The Star Spangled Banner...
In researching this section of our history pages, the information concerning "who made the first American Flag" became a bit of torture for me. As a young boy in school, it was taught, and we believed with all our heart, that the flag was made by Betsy Ross! All of a sudden, I'm reading about the confusion of the "true" maker of the flag, and the conflict that still exists by historians who claim it wasn't Betsy Ross at all, but someone else who was the seamstress and maker of the flag. To that end, articles of research simply claim that no one really knows for sure, but because the "legend" is so strong, and means so much to our heritage, since there is NO PROOF THAT SHE DIDN'T MAKE THE FLAG, (and no real proof that she did), we choose to continue our beliefs that Betsy Ross is the maker of the first American Flag.
But the history of our Great Patriotic Symbol holds additionally interesting stories, which we have copied from various sources, including the NMAH (Smithsonian National Museum of American History). I hope you enjoy reading about of "Stars and Stripes" as much as I did.
Bear in mind that this document has to do with the history of the American Flag as of the "War of 1812" and forward. The beginning history of the flag and a short biography of Betsy Ross can be read on our page entitled "Betsy Ross and the Flag" at this link.
Let's set the stage for you and get you started, by sharing some information about the War of 1812 and what led up to the fabricating of this "special" Stars and Stripes.
Although its events inspired one of the nation’s most famous patriotic songs, the War of 1812 is a relatively little-known war in American history. Despite its complicated causes and inconclusive outcome, the conflict helped establish the credibility of the young United States among other nations. It fostered a strong sense of national pride among the American people, and those patriotic feelings are reflected and preserved in the song we know today as the U.S. national anthem.
Britain’s defeat at the 1781 Battle of Yorktown marked the conclusion of the American Revolution and the beginning of new challenges for a new nation. Not even three decades after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which formalized Britain’s recognition of the United States of America, the two countries were again in conflict. Resentment for Britain’s interference with American international trade, combined with American expansionist visions, led Congress to declare war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812.
In the early stages of the war, the American navy scored victories in the Atlantic and on Lake Erie while Britain concentrated its military efforts on its ongoing war with France. But with the defeat of Emperor Napoléon’s armies in April 1814, Britain turned its full attention to the war against an ill-prepared United States.
In the summer of 1813, Mary Pickersgill (1776–1857) was contracted to sew two flags for Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. The one that became the Star-Spangled Banner was a 30 x 42–foot garrison flag; the other was a 17 x 25–foot storm flag for use in inclement weather. Pickersgill, a thirty-seven-year-old widow, was an experienced maker of ships’ colors and signal flags. She filled orders for many of the military and merchant ships that sailed into Baltimore’s busy port.
Helping Pickersgill make the flags were her thirteen-year-old daughter Caroline; nieces Eliza Young (thirteen) and Margaret Young (fifteen); and a thirteen-year-old African American indentured servant, Grace Wisher. Pickersgill’s elderly mother, Rebecca Young, from whom she had learned flagmaking, may have helped as well.
Pickersgill and her assistants spent about seven weeks making the two flags. They assembled the blue canton and the red and white stripes of the flag by piecing together strips of loosely woven English wool bunting that were only 12 or 18 inches wide.
While Francis Scott Key's song was known to most Americans by the end of the Civil War, the flag that inspired it remained an Armistead family keepsake. It was exhibited occasionally at patriotic gatherings in Baltimore but largely unknown outside of that city until the 1870s. The flag remained the private property of Lieutenant Colonel Armistead's widow, Louisa Armistead, his daughter Georgiana Armistead Appleton, and his grandson Eben Appleton for 90 years. During that time, the increasing popularity of Key's anthem and the American public's developing sense of national heritage transformed the Star-Spangled Banner from a family keepsake into a national treasure.
Commander of Fort McHenry during the 1814 bombardment, Armistead became an instant hero after the battle.
Portrait by Rembrandt Peale, 1816
Courtesy of Maryland Historical Society.
New York stockbroker Eben Appleton (grandson of Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead) inherited the Star-Spangled Banner upon his mother's death in 1878. The publicity that it had received in the 1870s had transformed it into a national treasure, and Appleton received many requests to lend it for patriotic occasions. He permitted it to go to Baltimore for that city's sesquicentennial celebration in 1880. After that his concern for the flag's deteriorating condition led him to keep it in a safe-deposit vault in New York. In 1907 he lent the Star-Spangled Banner to the Smithsonian Institution, and in 1912 he converted the loan to a gift.
Appleton donated the flag with the wish that it would always be on view to the public. Museums constantly balance the desire to display an object with the need to protect it from the damage created by light, dust, and other environmental factors. The Smithsonian has had to balance its effort to fulfill his wishes with the need to care for the fragile and damaged object.
The American flag did not play a major role in the War of Independence. Most of the myths about the flag’s importance during the Revolution—including the famous tale of Betsy Ross sewing the first flag for General Washington—emerged much later, after the Star-Spangled Banner had become the nation’s most significant and cherished icon. At the time the American flag was created, it did not attract much attention from the general public; its primary function was to identify ships and forts. Ordinary Americans in the Revolutionary era turned to a variety of other symbols—the eagle, Lady liberty, George Washington— to express their patriotism and define their national identity.
This would start to change during the War of 1812. Often referred to as the “Second War of Independence,” the conflict inspired a fresh wave of patriotism in a generation too young to remember the Revolution. When Key declared that “our flag was still there,” he fused the physical symbol of the nation with universal feelings of patriotism, courage, and resilience. By giving the flag a starring role in one of the most celebrated victories of the war, Francis Scott Key’s song established a new prominence for the flag as an expression of national identity, unity, and pride. And by giving it a name—that Star-Spangled Banner—Key transformed the official emblem into something familiar and evocative, a symbol that Americans could connect with and claim as their own. The flag was no longer just an emblem of the nation; it became a representation of the country’s values and the ideals for which it stands.
In the years since 1814, in times of celebration and crisis, pride and protest, people have raised the flag to express their ideas about what it means to be American.
Continental soldiers carried regimental banners that evoked ideals of freedom, valor, and home.
This squadron flag from 1776, features a canton of thirteen “liberty stripes” and the Latin motto:
“Her country calls and her sons respond in tones of thunder.”
The attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina in April 1861 launched the nation into civil war and brought about lasting changes in how Americans viewed and used the Star-Spangled Banner. Through Key’s song, an earlier generation had come to appreciate the flag’s value as an inspiring and unifying national symbol. The Civil War not only revived that patriotic attachment to the flag, but expanded and intensified it, fostering a spirit of reverence and devotion that would endure for generations to come. Entwined with a war to redefine the United States and what it should stand for, the flag became the primary icon of national identity and ideals, infused with meanings and memories from all sides of the conflict.
For Northerners who were called on to defend the Union created by the founding fathers, the flag became the sacred emblem of that cause, consecrated in battle by the blood of Union soldiers. With the abolition of slavery and the opening of the Union ranks to black soldiers, many African Americans saw the flag in a new light, as a symbol of freedom and the promise of citizenship. For members of the Southern Confederacy, meanwhile, the “old flag” they had once loved had come to stand for a federal government that did not respect their rights and threatened their way of life.
The artifacts and images on this page reflect how the Civil War transformed the American flag into a sacred symbol worth defending and dying for—on the battlefield and beyond. The ultimate defeat of the Confederacy ensured that the Union, and its flag, would survive. Yet in the struggle to transform the American flag into a symbol of freedom and equality for all, the Civil War was only the first of many battles yet to come.
To contemporary Americans, the Armistead family’s treatment of the Star-Spangled Banner—marking up the stars and stripes with signatures, cutting off pieces to give away as souvenirs—might seem strange or inappropriate, even though it was customary at the time. Today an extensive set of rules, known as the U.S. Flag Code, defines the proper way to treat the American flag. But in fact, these rules and customs surrounding the flag date back only to the late 19th century.
Led by Civil War veterans who wanted to uphold the sacred character of the national emblem they had fought to defend, the first efforts to restrict uses of the flag were targeted at commercial and political advertisements. While the federal government did not pass any flag desecration legislation until the 1960s, by the early 1900s most states had adopted such laws, and in 1907 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Nebraska statute in a case against a manufacturer of “Stars and Stripes” beer.
The flag-protection movement regained national momentum during World War I, and on June 14, 1923, the first National Flag Conference was held in Washington, D.C., to establish a set of rules for civilian flag use. The U.S. Flag Code, first published in 1923 and adopted by Congress in 1942, is based on the belief that the American flag “represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.” It proscribes any use of the flag that could be construed as disrespectful, including using it for advertising and to decorate clothing and other goods. While the U.S. Supreme Court struck down flag-protection laws as violations of free speech in 1989, the Flag Code is still maintained as a code of etiquette, enforced not by law but by tradition.
During World War II, the American flag emerged once again to rally and inspire the nation in a time of crisis. On the battlefield and the home front, the flag symbolized the values and freedoms the nation was fighting for. By the end of the war, the flag had become the emblem of a superpower with a mission to promote democracy around the world.
Before the nation entered the war, the flag was more commonly raised to oppose American involvement in international conflicts. Yet such calls to put America “first” quickly evaporated after the Japanese attack on the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. As had happened at Fort McHenry in 1814 and Fort Sumter in 1861, the image of the Star-Spangled Banner under attack inspired a wave of patriotism and unity and renewed popular reverence for the flag.
While the military strength of the U.S. armed forces transformed the American flag into an icon of freedom and power abroad, the federal government also depended on the flag to mobilize and sustain support for the war at home. Posters, billboards, magazines, and movies waved the Star-Spangled Banner to urge Americans to buy bonds, produce for victory, ration and recycle, and make other personal sacrifices for the greater good. Such appeals linked the flag not only to a sense of loyalty but to shared cultural values, casting the war as a struggle to defend the “American way of life” against the forces of totalitarianism.
Yet this vision of America as a defender of democracy was challenged by the realities of racism and inequality. The same flag that liberated Nazi camps in Europe flew over internment camps in the western United States, where Japanese Americans were imprisoned by executive order from 1942 until the war’s end. The American G.I.s who fought together under the flag served in racially segregated units. During the war, African Americans and other minority groups used the Star-Spangled Banner not only to display their patriotism, but to call attention to these injustices and claim their equal rights as American citizens.
In July 1969, images of Apollo 11 astronauts planting the American flag on the Moon signaled a profound achievement for the nation and the world. Back on Earth, however, the Star-Spangled Banner was struggling to stay aloft in a strained and highly charged political atmosphere. During this decade of intense social divisions, the flag became a contested symbol of pride and protest in struggles over civil rights, foreign policy, and cultural values. Civil rights activists carried the American flag to pressure the nation to live up to its ideals of freedom and equality, while white segregationists flew Confederate flags to oppose the intervention of the federal government in their communities and to defend “the Southern way of life.” In the home front battle over Vietnam, both sides used the flag to express their views about the morality and necessity of the war, sometimes with violent results.
Perhaps no issue epitomized the controversial nature of the American flag during the 1960s more than flag burning. When some burned the flag to protest government policies, others rushed to defend the flag from attack. State laws against flag desecration originally passed in the late 1800s were revived and enforced. In 1968, Congress passed the Federal Flag Desecration Law, making it a federal crime to “knowingly cast contempt upon any flag of the United States by publicly mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning, or trampling upon it.”
After peaking in the late 1960s, the issue of flag desecration receded from the public spotlight. It would be revived twenty years later by the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Texas v. Johnson, which struck down all state and federal flag protection laws as violating the First Amendment right to free speech. Since then, politicians have made repeated efforts to amend the Constitution to prohibit flag burning, a move opposed by those who believe it would curtail essential civil liberties. As the debates over flag protection continue, memories of the turbulent 1960s continue to challenge and inspire Americans to contemplate the meaning of patriotism and the value of protest.