Bicentennial year makes a Flag Day to remember

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“And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night, that our flag was still there.”

That particular flag, christened the Star-Spangled Banner, is “still” here, though not at Fort McHenry, where the national anthem’s author, Francis Scott Key, saw it rippling “in dawn’s early light” after an epic firefight with the British in 1814, giving proof that America had won the battle.

Now, the nearly 200-year-old, majestic 30-by-34-foot Star-Spangled Banner is on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., and what better day than Saturday — Flag Day — to visit what is arguably the country’s most famous flag?

The old battlefield standard, which the museum has been displaying and working to preserve since 1907, hangs in a low-oxygen, environmentally controlled chamber to prevent damage to the wool, cotton and dyes.

“In order to persevere it, it’s kept in very low light levels — its at one foot-candle. It’s also at very low oxygen levels, because oxygen degrades fibers,” said Jennifer Jones, chair and curator of the division of armed forces history at the museum.

The conditions in the chamber also help keep the flag clean and keep out foreign elements that could damage the fragile banner. Even the curators and restoration experts take extra precautions not to introduce anything foreign into the chamber.

“We have to suit up in Tyvek suits when we go in,” Ms. Jones said, referring to the protective outfits that help prevent contamination of sensitive items.

This is a special year for Flag Day, as the commemoration of the adoption of the Stars and Stripes also will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the writing of the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In honor of the anthem’s bicentennial, the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore is lending the National Museum of American History the original manuscript of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” These lyrics will be displayed alongside the inspirational flag from Saturday through July 6.

About a year ago, Burt Kummerow, president of the society, approached the museum about temporarily uniting the flag and the original draft of Key’s manuscript to commemorate the song’s 200th anniversary.

“We thought it would be a perfect marriage of the Star-Spangled Banner and the original lyrics that Key wrote, what’s now known as the national anthem,” Ms. Jones said.

During the War of 1812, Key, then a 35-year-old American lawyer, was aboard a British ship to help negotiate the release of some American prisoners. The British held him as they prepared a naval attack on Fort McHenry in the Chesapeake Bay near Baltimore.

Key penned “The Star-Spangled Banner” as he watched the British warship bombardment from a cell on the ship. As night fell, all he could see was gunfire turning the sky crimson. According to letters he wrote after the attack, he was sure the British would be victorious.

However, as the sun rose and the smoke of battle cleared on Sept. 14, 1814, Key looked out to see the Stars and Stripes fluttering in the wind, signaling an American victory.

While still captive on the ship, Key wrote his ruminations on the battle, which he later set to a well-known tune. Originally titled “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” the song was reprinted by a Maryland newspaper and soon was adopted as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

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About the Author

Jennifer Pompi

Jennifer Pompi is a general assignment reporter and afternoon slot editor for The Washington Times. Previously, she worked as an editor for AOL/Patch, covering hyperlocal news in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties in Maryland. She can be reached at jpompi@washingtontimes.com.

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