Defining a Nation

Defining a Nation > National Symbols, Stories & Icons > The Flag

The War of 1812 elevated the American flag to icon status. Before the war, Americans rarely used the flag to express patriotism. But the flag’s appearance over Fort McHenry during the Battle for Baltimore and Francis Scott Key’s poem “The Star-Spangled Banner” inspired the public. After the war, the flag was often displayed as a symbol of national pride and unity.

Read more about the origins of the Star-Spangled Banner.

The original Star-Spangled Banner is on view at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Several feet of the flag’s fly end and one star are missing. In the 19th century, pieces of the banner were cut and given as souvenirs. Courtesy National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Major George Armistead wanted to show the British that Fort McHenry was ready to fight. “We, sir, are ready at Fort McHenry to defend Baltimore against invading by the enemy,” he said to American General Samuel Smith, who commanded all forces in and around the city. “That is to say, we are ready except that we have no suitable ensign to display over the Star Fort and it is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.”

In the summer of 1813, Armistead commissioned Mary Pickersgill, a second-generation flag maker, to make an “American ensign 30 by 42 feet” of “first quality bunting.” When Fort McHenry held off the British navy during the Battle for Baltimore in September 1814, Pickersgill’s flag was hoisted in a triumph over the fort. 

After a long journey from family keepsake to national treasure, Fort McHenry’s flag found a home at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Did you know?

Mary Pickersgill was paid $405.90 for making the garrison flag commissioned for Fort McHenry.


An American flag flies over Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, a reminder of the iconic flag that inspired the words to what became the national anthem of the United States of America. Visitors learn the flag’s story through exhibits and ranger-led programs.

Explore the history and legacy of the flag through stories and interactive games, and share what the flag means to you.


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