'Star-Spangled Banner' takes a little trip back in time Manuscript: The paper bearing Francis Scott Key's famous lines journeys to Fort McHenry.

July 10, 1998|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner" with a flourish in a small, firm, readable hand with the fat, round O's that have launched thousands of Orioles games over the years.

For nearly half a century, Key's manuscript, 32 lines in ink brown with age that fill an ordinary letter page, has been sealed in an airtight bronze case at the Maryland Historical Society.

Since it was bought in 1953, the document has never left the society's museum. It is the most prized -- and beloved -- of all the 3 million or 4 million items in the collection.

On Monday afternoon, the manuscript is set to travel for the first time to Fort McHenry, where the sight of the American flag at dawn after a 25-hour British bombardment inspired the poetry that became the national anthem.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to meet there with preservationists as she begins a "Save America's Treasures" tour to encourage public and private efforts to restore national monuments and artifacts. The initiative is a joint effort of the White House Millennium Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"Bringing this manuscript to Fort McHenry for the first time," says Dennis Fiori, the society's director, "is our way of symbolizing the urgent need for document preservation in this country."

Clinton has scheduled her first stop in Baltimore at the Francis Scott Key Monument on Eutaw Place, where at 1 p.m. she'll announce commitments by the millennium committee to save outdoor sculptures in the "monumental city" and the rest of the nation.

She will begin her campaign in Washington early Monday morning, with the president, at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History, where restoration will soon begin on the original flag that moved Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the War of 1812.

After leaving Baltimore, the first lady will visit such sites as Thomas Edison's laboratory in West Orange, N.J., George Washington's headquarters in Newburgh, N.Y., and Harriet Tubman's home in Auburn, N.Y. She'll end her tour Thursday with an address at the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Women's Rights Convention, at Seneca Falls, N.Y.

"The time of Mrs. Clinton's visit is perfect," Fiori says. "It has given us a rare opportunity to work with the National Archives to obtain the best expertise available to conserve the document."

A senior conservator from the National Archives, Elissa O'Loughlin, examined the Key manuscript last night. Her initial judgment is that the condition of the 174-year-old document, soldered into an airtight little vault, is good enough to make the trip.

"This case was built for us about 50 years ago, and filled with helium gas to prevent oxidation of the ink, much like they did with Lenin's body," says David De Lorenzo, director of the society's library.

The company that built the "Banner's" case did the encasing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution at the National Archives, in Washington. During the coming year while the "Star-Spangled Banner" flag is being refurbished, archives conservators will embark on a similar program to update the preservation of the founding documents of the nation.

"They're going to study the whole issue of how to preserve these properly," De Lorenzo says. "That's what we want to do. We want to pattern ourselves after what the National Archives is doing."

The historical society hopes to get some of the funding, too, for preservation of the "Star-Spangled Banner" manuscript.

"This is an icon of the same historical importance," he says. "Obviously it doesn't rank up there with the Constitution, but they are the words of our national anthem. I think it has that kind of emotional value."

The anthem celebrates the victory that may have saved the United States, and embodies the new sense of American nationality aroused by the War of 1812. Britain's impressing U.S. sailors into its navy, blockading U.S. ports and burning the White House enraged Americans.

After hardscrabble volunteers and militiamen from Baltimore halted crack assault troops at the Battle of North Point and Fort McHenry resisted the intense cannonading from warships of the Royal navy, the English fleet retired down the Chesapeake Bay and the last real British challenge to American independence ended forever.

When the huge 15-star, 15-stripe wool flag appeared out of the mists over Fort McHenry at dawn on Sept. 14, 1814, the jubilant Francis Scott Key scratched notes on the back of a letter for the poem that became the national anthem.

Through the night, he had watched the intense bombardment of the fort by the British invasion force. A Georgetown lawyer, Key was aboard a "cartel boat," a truce ship, off Sparrows Point, negotiating a prisoner release. For most of this century, the spot has been marked by a red, white and blue buoy.

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