A brave flag

Our view: Maryland's Star-Spangled Banner returns to center stage, where it belongs

November 23, 2008

For those who love Maryland's place in American history, there is no more precious artifact than the oversized American flag that flew triumphantly over Fort McHenry in the dawn's early light on the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, after a futile British assault that marked one of the turning points in the War of 1812. The flag and the fort were center stage when Francis Scott Key framed "The Star-Spangled Banner" a song that much later became our vocally challenging national anthem.

Major George Armistead, who commanded the American force at Fort McHenry, commissioned Mary Pickersgill, a Baltimore flag maker, to sew a flag "so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance." Her response was a 30-by-42-foot giant.

After the war, the flag became an Armistead family keepsake. It was exhibited at patriotic gatherings in Baltimore but largely unknown outside the city until the late 19th century, when "The Star-Spangled Banner" became increasingly popular and the flag was transformed into a national treasure.

In 1912, Eben Appleton, an Armistead family member who inherited the flag, donated it to the Smithsonian Institution, expressing the wish that the flag always be on display. There it remained until 1998, when Smithsonian curators, worried that the tattered and battered flag would was in danger of total disintegration, removed it from public display. Then began its long and expensive restoration.

Now, after nearly two centuries of use, abuse and revitalization, the Star-Spangled Banner is center stage again, gloriously presented and carefully protected in the recently reopened National Museum of American History on the National Mall. The flag is not far from the White House, which was torched by British soldiers in the days preceding the Battle of Baltimore.

Washington fell. Baltimore stood, and the Star-Spangled Banner, symbol of American patriotism, lived on. Of that, Marylanders can be proud.

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