Pity the poor Star-Spangled Banner. In the 184 years since it inspired lawyer Francis Scott Key to turn poet for a day, the huge flag has had a tough life.
It's been cut up for souvenirs, had a couple of million stitches applied to it and been subjected to untold hours of sunlight and dirty air.
Thankfully, the nation's conservators have taken note. And as detailed tonight on The History Channel, they're doing something to ensure the Baltimore-born flag hangs around to inspire generations of Americans not yet born.
Filmed largely in Baltimore, at Fort McHenry, the Flag House, the Baltimore Brewing Co. on Albemarle Street and in Fells Point, "Save Our History: The Star-Spangled Banner" opens with a history of the flag, a history that should make every Baltimorean a little proud. As the program explains, when war was declared between the United States and England in 1812 -- largely over Britain's refusal to honor American maritime rights -- Baltimore was the nation's third-largest city.
It was also home to the U.S. Navy yards, the center of the American merchant trade and, most irritatingly to the British, the center of American privateering. These "sanctioned" pirates did everything they could to disrupt English trade in North America, especially in the West Indies, looting and pillaging British ships with no threat of retaliation from the States.
The Brits were anxious to give Baltimore a thrashing, and after they'd succeeded in torching Washington in August 1814, that's what they set out to do.
But our ancestors were ready for them. They turned back the British land forces at the Battle of North Point and effectively blocked off access to Baltimore Harbor by sinking enough of their own ships to stretch from one edge of the Patapsco to the other.
Daunted but not defeated, the British decided their best plan was to attack Fort McHenry, one of 16 forts established by the federal government to protect the Eastern seaboard. On the night of Sept. 13, 1814, from about 2 miles off, they began lobbing shells onto the fort.
Our national anthem, penned by Key while he was being detained by the British fleet, explains the rest -- how "the dawn's early light" revealed to him that the American flag still flew over the fort.
Tonight's program wisely uses a lot of contemporary accounts and artwork depicting the period. When re-enactors are used, they're used sparingly -- except for one silly sequence in which a guy who's supposed to be Francis Scott Key is shown walking down a street shaking hands. Perhaps the best use of new footage is film of Baltimorean Mary Elgin, dressed as Mary Pickersgill, working on the flag; the footage demonstrates not only how large the flag was, but how tedious her work must have been.
The flag itself, a 30- by 42-foot monolith that Baltimore seamstress Pickersgill had sewn by hand for a commission of $574.44, became a symbol of that victory. And Key's poem, sung to the tune of a popular drinking song, "To Anacreon In Heaven" -- chosen to ensure that everyone would know how to sing it -- became a staple of patriotic celebrations everywhere. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed the bill making it the national anthem.
The show details how the flag remained in the possession of the family of Major George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry, until 1907, when it was lent to the Smithsonian Institution (five years later, it was donated outright).
In 1914, the first major restoration was undertaken, using a then-popular method of attaching the banner to a piece of cloth using nearly 2 million stitches that were woven through the flag.
Suffice to say, conservation has come a long way, and more than 80 years later, it's time to do things right. Removed from its prominent place in the Smithsonian's Museum of American History earlier this week, the flag will be carefully vacuumed, have its stitches removed -- a process that should take more than a year by itself -- and be preserved in a project that's expected to take about three years and cost some $18 million. Visitors to the Smithsonian will be able to watch the conservators work in a lab on the museum's second floor.
What: "Save Our History: The Star-Spangled Banner"
When: 8 p.m.-9 p.m., repeats midnight-1 a.m.
Where: The History Channel
Pub Date: 12/03/98