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Experiencing America
Robert J. Yanacek

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A Personal Pilgrimage To The Star-Spangled Banner
(November 19, 2007)

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For as long as I can remember, I have always been moved by the playing of our National Anthem and equally fascinated by the the story of how Francis Scott Key was inspired to write its lyrics. Even now, the thought of Key straining his eyes to see through the darkness and the early morning's mist, hoping for the sight of his Country's flag, sends a chill up my spine.

As a young boy, I learned a great deal about that historic event in our Nation's history—how less than thirty-five years after our independence, the very existence of our Country was in peril. The British, having just burned Washington, were advancing towards Baltimore to decisively defeat American forces. Whether or not our Nation would survive depended on the outcome of that engagement. Guarding the approach to Baltimore by sea stood Fort McHenry—with her massive flag, defiantly waving in the breeze. In the ensuing

Robert J. Yanacek

battle, American forces triumphed, and our Nation was preserved. The sight of the flag which flew over Fort McHenry that morning inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words to what would become our National Anthem.

Having repeatedly read that story, I vowed that one day I would go see that flag—the Star-Spangled Banner—at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

The Star-Spangled Banner at the Smithsonian As the years passed, I never forgot about my promise.

Unfortunately, my career as a United States Marine and my young family took priority. Even when I was sent to Washington by the Marine Corps on official business, I was always far too busy to make it over to the Smithsonian during visiting hours. Nevertheless, I remembered my vow and looked for an opportunity to fulfill my promise.

My chance finally came on July 5, 1991 while I was stationed in central Pennsylvania. I had received a few days off of work, and taking advantage of this opportunity, my wife and I decided to take our children to Washington.

As we walked the area between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, I slyly suggested that we go visit a few of the museums.

After visiting the Smithsonian's Natural History and Aviation museums, my long wait was nearly over as we arrived at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Entering, I immediately was drawn to large gallery with the realization that my quest would soon be fulfilled.

Despite the fact that it was a hot Fourth of July weekend and Washington was packed with visitors, the immense gallery was remarkably quiet and un-crowded.

Facing me on a enormous but fairly plain wood-

colored screen was a large vertical outline of the Star-Spangled Banner. I mistakenly though that this was the actual flag, and although I was very impressed by its gargantuan size, I must admit that I was a bit disappointed—was this what I had waited for so long and driven so far to see? As looked about me to see if I could locate a museum employee to inquire, the light seemed dim and our National Anthem began to play. Instinctively, I turned around towards the music, assuming the position of attention. As I did, the large wood-colored screen began to part and the Star-Spangled Banner slowly came into view under the dim lighting. Gazing in absolute amazement at the enormous flag with its faded stars and stripes I realized the irony of that specific moment in my life. Like Francis Scott Key, I too had waited for the sight of that flag, uncertain as to the the outcome—and like Key my wait had been rewarded! I can honestly say that at that point in time I was overtaken with the joy that Key must have felt as the dawn broke on that morning, so long ago, when the sight of the Star-Spangled Banner came into view over the ramparts of Fort McHenry.
For the next few minutes I continued to gaze in awe at the Star-Spangled Banner, pausing only momentarily to tell my infant son, who I was tightly holding in my arms by this point, about this flag and why it was so special. Sadly, all too soon the screen that had concealed the flag began to close. I remained transfixed until the Star-Spangled Banner was once again cloaked by the wood-colored screen.
With my pilgrimage completed, my family and I moved on to the other treasures contained within the various Smithsonian museums. However, not even viewing and contemplating the value of the Hope Diamond had such a profound effect on me—the sight of my beloved Star-Spangled Banner was far more precious.

I will always cherish those brief few minutes I shared with the Star-Spangled Banner and my family. I strongly urge all Americans planning a trip to Washington to take the time to stop and visit with her. She is truly a sight to see, and I can assure you that you won't be disappointed.
In closing, I have compiled some interesting historical facts on the Star-Spangled Banner that I would like to share so that you too, might better understand and appreciate her significance to our Nation.

The Largest American Flag Ever Flown In Battle
To the below left, the Star-Spangled Banner is shown in the exact proportions and pattern of the original. Note the slightly canted position of its fifteen stars and that it has fifteen stripes—two more than modern American flags. For the purpose of illustrating its enormous size, it is shown to scale with a six-foot man, the smaller 17 by 25 foot storm flag which flew over Fort McHenry during the battle, and a modern 3 by 5-foot flag commonly displayed at American homes.

The Star-Spangled Banner

Six-Foot ManThe Smaller Storm FlagSix-Foot Man

A Modern 3X5-Foot Flag

Facts About The Star Spangled Banner

  • The term "Star-Spangled Banner" commonly refers to the flag that Francis Scott Key viewed over Fort McHenry on the morning of September 14, 1814 following the bombardment of the fort by the British.

  • The Star-Spangled Banner was commissioned in early July of 1813 by Major George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry. Major Armistead provided instructions that the flag should be " large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance."

  • The Star-Spangled Banner was constructed by flag-maker Mary Young Pickersgill of Baltimore, Maryland during July and August of 1813. Mary was assisted by her 13-year old daughter, Caroline, and nieces Eliza and Margaret Young. Mary may also have received help from her mother, Rebecca Young.

  • Work on the flag was initially performed in Mary's home but had to be moved to the malthouse of Clagget's Brewery for final assembly due to the large size of the flag.

  • Mary was paid $405.90 for her work—a considerable amount in 1813.
    The Star-Spangled Banner consists of fifteen alternating red and white stripes and fifteen stars on a blue union. It was constructed of red, white and blue wool bunting, with stars of cotton fabric. Linen thread was used to sew it together.

  • Each stripe is two feet in width, and each star, two feet in diameter. The entire flag measured 30 feet by 42 feet and weighed in excess of 150 pounds.

  • Unlike modern flags in which the rays of the stars point vertically, the rays of the stars on the first, third and fifth rows are canted slightly towards the "fly" end, while the stars on the second and fourth rows are canted slightly towards the "hoist" end.

  • By virtue of its size, the Star-Spangled Banner is considered to be a "Holiday" or "Garrison" flag. Flags of these type are only flown on Sundays, holidays, or special occasions during periods of good weather.

  • The Star-Spangled Banner was not flown during the 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry—a smaller 17 by 25-foot version of the same pattern known as a "Storm Flag," was used since the British attack coincided with a heavy rainstorm. "Storm Flags" are traditionally used during periods of inclement weather to preserve larger flags from excessive wear. Sadly, the fate of this flag is unknown although it can be reasonably speculated that it was used until it was unserviceable, and then disposed.

  • Key witnessed the attack on Fort McHenry from a distance of about eight miles aboard a small American sloop anchored in Baltimore Harbor. Key, along with Colonel John Skinner, had sailed under a flag of truce to the British fleet intent on securing the release of Doctor William Beanes. Beanes, a patriot and a friend of Key, had been arrested by the British in the aftermath of the battle and burning of Washington. Following successful negotiations with Admiral Cockburn of the Royal Navy, Key, Skinner and Beanes were permitted to return to their ship—however as they had knowledge of the location and strength of the British fleet, they were not permitted to return to Baltimore until after the attack was completed.

  • The Star-Spangled Banner was hoisted over Fort McHenry the morning of Wednesday, September 14, 1814 following the cessation of the British bombardment to signal the American victory. Aboard his sloop in the darkness, Key wondered what the silence of the guns meant—had the fort fallen? He anxiously peered into the darkness and awaited the dawn to see whether the American flag still flew over the fort. The sight of this flag in the light of the early morning inspired him to write a poem which he entitled "Defence of Fort McHenry." This poem served as the lyrics to our National Anthem.


Major George Armistead
Major George Armistead


Mary Young Pickersgill
Mary Young Pickersgill


Making the Flag
Making the Flag

Fort McHenry
Fort McHenry

Francis Scott Key
Francis Scott Key

Key Views Bombardment
Key Intently Watches
  • Key wrote his poem on the back of a letter he had in his pocket. He completed writing it at the Indian Queen Hotel shortly after being permitted to return to Baltimore by the British the evening of September 16, 1814.

  • The climax of Key's poem and our National Anthem—the point where he sees the Star-Spangled Banner still flying over Fort McHenry signaling the American victory—does not occur until the fifth line of the little known second verse. The more familiar first verse tells only about the attack on the fort and Key wondering and hoping on the outcome of the battle. In the seldom-used third verse, Key expresses his bitterness towards the British, then offers a prayer of thanksgiving and a petition for the future in the fourth verse. The words to Key's poem are:

Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore dimly seen thro' the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash'd out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O, thus be it ever when freemen shall stand,
Between their lov'd homes and the war's desolation;
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land
Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserv'd us as a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust"
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

  • Key's brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson, was given the poem and immediately realized that its words fit a popular English melody "To Anacreon in Heaven." Nicholson took the poem to a Baltimore printer on September 17, 1814 and had a number of copies printed.

  • On September 20, 1814 Key's poem was printed by both the Baltimore Patriot and The American, with a note indicating "Tune: Anacreon in Heaven." The song quickly circulated became quite popular with seventeen newspapers printing it throughout the United States. Soon after, it was published under the title "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Thomas Carr of the Carr Music Store in Baltimore.

  • The first public performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" took place at Captain McCauley's tavern in Baltimore during October 1814—less than two months after the battle. A good idea how this would have sounded is available at the audio link to the right.

  • The Star-Spangled Banner was maintained over the years by the Armistead family as a memento of the battle. However, during the Civil War the flag was, ironically, sent to England for safekeeping.

  • A red chevron was later sewn to one of the white stripes by Louisa Armistead, widow of Major George Armistead. Reportedly, she had intended it to be the letter "A" (probably for "Armistead") but never completed it.

  • Throughout the late 1800's, the Armistead family cut pieces from the flag to present as relics to veterans, government officials and honored citizens. Those receiving these relics, treasured them with reverence and pride, often framing and displaying them in their homes. As a result of this practice, over two hundred square feet of the Star-Spangled Banner was given away, including one of its stars.


Listen Play

"To Anacreon in Heaven" performed using period instruments by the 4th Continental Artillery Band

Current Condition of the Star-Spangled Banner

The Flag Today

The portion of the flag that was removed to be presented as historic relics is clearly evident by the grey-colored areas. Also visible is the red chevron that was added to the third white stripe from the bottom by Louisa Armistead.
  • In 1876 the flag was loaned to the Smithsonian for the nation's Centennial Celebration. It returned to the Smithsonian as a permanent donation from Armistead's descendants in 1914 and has been on exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History since 1964.

  • The Star-Spangled Banner is currently not on display to the public. It is currently undergoing analysis and conservation to preserve it from continued decay so that future generations can enjoy this historic treasure.

Robert J. Yanacek
MSgt USMCR (Ret.)
Copyright 2007

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