“The banner featured the now familiar alternating red and white horizontal stripes and stars on blue – one for each of the 13 original American colonies.”
WHAT BETTER WAY is there for MilitaryHistoryNow.com to mark July 4th long weekend than with this celebration of the most famous battlefield flags from American history? Happy Independence Day!
The Star Spangled Banner
To say that a lot has been written about the original Star Spangled Banner is a monumental understatement. The famous 30 x 42-foot flag flew over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry throughout the 25-hour British bombardment of Sept. 13, 1814. The Royal Navy anchored 19 ships off the mouth of the harbour and hoped to use the vessels’ guns to reduce the fortress to rubble. Once McHenry was silenced, the invaders planned to put 5,000 redcoats ashore to seize the city. Not only did the fort withstand the barrage, the sight of the flag throughout the night signalled to Baltimore’s beleaguered defenders that the battery was still in American hands. Eventually the British gave up their attack and withdrew.
The battered 1,260-square-foot banner, which was illuminated in the darkness by exploding British shells and Congreve rockets, inspired one local eyewitness to compose a poem about the spectacle. Francis Scott Key’s “The Defense of Fort M’Henry” <sic> was published in a local paper the following week. The 35-year-old Baltimore lawyer would later set his verse to the tune of a bawdy British drinking song “To Anacreon In Heaven” — he called it “The Star Spangled Banner”. In 1931, a resolution by Congress (signed into law by President Herbert Hoover) would make the patriotic ballad the official national anthem of the United States.
Ironically, Key observed the scene that inspired his ode while standing on the deck of an enemy vessel – HMS Tonnant, an 80-gun British ship of the line. The barrister was part of a delegation of local residents who were aboard to negotiate the release of some militiamen captured in an earlier engagement. Once the battle had commenced, enemy commanders temporarily detained the party and Key was forced to witness the conflagration from the water.
The massive pennant was the largest American standard in existence at the time. Fort McHenry’s commander, Major George Armistead, ordered it made a year before as part of the preparations for an expected British assault.
A 38-year-old Philadelphia widow named Mary Young Pickersgill sewed the cotton and English wool flag in about six weeks with help from her daughter and a half-dozen seamstresses, including two slaves. The U.S. government paid her $405 dollars for it.
The banner featured the now familiar alternating red and white horizontal stripes and 15 stars on blue – one for each of the 13 original American states plus two more for Vermont and Kentucky, which joined the U.S. in 1791 and 1792 respectively. Following the battle, Armistead claimed the banner as a personal souvenir. The Virginia native would later cut an eight-foot wide segment off the end of the flag, swatches of which he presented to friends as gifts. The uncle of the future Confederate general Lewis “Lo” Armistead even sliced away one of the original stars. As recently as 2011, one of these fragments was auctioned off in Dallas, Texas for nearly $40,000.
What remained of the famous banner was donated to the Smithsonian Institute in 1912. Two years later, the museum paid a Boston embroiderer named Amelia Fowler $1,200 to repair the much-deteriorated fabric. Multiple restorations followed throughout the 20th Century, including a massive $18-million-dollar, multi-stage effort, which began in 1999.
The flag, which is now too flimsy to be hung up vertically, is on permanent display at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. It’s exhibited in a 10 deg. angled case in a special climate and humidity-controlled low-light viewing room.
The Garrison Flag
The Star Spangled Banner isn’t the only famous flag from the War of 1812. A slightly smaller but older American standard is currently on display at Fort Niagara in Youngstown, New York. Known as the Garrison Flag, the 28-foot wide pennant was produced in 1809 and was flying above the Great Lakes outpost when redcoats captured the town in December of 1813. Claimed as a trophy by British commander Gordon Drummond, the flag was carried back to England where it was “laid at the feet” of the Prince Regent (the future King George IV). According to the Historic Association of Lewiston, N.Y., the Drummond family stored the captured ensign at Megginch Castle in Scotland, where it remained for more than 170 years. It was damaged and almost lost in a fire in 1969, although members of the family rescued it from the flames. In 1993, the Drummonds sold the flag to the Old Fort Niagara Association for $150,000, after which it underwent a $5 million restoration that lasted several years. In 2006, the famous banner went on display at the fort’s visitor’s centre where it remains to this day.
The Fort Sumter Flag
Unlike the Fort Niagara banner, the 33-star Union standard that flew above Fort Sumter at the outbreak of the American Civil War escaped capture. And that’s no small feat when considering that the citadel in Charleston Harbor fell to the rebel’s in the conflict’s opening days! The distinctive “diamond pattern” storm flag was waving on April 12, 1861 when Confederate guns opened fire on Sumter; it stayed up throughout the day-and-a-half-long bombardment. The outpost commander, Robert Anderson, hauled down the colours when he gave up the fort on April 14. Interestingly enough, the 55-year-old, one-time West Point instructor would have to surrender to a former student, Confederate brigadier P.G.T. Beauregard. Anderson was promptly returned to the North, with his flag in tow. Within a week, the standard was hanging from the statue of George Washington in Manhattan’s Union Square before a gathering of 100,000 New Yorkers. It was supposedly the largest crowd ever assembled in the United States up to that point.  As part of a wartime patriotic fundraising campaign, the Sumter flag was repeatedly auctioned off to wealthy donors who all agreed to hand it back after purchasing it so it could be sold and resold again. It was returned to Sumter on April 14, 1865 — four years to the day that the fort fell to the South. It’s now in the safe keeping of the United States’ National Parks Service.
The Flags of Suribachi
Perhaps the most famous American flag of the 20th Century was the one raised atop Mount Suribachi on Feb 23, 1945 during the battle of Iwo Jima. The hoisting of the banner was the subject of an iconic photograph by Joe Rosenthal. The 33-year-old Associated Press correspondent eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for snapping the legendary image. The flag itself came from the Landing Ship Tank (LST) 779 and remained waving until the end of the campaign on March 26. Interestingly, the much-celebrated moment followed the lifting of a smaller U.S. flag on the same mountaintop earlier in the day. That first banner, which came from the USS Missoula, was fixed to a discarded length of pipe and erected by a marine patrol. A lesser-known photo of the initial raising was captured by a sergeant named Louis R. “Lou” Lowery. Moments later, Japanese troops attacked the entire party. Both flags are now part of the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ permanent collection. To prevent fading, they are displayed on an alternating basis.
(NOTE: An earlier version of this story first appeared on MilitaryHistoryNow.com on April 28, 2014.)