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.”
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!
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:
“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:
“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.”
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.
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:
“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.”
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).
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: