The Real Story Behind the 'Star-Spangled Banner'

As the Supreme Court prepares to issue a ruling on healthcare, the story behind the Star-Spangled banner can give us hope.

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American flag

Fleeing the Supreme Court's feared sacking of the White House and the Capitol on healthcare reform, let me seek shelter with seamstress Mary Pickersgill. Mary lived in Baltimore 200 years ago. She'll help fortify me.

Remember when British General Robert Ross's brigade had just burned the nation's capital in the War of 1812?  He then turned his sights on Baltimore. The port city is going all-out to mark the "Forgotten War" and its own importance in saving the day with a "Sailabration" of tall ships and a noteworthy exhibition now at the Maryland Historical Society.  

Don't miss the beautifully preserved house where Pickersgill lived and worked, now The Flag House museum. It's where the professional seamstress, with helpers, produced the enormous flag, to be forever glorified as "The Star-Spangled Banner." She completed the job for Baltimore's fort, finishing in six weeks under a general's orders. Little did Pickersgill or the general know the sight of the flag flying in the dawn's early light after the failed British bombardment of Baltimore would spark lyrics that later became the national anthem! 

[Supreme Court Hears Healthcare Reform Arguments.]

The scion of a Maryland family with vast slaveholding wealth, handsome and clever lawyer Francis Scott Key watched the whole thing from the water overnight. Also a poet, he started to pen the "Star-Spangled" patriotic ode while cannonfire cleared from the horizon the next day. Not a lot of people know the imagery of his famous lines is dear old Baltimore. It was a desperately needed victory to halt the British after General Ross sacked a deserted Washington. In fact, the renowned Ross died by a sniper bullet as he led the way on horseback to Baltimore—not sporting, but there you have it, a deeply demoralizing event. 

Mary Pickersgill—not doyenne Dolley Madison—is truly the forgotten woman behind America's "Forgotten War." She's known to be the maker of the enormous battle flag that became known as the Star-Spangled Banner. Betsy Ross of Philadelphia in 1776 became a legend of the nation's founding myth, but there is scant documentary evidence to support the story.  

[See photos of Memorial Day 2012.]

Ah,  the fair summer day I dressed in a period Empire frock and portrayed Mary, the 37-year-old hometown heroine, at the Baltimore visitors center comes back to beguile me. Seldom have I had so many admirers in one afternoon.  My rap went like this.

I was a working widow, I told people, and supported a household of eight as a flagmaker. My mother had her own needle trade and taught me the skill of making flags in Philadelphia. Seven years after I moved to Baltimore as a widow, General George Armistead came to call on me, and gave me the job of my life. So I can say I made the fabric of American history! Three hundred and fifty thousand stitches sewn by hand. My team of women and girl helpers—seven or eight, including my young daughter and my servant [read: slave]—we worked day and night. The general expressed his wish for a never-seen-before size, a flag the British could see flying from the fort from afar: 30 feet by 42 feet. The fort was Fort McHenry, right across the harbor, defending the city and keeping the British at bay. Winning the Battle of Baltimore saved us from the shame of Washington in ashes. The flag I made is still there, too, on display in the National Museum of American History. Seldom do you see one woman's handmade work and her house honored and handed down like mine—one of the best preserved women in American history.

They say the early republic benefited from the war's land and sea skirmishes with the British because the country had more spirit and cohesion afterward. 

There's the reason to keep going, my friends: Spirit and cohesion. If you look hard, there's always a bright side in American history. But it will be a long campaign, not for the faint of heart, if Washington gets sacked again.  

Recommended reading on the confluence of events: The Flag, The Poet & The Song, by Irvin Molotsky.  

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    • Jamie Stiehm

      Jamie Stiehm is a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist. Her op-eds on politics, culture, and history have appeared in newspapers across the nation, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. She previously worked as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and The Hill. Jamie's first journalism job was as an assignment editor at the CBS News bureau in London.

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