In the annals of American history, certain dates – the Fourth of July, Dec. 7 and the actual birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and George Washington (Feb. 22) — stand out.
Sept. 14? Not so much, although the events of that day are unknowingly commemorated by millions of Americans at thousands of gatherings throughout the year. It was on that day, 198 years ago, that Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that would eventually become “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
As the oft-told story goes, Key was inspired to write it during the War of 1812 after watching the bombardment of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry on Sept. 13, 1814. After 25 hours marked by “rockets’ red glare” and “bombs bursting in air,” he awoke in the “dawn’s early light” of Sept. 14 to see that “our flag was still there.”
The battle turned the tide of the war and essentially served notice that, 30 years after the Revolutionary War, America was here to stay. “If it wasn’t for that battle, we would not be the United States we are today,” said Annelise Montone, executive director at Baltimore’s Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, where the original flag was sewn.
On the other hand, if it weren’t for that battle, our national anthem might be something the average American could actually sing, such as “America the Beautiful” or “God Bless America.” But since that’s not the case, here are five places where you can proudly hail those “broad stripes and bright stars:”
The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House
Before there was an anthem, there was a flag, a 30-foot-by-42-foot creation sewn by Baltimore flagmaker Mary Pickersgill in her house just off the Inner Harbor. Today, the house features a full-size reproduction of the flag, along with pieces of the original, a first edition of the music, and the drum that was used to sound the alarm at the fort. On Saturdays, costumed interpreters offer insights into life in the early 1800s.
Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine
Travelers seeking their own star-spangled moment should start their visit to this fort overlooking Baltimore Harbor with the site’s short orientation film. When it ends, the curtains on the theater windows part, revealing an intact replica of the original. “It’s really powerful,” said Lisa Hanson, director of Friends of Fort McHenry. “People actually cry.” On Saturdays, visitors can get an even closer look by participating in the weekly flag-changing ceremony.
Maryland Historical Society
Located in Baltimore’s historic Mount Vernon district, the Society’s current exhibition, “In Full Glory Reflected: Maryland During the War of 1812,” showcases the state’s role in the conflict. Highlights include Key’s original manuscript (including the three verses seldom played), an unexploded 200-pound bomb from the Sept. 13 fight and a 1763 musket that saw duty in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812 and Civil War.
National Museum of American History
No star-spangled tour is complete without a trip to this Smithsonian museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which is home to the flag itself. Housed in a darkened gallery reminiscent of “dawn’s early light,” it’s worn and tattered and now measures just 30 feet by 34 feet. Even so, it commands silent reverence from visitors, many of whom are surprised to realize that, yes, that flag is still there.
Star-Spangled Banner Trail
The hours of Sept. 13–14, 1814 were, of course, part of a much larger conflict that raged from New Orleans to the Great Lakes. In the Chesapeake area, many of the most important sites from the era are now linked by the Star-Spangled Banner Trail, a 560-mile network of roads and waterways that traces the course of the war. Officially opened in July, it’s still a work in progress but should be essentially complete in time for the 200th anniversary of the event it commemorates.
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