As dawn's early light breaks over the nation's 221st birthday, historians in Baltimore and Washington say they have solved a long-standing mystery of the Star-Spangled Banner.
This week, historians finished piecing together the puzzle of its travels through the 19th century, when the enormous flag was preserved in private homes in Baltimore and Boston, and made appearances in New York and Philadelphia.
The made-in-Baltimore flag that was still there after the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814 was given to the Smithsonian Institution in 1907. But exactly where the bright stars and broad stripes were housed in the meantime was unknown until now.
Clues led straight to the heart of Baltimore and the tale of one family's safekeeping the Star-Spangled Banner from generation to generation.
"The spectacular breakthrough is that for once and for all, we're going to settle the story," said Scott Sheads, 45, a Fort McHenry park ranger serving as a historian on the Smithsonian's Star-Spangled Banner preservation project.
"We're almost going to rewrite the history of the flag and set it straight," added Sheads, an Abraham Lincoln look-alike who could not contain his delight at the discovery.
Smithsonian historian Lonn Taylor said the first published account of a "sighting" of the flag placed it in Mount Vernon in 1861, at the home of Christopher Hughes Armistead. He was the son of the victorious commander of Fort McHenry, Col. George Armistead, who commissioned the flag in 1813.
The younger Armistead, a tobacco agent, then lived at 103 W. Monument St., where the flag was "rolled out on the parlor floor" to show a visitor, said Taylor. The residence was torn down in the early 1960s to make room for the Maryland Historical Society.
As in any mystery, a clue often led to more questions.
"I would particularly like to find out anything about him," said Taylor, referring to Christopher Hughes Armistead. "I'd like to talk to any descendants and ask them if they have any family stories of the flag."
One descendant tracked down in Philadelphia, Henry Armistead, said he had only vague knowledge of the national artifact. "I know the flag used to belong to someone in the family," he said.
In fact, said the Smithsonian researcher dedicated to separating fact, fiction and folklore about the flag, it was the Baltimore family that made all the difference to history.
The Star-Spangled Banner was "something that a particular family preserved and treasured for many years," said Taylor. "If it hadn't been for the Armisteads, the American people wouldn't have had a flag."
Another Armistead caretaker of the flag was the commander's daughter Georgeanna, born in 1817, a year before her famous father died.
Married to a wealthy Beacon Street Bostonian, William Stewart Appleton, she apparently took possession of the family heirloom shortly after her mother died in 1861, according to Sheads and Taylor. Their son, Eben Appleton, donated it to the Smithsonian.
Under Georgeanna's watch, the flag waved at the nation's 100th birthday party on the Fourth of July in Philadelphia in 1876. And earlier, when the union was under siege, the Armistead family gave a star from the flag -- still missing -- to President Abraham Lincoln, according to a 1914 National Geographic note.
The flag bears witness not only to wars and anthems, but to the part women have played in the life of the republic.
"You think of a flag as a military, male object, but women played a major role in creating and preserving it," Taylor said, adding that a Baltimore woman made the flag and that a team of needlewomen headed by Amelia Fowler put a linen backing on it in 1914. One and a half million stitches are holding the symbol together as it hangs, four stories tall, in a dark hall in the Smithsonian.
Made at George Armistead's request by seamstress Mary Pickersgill in July and August 1813, the garrison flag cost $405.90, which was an "enormous amount of money back then, more than a working man's yearly wage," said Taylor. At 34 feet by 40 feet, it was the standard size of a garrison flag of the period and made of imported wool.
A good thing, too, that the banner was big enough that Francis Scott Key couldn't miss it across eight miles of water, while the 35-year-old Georgetown lawyer was aboard a flag of truce vessel.
"He would have seen a big splash of red, white and blue behind a bunch of trees," said Sheads. "It was the first time someone had put down on paper what the flag means."
And the rest is a history that is still being written. "No other country is as wrapped up in their flag the way we are," said Sheads.
What inspired the inquiry, said Museum of American History Associate Director Ron Becker, was the Smithsonian's three-year plan to take down the flag next year, and restore and reinstall it in a new encasement.
"We expect it will be seen in a spectacular fashion" by the year 2001, said Becker, a native Baltimorean. He estimated the project would cost $15 million.
Six months ago, the Smithsonian convened 50 historians and scientists, who agreed on the best way to "maximize" the life of the Star-Spangled Banner into the 21st century.
Pub Date: 7/04/97