of Sept. 13, 1814, British ships began a 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry in the Baltimore harbor. Rockets whistled through the air and bombshells exploded overhead. But the American troops under George Armistead held the fort. By dawn the next day, the British fleet began to withdraw.
Because the British attack coincided with a heavy rainstorm, Fort McHenry had flown a smaller “storm flag” throughout the battle. At dawn, when the British began to retreat, Armistead ordered his men to lower the storm flag and replace it with the huge garrison flag.
Waving proudly over Fort McHenry, the banner could be seen for miles around. It was seen as far away as eight miles down the river where an American lawyer and amateur poet named Francis Scott Key had spent an anxious night on a British ship. He had boarded the ship to negotiate the release of an American civilian prisoner and was detained for the duration of the battle.
When Key saw the American flag soaring above the fort “by the dawn’s early light” of Sept. 14, he knew Fort McHenry had not surrendered. Moved by the sight, he began to compose a poem on the back of a letter he was carrying.
A few days later, Francis Scott Key revised the four verses he had written about the American victory. With the encouragement of friends, he had the poem printed and distributed to every man at the fort and around Baltimore. The words and music were later published under the title “The Star Spangled Banner.”
That majestic flag
And that “Star Spangled Banner” is what many of the Fun Club travelers saw on display during our visit to the National History Museum. I was absolutely amazed at the size of the flag.
Although it’s not quite as large today, this flag was originally a 30x42-foot garrison flag which was the standard size at the time. That’s about a quarter of the size of a modern basketball court.
The flag was given to the family of Lt. Col. George Armistead who was the commander and hero of Fort McHenry during the bombardment. The flag remained in the Armistead family for 90 years.
Why is the flag smaller today than when it was made? Through the years, the Armistead family gave snippings of the flag as souvenirs and gifts. In fact, over two hundred square feet of the original Star-Spangled Banner were given away, including one of the stars. In the early 1900s, the Armistead descendants were concerned about the flag’s deteriorating condition and in 1912 they donated the flag to the Smithsonian.
The flag has undergone several preservation attempts through the years and the most recent effort by the Smithsonian was launched in the 1990s. The flag was moved to a new conservation lab where museum visitors could watch the preservation project through a huge 50-foot glass wall. The goal was not to ‘fix’ the flag, but rather to prevent further deterioration.
The extensive preservation project was completed in 2008 and now the Star Spangled Banner is beautifully displayed in a darkened chamber the size of a small house. The massive flag is laid on a platform that tilts because it’s too fragile to ever hang again. But with the special lighting, it seems to glow in the dark. It’s an impressive and not-to-be-missed exhibit if you’re planning to visit the D.C. area.