It was 1814, and the United States and Great Britain had been at war for two years. The city of Baltimore had been preparing for an eventual attack, but sitting in the way of the British was Major George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry 1Named after James McHenry, a Scotch-Irish immigrant and surgeon-soldier who became Secretary of War under President George Washington, Fort McHenry was built to defend the port of Baltimore from future enemy attacks after America had won its independence. It was positioned on the Locust Point peninsula which juts into the opening of Baltimore Harbor, and was constructed in the form of a five-pointed star surrounded by a dry moat. and his bunkered forces in Chesapeake Bay. Knowing that an attack would come from the sea, Major Armistead commissioned Mary Young Pickersgill, a local Baltimore flag maker, to sew a flag for the fort “so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.”
Pickersgill had learned flag making from her mother, Rebecca Young, who made ensigns 2An ensign is a distinguishing flag of a ship or a military unit, or a distinguishing token, emblem, or badge, such as a symbol of office. and continental standards during and after American Revolution. After marrying and moving to Philadelphia, Mary returned to Baltimore, widowed and with a small child. She established a flag-making business out of her home. Through her trade she supported her family by designing, sewing, and selling “silk standards, cavalry and division colours of every description.” She created signal and house flags for the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and merchant ships that visited Baltimore’s harbor.
When asked by Major Armistead to sew the flag, she created in just 6 weeks an American flag measuring 30×42 feet with the help of her daughter, two nieces, and two servants. Each stripe was two feet wide and each star was two feet from tip to tip. As a result the flag could be seen from several miles away from the fort.
When the British attacked Baltimore, Francis Scott Key, a lawyer aboard the British ship HMS Tonnant, saw Pickersgill’s flag while he was held captive and was inspired to compose the poem that became the national anthem of the United States. Pickersgill’s flag, being restored, is the centerpiece of the redesigned National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. 3The material for this piece came from the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame and Wikipedia.