I shivered when I saw the flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore on display with the manuscript that flag inspired. For just a few days, the historic Star Spangled Banner and Francis’ Scott Key’s manuscript of the national anthem are on display together at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
When I heard the sweet young voice of the little girl next to me as she sang that anthem, I felt awe. This was a moment celebrating history as it came together with a profound hope for the future. Two hundred years later, Key’s heartfelt words emerged so sweetly from the heart and voice of a child as we stood there in the near-dark to see these two wonderful relics together for the very first time.
The flag, still battered despite years of careful restoration and protection, is immense. I never can get over its size. The manuscript, small but powerful, doesn’t show its age nearly as much. Written in a strong hand with only two corrections, it is a marvel. Usually housed at the museum of the Maryland Historical Society, Key’s manuscript is on loan to the Smithsonian between Flag Day and Independence Day (actually July 6) as the flag and the national anthem celebrate their 200th anniversary in 2014.
The flag is always on display at the Smithsonian, who has owned it since 1909. Carefully restored only a few years ago, it is part of a display that relates the courageous efforts of Baltimoreans to save their city and protect the young country that harrowing night in 1814.
The gallery is dark, rows of pinpoint lights at your feet to guide you toward the gigantic woolen banner. A wonderful touch screen across from the flag offers a few key insights into the flag itself.
But to see these two icons there together was an awe-inspiring moment. I was glad to see them and most definitely recommend a visit for visitors anywhere near Washington, D.C. during these few weeks.
And listen for a child singing the anthem. Breathtaking. If time doesn’t permit a visit to D.C., plan on a visit to one of the other War of 1812 sites. Baltimore’s got a great commemoration planned for September.
© Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman