Raising Your Own U.S. Flag On the Same Pole as 1814’s “Star Spangled Banner” in Baltimore, MD

Oh Say, Can You See? The mammoth (32' x 40') size of the original "Star-Spangled Banner" (and this modern-day version) dwarfs my newly unboxed 3' x 5' version by comparison. Volunteer flagmaster, Brian Reynolds, holds the lanyard steady against a strong breeze while I hurried to take this snap. All I could do was worry, "what if a gust came up and he let go accidentally?" But Reynolds knew his business and held the line securely until I returned and hoisted my flag all the way to the top. What an unbelievable thrill and honor! (Photo: Mark Otnes)

Oh Say, Can You See (how BIG that flag really is)? The mammoth (32′ x 40′) size of the “Star-Spangled Banner” (still) flying proudly over Ft. McHenry in Baltimore, MD, dwarfed my new 3′ x 5′ version by comparison. Volunteer flagmaster, Brian Reynolds, is shown holding the lanyards attached to my flag against a strong breeze as I hasten to take a quick pic. Fortunately, Reynolds knew his business and held the lines securely until I returned, whereupon he handed them over to me and urged me to finish hoisting the flag all the way to the top of the mast. What an incredible honor! (Photo: Mark Otnes)

This is the exact spot from which the original "Star-Spangled Banner" was flown in 1814 as Francis Scott Key looked on eagerly, waiting for the bomb bursts and smoke to clear, wondering if "our flag was still there." (Photo: Mark Otnes)

This is the exact spot from which the original “Star-Spangled Banner” was flown in 1814 as Francis Scott Key looked on anxiously, waiting for British bomb bursts and smoke to clear, wondering if “our flag was still there.” Indeed it was! How do we know exactly where the flag flew during revolutionary times? By the Civil War, the flagpole had been relocated more towards the center of the fort, but original, buried supportive cross timbers were later discovered in THIS off-center spot, confirming it as the flag’s original 1814 position. (Photo: Mark Otnes)

Unique, Unannounced Honor Enjoyed by a Fortunate Few While Visiting the Site of America’s Original “Star-Spangled Banner” 

I held my newly purchased (15-star) historic U.S. flag close to my heart as I eagerly (and somewhat nervously) walked up the hill towards one of the most famous battle sites in early American history, now a revered national shrine, the pentagonally-shaped Ft. McHenry in Baltimore, MD. I couldn’t help but imagine the hundreds of soldiers running up the same hill in 1814 to face the onslaught of British guns and return fire from their own, pitifully outmatched cannonade. Indeed, it was at this revered place that Americans defended their new nation once again against the British during the War of 1812. Only this time, soldiers faced the added threat of a mighty Royal Navy positioned ominously (just out of reach of fort guns) in Chesapeake Bay. As I approached the fort, I realized that it was exactly 200 years ago, on September 13–14, 1814, that Francis Scott Key had viewed the decisive battle while onboard ship and penned an immortal poem he titled, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

A superb bronze of Francis Scott Key stands in the middle of the theatre room, facing a giant video screen which surprises visitors by raising to reveal the actual fort and flag outside. Don't forget to stand! (Photo: Mark Otnes)

A superb bronze of Francis Scott Key stands in the middle of the visitor’s center, facing a giant video screen which surprises visitors (after showing a short instructional movie) by suddenly raising up to reveal the actual Ft. McHenry (and its flag flying) just outside. What a view! (Photo: Mark Otnes)

The view of the main gate of the fort as you walk up will put a lump in your throat as you watch the giant flag blowing high overhead. (Photo: Mark Otnes)

This view of the fort’s main gate (as you walk up) will put a lump in your throat while you watch its giant flag blowing high overhead. (Photo: Mark Otnes)

Before purchasing my souvenir flag, I had watched a short movie in the fort’s visitor’s center (see photo above). In its largest room, there are numerous exhibits and artifacts as well as an impressive bronze statue of Key standing facing a giant movie screen. The center’s history-recap video does an excellent job laying out the positions of the attacking British ships, the fort’s defenders, and the ensuing battle, but the real show-stopper comes when the film is over. Suddenly, without warning, as the national anthem begins playing, video of the fort segues into the raising of the wall-sized movie screen, revealing the actual fort and 15-star “Star-Spangled Banner” flying up on the hill outside (see at right). It was breathtaking!

By that time, the national anthem was playing full-blast and visitors were expected (but not required) to stand up and hopefully sing along (there were 2 big signs now visible which read, “PLEASE STAND”). Yes, it was a surprise, but when I realized that the video portion of the presentation was over and that we were now in a moment of actual citizen participation (like at a football game), I quickly stood up and placed my hand over my heart. Sadly, a quick glance around the room full of about 40+ visitors revealed that I was 1 of only 3 people doing so. My heart sank for a moment until a little boy of about 8 years-old realized what was going on and stood up as well (completely on his own) and looked over at me while holding his hand over his heart. “Thank goodness,” I thought, “Patriotism and love of country isn’t completely dead.” As the anthem ended, the remaining 35 or so (all still sitting down) now began to look visibly uncomfortable—even guilty—and avoided making eye-contact with one another as they stood and filed silently out of the room. It was sad. But no matter. Little did I realize that—joyous moments were soon to come!

In a view afforded to a lucky few, volunteer "flag master," Brian Reynolds prepares to hand me the lanyard to which I would clip my flag and then joyfully raise it up the giant flagpole. You cannot imagine the excitement! (Photo: Mark Otnes)

In a rare view afforded to a fortunate few, volunteer flag master, Brian Reynolds, prepares to hand over the lanyard to which I was to clip my flag prior to raising it to the top. (Photo: Mark Otnes)

Undeterred by the lackadaisical crowd, I wandered through the gift shop, picking up a souvenir lapel pin and a 3′ x 5′ copy of the famous flag. In 1814, there were only 15 states in the Union, and its sparsity of stars struck me as quite “colonial” looking. I also happily noted that the flag was Made in the USA and took my items up to the register to pay. While waiting for my credit card to be processed, the lady cashier looked at me keenly and leaned over the counter in a somewhat secretive fashion, whispering in hushed tones the following surprising intel:

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“You know… Since you’re buying this flag here in the official Ft. McHenry gift shop, you’re allowed to fly it from the mast up at the fort; the very same one the Star-Spangled Banner flies from!”

My jaw dropped open and my eyes widened with disbelief as I considered her dubious claim. She acknowledged my surprised reaction and assured me her statement was true, adding:

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“If you take this flag over to one of the Park Rangers at the main desk and show him this receipt, one of them will radio up to the flagmaster at the fort and request that he meet you there. Then he’ll show you how to properly hoist it up the flagpole, all official-like and everything.”

This is the first-known photo ever taken of the Star-Spangled Banner, in 1873. As you can see, after almost 60 years, souvenir hunters had cut much of its length away, as well as a sizable chunk of its blue field as well. It would be many more years before such pilfering was finally halted and the remainder of the flag protected. (Photo: Smithsonian)

This is the first-known photo ever taken of the Star-Spangled Banner and it dates back to 1873. As you can see, after almost 60 years, souvenir hunters had already cut away much of its original length, as well as a sizable chunk of the blue star-field as well. Unfortunately, it would be many more years before such patch-pilfering would be halted and its remaining material finally protected. (Photo: Smithsonian)

Stop the Madness! Before any more pieces were snipped away and lost forever, restoration experts at the Smithsonian began their arduous restoration of the flag. Note how much of the length had been lost already. What a shame! (Photo: Smithsonian)

Stop the Madness! Before any more pieces were snipped away and lost forever, textile restoration experts at the Smithsonian began an arduous preservation job on the flag. Notice how much of its length had been lost already. Where are those pieces today? (Photo: Smithsonian)

A “Flag Fan’s” Fort-Flyin’ Fantasy

WOW! I was struck dumb by the idea I’d be able to fly MY own flag from the exact same pole as America’s Star-Spangled Banner. I didn’t know what to say. Other than, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! What an honor!” After all, there had been no signs posted describing this unique opportunity and the cashier didn’t exactly trumpet it to me (or the world) in a blatant attempt to sell more flags. Rather, it appears the fort’s staff genuinely reserves this unique offer for visitors who A: buy a flag there at the center, and B: appreciate what a rare opportunity it is to fly it over the fort. I had purchased my new flag solely as a souvenir to fly back home on holidays, etc., but flag fans (such as myself) get REALLY excited about owning flags once flown over iconic landmarks such as state capitals, etc., and Ft. McHenry is where our country’s “Star-Spangled Banner” was originally named and ultimately paid for with the blood of many valiant Americans. I could see what a privilege and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this was for ANY U.S. citizen and I couldn’t believe the good fortune that had befallen me that day.

O'er the Ramparts We Watched! As seen from above, the pentagonal shaped Ft. McHenry is surrounded by star-shaped ramparts where cannons and sharp-shooters were positioned. (Photo: wloy.org)

O’er the Ramparts We Watched As seen from above, the pentagonal Ft. McHenry is surrounded by star-shaped ramparts upon which cannons and sharp-shooters were once positioned. If you look carefully, you can see guns from the Civil War-era still pointing out towards the bay. (Photo: wloy.org)

Walking the ramparts of the fort is a pentagonal pleasure! Most are overgrown with neatly trimmed grass and paved with gravel footpaths. From every point on the fort, you can see the flag flying proudly. (Photo: Mark Otnes)

Walking the ramparts of Ft. McHenry is a patriotic pleasure. They’re reinforced with neatly trimmed grasses, ringed with cannons and paved with bricked footpaths. (Photo: Mark Otnes)

Upon reaching the fort, I found volunteer flagmaster, Brian Reynolds, waiting for me at the base of the flag-tending platform. Reynolds was a very kind man and told me that he loved volunteering a few days a week at the fort and being responsible for raising and lowering the flags. As you might’ve guessed, he worked quickly and knowledgeably, pulling hard on lanyard ropes and efficiently working the pole’s clips and clasps. Before I knew it, he had handed me a thick rope and instructed me to attach my flag at a certain point and then “hoist it quickly and steadily almost to the top.” I did so until the flag rested just beneath its giant namesake and he suddenly remarked:

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“Okay, that’s good, stop it right there. Most of our flag-raisers want to take a picture of their flag when it’s raised to this point, positioned just beneath the Star-Spangled Banner.”

Picture Perfect! My flag was barely visible next to the real McCoy, but it'll look great when I displayed it back home. After this photo was taken, I finished hoisting it all the way to top and held on tight! (Photo: Mark Otnes)

Picture Perfect! My flag (the little guy) was barely visible next to the fort’s full-sized Star-Spangled Banner. After this photo was taken, I hoisted it the rest of the way up the towering flagpole and held on tightly as it snapped and flew in a brisk breeze. What a magnificent sight! (Photo: Mark Otnes)

I agreed with Brian’s idea wholeheartedly and as he held the ropes, I moved more into the fort’s interior to take a quick pic (see above). Afterwards, he handed the lines back and encouraged me to hoist my flag all the way to the top so that it was officially flying alongside the Star-Spangled Banner. I did as he suggested, and I have to admit, at that moment a chill went up my spine.

Shielding the sun from my eyes, I watched as the two flags flew together over the fort. After being lost in thought for a moment, Reynolds and I smiled at each other and I knew it was time to bring mine down. Working the lanyards as he had taught me, I lowered my flag at a brisk, yet steady pace until it was once again in my hands. Finally, carefully, we refolded the flag, placed it back in its box and Brian signed the flag’s official COA (Certificate of Authenticity).

Ready, Aim... Civil War-era guns line a parapet, aimed out at the bay. (Photo: Mark Otnes) Click to enlarge.

Civil War-era guns line a parapet, aimed out at the bay. (Photo: Mark Otnes) Click to enlarge.

You'd Better Back Off, Dude. This closeup of one of the fort's guns reveals it packed a serious punch. Look at the size of those cannonballs! (Photo: Mark Otnes)

You’d Better Back Off, Dude. This closeup of one of the fort’s guns reveals they must’ve packed a serious punch. Look at the size of those cannonballs! (Photo: Mark Otnes)

The original cross-brace that once supported the Star-Spangled Banner was found buried in its original position and is now on display in one of the rooms at the fort. Don't miss it! (Photo: George Price)

The original cross-brace that once supported the Star-Spangled Banner’s flagpole was found buried in its original position. Excavated and preserved, it now rests under glass and on display in one of the rooms at the fort. Don’t miss it! (Photo: George Price)

Along the drive leading up to the fort's visitor center, each state has a plaque with the date it was admitted to the Union. I had to take a pic of the one for Texas, 'natch! (Photo: Mark Otnes)

Along the drive leading up to the fort’s visitor center, each state has a plaque with the date it was admitted to the Union. I had to take a pic of the one for Texas, ‘natch! (Photo: Mark Otnes)

The visitor's center is a modern masterpiece of history presentation and preservation. Remember, don't forget to stand during the anthem! (Photo: Mark Otnes)

The Ft. McHenry visitor’s center is a modern masterpiece of historic presentation and preservation. Remember, don’t forget to stand after the movie—during the anthem. OOHrah! (Photo: Mark Otnes)

Coming or going, you'll want to snap a quick pic of the fort's national monument sign. It also reminds visitors they're entering a "national shrine" as well. Please remember to pay your repects. (Photo: Mark Otnes)

Coming or going, you’ll want to snap a quick pic of the fort’s entrance sign. It also reminds visitors that they’re about to enter an “historic shrine.” Please remember to pay your respects. (Photo: Mark Otnes)

What a Flag! To demonstrate the actual size of the Star-Spangled Banner, Park Rangers host special presentations such as this flag-holding event enjoyed by a group of local students visiting the fort. (Photo: Mark Otnes)

What a Flag! To demonstrate the actual size of the Star-Spangled Banner, Park Rangers host special presentations such as this flag-holding event held on the day of my visit. WOW! (Photo: Mark Otnes)

This vintage rendering of the Battle of Baltimore depicts the high lobbing of explosive shells bursting above the forts defenders, raining white-hot shrapnel down upon them. (Photo: wikipedia)

The Bombs Bursting in Air— This vintage rendering of the Battle of Baltimore depicts the high lobbing of explosive shells bursting above the forts defenders, raining white-hot shrapnel down upon them. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Bottom Line: On my way out, I passed a group of students and others who were listening to a Park Ranger describe Ft. McHenry, 1814’s Battle of Baltimore and our flag’s place in history. The highlight of THEIR day must surely have been that they were allowed to hold one edge of the flag and then make it “wave” and undulate while the ranger spoke. They were enthralled by his speech and my faith in the modern-day mission of this special place was restored and reaffirmed.

To learn more about the Star-Spangled Banner, we recommend that you visit the Smithsonian’s website HERE and then read up on the Battle of Baltimore HERE. Of course, if you’re fortunate enough to visit in person, Ft. McHenry is easily accessible by foot, car, bus and (land or water) taxi. It’s definitely a “must see” for all flag-loving, patriotic Americans. Finally, after visiting the fort, try to take a quick jaunt down to Washington DC and view the actual flag that Key wrote so lovingly about exactly 200 years ago. It’s been restored, preserved and safely secured inside the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. And if you want to see the REAL DEAL being hoisted at Ft. McHenry, watch this out-STANDING 5-minute video:

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3 thoughts on “Raising Your Own U.S. Flag On the Same Pole as 1814’s “Star Spangled Banner” in Baltimore, MD

  1. Joseph Benedetto says:

    I can only say that I truly envy you right now. Wow. What an incredible honor!

  2. Elmer Cruz says:

    It’s an honor to raise that kind of flag.

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