Opting for a less-spangled banner

Heritage: Baltimore is replacing 50-star, 13-stripe flags with the kind that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814.

August 23, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's history-buff mayor, who evokes the city's 1814 battle with the British in speeches on homeland security and racial unity, has found a new way to play up the valiant fight that inspired Francis Scott Key's little ditty.

Under an executive order Mayor Martin O'Malley is set to sign today, all city office buildings, parks, police stations and firehouses will swap their standard American flags for the 15-star, 15-stripe variety that waved over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore 190 years ago.

The banner already has been unfurled at City Hall and a few parks. But for financial reasons, Baltimore officials will wait for the other flags to wear out before replacing them.

Even so, historic charm doesn't come cheap. The 1814-style flags cost $36 apiece, compared with $17 for the standard Stars and Stripes. That adds up to about an extra $1,000 a year for a city that replaces about 60 flags annually.

Small price to pay, O'Malley said, for the chance to highlight a proud moment in Baltimore history - one he believes should inspire the city as it struggles against current threats.

"There is no other city in America that has the special history that we do of being the birthplace of `The Star-Spangled Banner,' that place where American neighbors came together to repel one of the most powerful forces on the sea in its day," O'Malley said.

"I think the modern-day battle of Baltimore is every bit as challenging as the Royal Navy showing up on our doorstep - only this time it's drugs and drug addiction, not to mention homeland security threats on top of that."

O'Malley will issue his "Star Spangled Banner Flag Executive Order" at Fort McHenry at noon today, as part of a program that will outline events for next month's Defenders' Day and promote a History Channel documentary on the battle, First Invasion, that will premier at the Senator Theatre on Sept. 8.

In September 1814, Baltimoreans defeated the British navy, and in the aftermath of the battle, the flag that streamed above the fort inspired Key to write what became the national anthem.

Nearly 200 years later, the famous fight prompted another songwriter to put pen to paper.

O'Malley wrote "The Battle of Baltimore," which his Celtic rock band, O'Malley's March, performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in September in a Sept. 11 benefit concert.

"And when our foe has turned to run and his heel has left our shore," the ballad goes, "Our countrymen will sing their praise of the town of Baltimore."

Embracing Baltimore

A Baltimore transplant who soaked up local lore as a City Council member and mayor, O'Malley took part in a historic re-enactment at the fort last year, dressed as a Maryland Militia colonel - complete with sword, sash, plumed hat and blue woolen coat with tails.

He often makes references to the battle in speeches, including the address he gave at the Democratic National Convention in Boston last month. There, he recalled the story to evoke the power of diversity - and to suggest that President Bush had not done enough to help cities pay for homeland security.

"On Sept. 11, 1814, as Washington burned to our south during the War of 1812, the people of Baltimore - 60 percent of us immigrants, one out of five of us free black citizens of a still as yet very imperfect country - successfully defended the United States of America on our own," O'Malley told the crowd.

"It was an amazing American feat in a distant war. But 200 years later, in the war against terrorism, one city cannot do it alone. My friends, John Kerry knows we cannot fund America's homeland security on local property taxes and fire hall bingos."

Not everyone appreciates having the battle woven into Bush administration critiques. Alan Walden - a conservative WBAL radio commentator and president of the Patriots of Fort McHenry, which raises money for the national park - takes issue with the mayor's criticism of the president.

But he couldn't be happier with O'Malley's decision to fly the 1814 flag at city buildings. In fact, it was Walden who pitched the idea to the mayor.

"Whether you like him politically or not, that's irrelevant," Walden said. "This is an issue that transcends politics."

Having the flag fly will give Baltimoreans a much-needed reminder of their city's place in the nation's history, Walden said.

"It's like New Yorkers who don't go to the Statue of Liberty," he said. "Baltimoreans don't go to Fort McHenry. It's part of the natural surroundings. People here don't even think about it. It's just there."

Confusing sight

Along with raising the city's historical consciousness, the flags should lead to some amusing double-takes, Walden said.

"Just think about how fun it will be when people say, `Hey, wait a minute, that flag has too many stripes and not enough stars,'" he said.

There's always a chance that the local curiosity could spark heated controversy.

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