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Baltimore's Star-Spangled Banner

Birth of our nation’s symbol

As the War of 1812 brewed on the Chesapeake Bay, Mary Young Pickersgill worked relentlessly cutting and stitching 400 yards of red, white, and blue bunting into the “broad stripes and bright stars” that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. Yet, most Americans know little, if anything, about the woman who sewed the monumental flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem. And few are familiar with The Flag House, Mary’s 18th century home which is dedicated to her story, along with the adjacent Star-Spangled Banner 1812 Museum.

Image Mary was a “true daughter of the Revolution,” according to Pat Pilling, Flag House historian. She was born in 1776, shortly before the Declaration of Independence was signed, and grew up in the turmoil of mixed patriot and loyalist sentiments. Her father, William Young, served in the Pennsylvania militia, and her mother, Rebecca, was a prominent flag maker who made the first flag under General George Washington, according to family accounts.

When British soldiers marched into Philadelphia in 1777, the Youngs and their five children were forced to flee their home. “They packed their household goods in an oxcart with baby Mary perched on top. There wasn’t a lot of room, so William hid a chest with silverware and the family Bible in the backyard. When he returned for it, the chest had been broken open. The silverware was gone, but he found the Bible, rain soaked and torn, on the ground,” Pilling said.

Little Mary was too young to realize the dangers she faced as British soldiers pursued her family. But 36 years later, when the British threatened the country’s independence again, she played a crucial role – although she didn’t know it at the time.

Her father soon died of camp fever, and Rebecca and the children moved back to Philadelphia to live with her brother, Colonel Benjamin Flower. “The colonel was a commissary general under George Washington during the Revolution. Through his connections, Rebecca got government jobs making flags, blankets and other army supplies. Determined to provide for her family, she also ran a boarding house for military personnel. So Mary grew up in a household teeming with patriotism,” Pilling expressed.

Eventually, Rebecca moved to Baltimore where she advertised as a flag maker. “It was quite unusual for a woman to advertise in those days, but Rebecca was a true entrepreneur,” Pilling emphasized.

It was there that 19-year-old Mary married John Pickersgill, a London merchant who had settled in Baltimore. They had four daughters, but only the youngest, Caroline, survived. Within 10 years, Mary, too, became a widow. With her mother’s determination and talent, she also turned her hands to the “mystery” of sewing flags. “Flag making required skills beyond those of an average seamstress. It was important to use the right fabric, stitches, and seams so the flag would fly right,” Pilling explained.

Mary's desk still sits in the Flag House.
In 1807, Rebecca, Mary, and Caroline moved to a corner row house near Baltimore’s bustling port and opened a flag making shop. “There was a big demand for flags which identified cargo ships coming into the port. They also served as important communicating tools on sea and shore,” said Pilling.

Meanwhile, war raged between Great Britain, who ruled the sea, and France. Although America remained neutral, the powerful British Navy challenged seamen’s rights and free trade and impressed American sailors to fight the French.

Problems escalated as the British campaigned in the Chesapeake Bay near Fort McHenry, which guarded the entrance to Baltimore’s harbor. On June 18, 1812, America declared war on England. Baltimore citizens felt threatened and prepared the fort for attack.

In the summer of 1813, Major George Armistead, fort commander, asked Mary to make a garrison flag to inspire his men and build morale. “He wanted a flag so large that the British would see it from a great distance,” Pilling said. Armistead requested a 30x42 ft. flag with 15 stripes and stars, the official design at the time. Each stripe and star was to be two feet wide. The commander also asked Mary to make a 17x25 ft. storm flag.

The Flag House, a short stroll from the city's Inner Harbor, focuses on Mary’s life as she measured, cut, and stitched her way into American history. Several of her personal items still grace the home, including the mahogany desk where she carried out business with military officials and local ship owners. “She probably escorted them into the parlor to discuss colors and materials over tea,” according to curator Eric Voboril.

Flag House garden
The larger flag, now known as the Star-Spangled Banner, was Mary’s greatest commission. She must have felt a sense of urgency to complete it as the militia practiced drills throughout the city. The stripes were made from high-quality English wool bunting, a gauze-like material that’s strong, durable, and waves gracefully in the wind. Since bunting was only available in 18-inch widths, Mary sewed a six-inch piece onto each stripe. She wove the stars from cotton. “She probably cut the material in the upper front bedroom which is well lit by five huge windows. But the flag was too large to assemble at home, so she got permission to spread it out on the floor of a nearby brewery,” Voboril said.

There by candlelight, Mary often worked until midnight with the help of her mother, daughter, several nieces, and a free African American girl named Grace Wisher. “She was very meticulous in placing each star evenly on the blue field,” Voboril noted.

Within six weeks, both flags were completed and delivered to the fort. Receipts show that Mary was paid $405.90 for the large flag and $168.54 for the storm flag. A year later, at daybreak on September 13, 1814, the British opened fire on Fort McHenry with a 25-hour bombardment.

During the assault, Francis Scott Key, a young lawyer, was being detained on a truce ship a few miles from the fort. He had just negotiated the release of his good friend, Dr. William Beanes, who had been taken prisoner by the British.

As the battle raged through the night, lightning flashed and rain pounded the earth. So it was the stars and stripes of Mary’s storm flag that actually flew over the fort the night Francis helplessly paced the deck and witnessed the “rockets red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.”

The fort returned fire, then there was a long silence as the British withdrew. Francis didn’t know who claimed victory until “dawn’s early light” when the storm flag was lowered and the Star-Spangled Banner was hoisted as musicians played “Yankee Doodle.”  With a sigh of relief, Key pulled an envelope from his pocket and began to write, “O say can you see…” to express his pride for such a valiant defense. 

Mary died at home in 1857 never knowing how treasured the massive flag would become. Francis Scott Key died in 1843 unaware that his poem would someday be our national anthem.

It’s ironic that the flag, made from English wool, and the anthem, set to an old English tune, became our nation’s symbols and reaffirmed our independence from the world’s most powerful country. (At left, it's being restored at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.)

Nearly two centuries later, we honor our glorious heritage and celebrate our freedom when we place our hands over hearts, face the flag and feel Francis Scott Key’s pride as we sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

This feature first appeared in The Daily Journal, Kankakee, IL

To read more about the Star-Spangled Banner, see "Baltimore's Fort McHenry" and "Frederick's favored son" in Maryland's destinations.

For more information on The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House and 1812 Museum, Baltimore, MD,  call 410-837-1793, or visit www.flaghouse.org

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