- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2000

The ambitious $18 million-dollar project to preserve the flag that inspired our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," might be compared to giving a face lift to a member of Britain's Royal House of Windsor. In public.

Perish the irony: The flag really is American royalty our one acknowledged symbol of unity and democracy and as sacred as the crowns that sit upon foreign titled heads of state.

Fortunately, the extensive repair and restoration work taking place on this particular inspirational banner in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History will last longer than any conventional bit of plastic surgery.

The three-year effort to save the 30-foot-by-34-foot banner one of the largest single textile conservation projects ever undertaken by an American museum is at its midway point. Since October, technicians in scrubs have been at work in a specially constructed, climate-controlled room behind glass in full view of visitors.

Step five of an 11-step process has just concluded. This required separating the tattered wool bunting from its worn heavy linen backing a delicate surgical operation involving the removal of approximately 1.7 million stitches on the flag's face. The next step is putting down a layer of marquisette netting to protect the surface so that the flag can be rolled up this Friday. It is being crated for a few days while adjustments are made in the laboratory prior to unrolling the flag so work can proceed on the linen side.

Less obvious to the multitudes stopping by the laboratory on the museum's second floor will be original historical research on the flag uncovered recently by museum historian Lonn Taylor.

Tomorrow, Independence Day, marks the official publication of a pocket-sized book written by Mr. Taylor, 60, a Texas-born student of 19th-century American history. His book, he says, is the only one ever produced about the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key in September 1814 to write the poem that became our national anthem.

Called, simply, "The Star-Spangled Banner," the 92-page, amply illustrated volume put out by Harry Abrams Inc., will be on sale for $9.95 in Smithsonian shops and other bookstores. Its debut was preceded by a talk Mr. Taylor gave Saturday at the National Archives, titled "Stalking 'The Star-Spangled Banner': An Adventure in Research."

Yes, stalking the way detectives go in search of clues to solve criminal cases.

The mystery in this case, Mr. Taylor explains, had concerned the whereabouts of the banner after it flew over Baltimore Harbor's Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. The banner, a large garrison flag, had been presented to the museum in 1907 by the grandson of Major later Lt. Col. George Armistead, commander of the fort that the British had tried unsuccessfully to capture on Sept. 12 to 14, 1814.

The museum had documented the history of the flag since 1907 but had not done a complete chronology.

There also had been a question about whether, in fact, it was that very flag Key had "so proudly hailed" in his poem and, also, what exact time was meant by "the dawn's early light."

As the man in charge of the museum exhibit that places the flag in historical perspective, Mr. Taylor is in a position to inquire about such matters. A flag buff from childhood, he recalls that as early as the age of 5 or 6, he "would make paper replicas of all the flags on the color page in Compton's Picture Encyclopedia and pin them up on my wall."

His room today is a high-ceilinged office on the museum's fifth floor filled with such exotic books as "New Mexican Furniture 1600-1940." He also regularly lectures on the subject of "Material Culture of the Southwest."

There is no doubt about the creator of the flag, he points out. "[Professional flag maker] Mary Pickersgill made two flags: the big flag, a so-called garrison flag, and a smaller flag called the storm flag. Now we have two eyewitnesses who say that they saw the big flag being raised on the morning of Sept. 14. Interestingly enough, one was British and one was American.

"A third eyewitness, who was a veteran of the battle, said he remembered seeing the flag flying all through the battle, but he was in his 70s when he said this. And as a matter of fact he was the last surviving defender, as veterans of that battle were called. They even formed themselves in a group known as the Old Defenders.

"It was raining the day of the battle, and military regulations say a storm flag should be flown when it is raining. If a big flag like that got wet, it became very heavy. So my own feeling is that this storm flag flew through the night and the big flag got raised in the morning. Because nowhere does Francis Scott Key say when he saw the flag raised."

Mr. Taylor is more certain about the flag's fate immediately after battle.

"For years it had been said the flag was presented to Armistead after battle," he notes. "And, occasionally, that the flag was presented to him on his retirement from the Army." Then Mr. Taylor got word from Scott Sheads, a ranger/ historian with the National Park Service at Fort McHenry who was reacting to the latter statement on a Smithsonian Web site.

It turned out that, rather than retiring, Lt. Col. Armistead had died in service in 1818. "I immediately went over and pulled the record from the National Archives and sure enough that is what it said."

Conflicting stories still exist about exactly how Lt. Col. Armistead came to possess the flag. Mr. Taylor's conclusion is that "he just probably took it home with him after the battle. He wrote his name on it twice with the date Sept. 14, 1814. You can see it there on two of the white stripes."

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