The 15 Star Flag of the United States The Star Spangled Banner Guckenberger Barn, Racine County, WI 33” x 15 “

 

This becomes the official flag of the United States with the Flag Act of January 13, 1794, providing for 15 stars and 15 stripes. Stripes and stars are added for Vermont, which became the fourteenth state on March 4, 1791; and Kentucky, which became the fifteenth state on June 1, 1792.

 

 

 The new states have been demanding representation in the flag but opinions are sharply divided in Congress. The debate itself is characterized by opponents as a "consummate piece of frivolity" and a "trifling piece of business." Members of Congress are indignant at the "sinful" waste of money the change would incur -- including $60 to replace the flags on all the ships in our Navy. Proponents argue that to not include the new States would offend their citizens. Adding new stars was a matter of national prestige. The world would learn that our nation is growing. The latter argument prevailed but not without this dire prediction: "If we alter the flag...we may go adding and altering at this rate for one hundred years to come. It is very likely, before fifteen years elapse, we shall consist of twenty states. The flag ought to be permanent."

 

In June of 1812 the United States and Britain are once again at war. While it is known as the War of 1812 it is really the second war for independence, settling the issues not addressed in the Treaty of Paris. In June of 1813 George Armistead arrives in Baltimore to take command of Fort McHenry built to protect the city's waterfront entrance. In July he commissions Mary Pickersgill to sew two flags. One is to be a small flag, flown during stormy weather. The other is to be a flag so large that "the British would have no trouble seeing it from a distance." Ironically, the flags are sewn from strips of bunting produced in England because no mill in the United States produces flag bunting until after the Civil War.

 

At the opening of hostilities England is still at war with France and the United States wins a few easy battles. But after defeating France, England is now free to concentrate its naval and military forces on the United States. The British storm Washington D.C. and, after fierce battles, set fire to the city. A massive overnight thunderstorm saves the city.

 

The British move on to Baltimore, massing ground troops and naval forces. The ground troops camp several miles away waiting for the signal from their ships to advance, which will begin the assault by sea. While waiting for the battle to begin, the British capture the beloved and elderly Dr. Beane, accusing him of detaining captured and deserting British soldiers. He is taken to the British ship Tonnant and there is grave concern he will be hanged.

 

Francis Scott Key, an accomplished attorney, is asked by President Madison to represent the United States and negotiate Beane’s release. Key’s party sails for Baltimore on a sloop flying a flag of truce. Upon reaching the British fleet Key boards the Tonnant bearing letters from British soldiers praising care they have received at the hands of the Americans, including Dr. Beane. The British agree to release Dr. Beane to Key, but not immediately because they have now seen, and heard, too much of the preparations for the attack on Baltimore. They are returned to their sloop but forced to wait out the battle behind the British fleet.

 

On the morning of September 13, 1814 the bombardment begins. The weather has been stormy so the smaller flag commissioned by Armistead is flying over the fort. The British land forces are miles away, waiting for a signal to begin the assault on the fort. The bombs purchased by the British for their ship's cannons prove to be inferior and "burst in air" before they reach the fort. Key and his party stand on their ship watching the assault not knowing who is winning. After 25 hours of siege, unable to signal their land forces to begin an assault, the British determine Baltimore too costly a prize and abandon their attack. Unaware that the British have retreated, Key waits in the pre-dawn darkness for a sign that would end his anxiety. From eight miles away, “By dawn’s early light” Key witnesses the glorious flag being raised over Fort McHenry. Uniquely inspired, Key begins to write his poem on the back of one of the letters he has carried with him.

 

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© 2014 Marie Roth.