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On the Trail of the Star-Spangled Banner

Follow patriotic history along 560 miles of land and water

    In the British Invasion of the 1960s, the Beatles and the musicians who followed that foursome transformed American music and culture, mostly peacefully.
    The British Invasion 150 years earlier was waged by soldiers who sailed up the Chesapeake Bay, advanced along the Potomac, Patuxent and Patapsco rivers and eventually burned the White House and Capitol in Washington, D.C.
    The War of 1812 broke out over issues that sound like today’s news: disputes over trade, militias, defense spending, naval blockades and the role of central government. Border security was a worry on both sides. The British invaded America, and American troops invaded British Canada, burning York, the provincial capital.
    In our resistance to that invasion, we laid the foundation for our economic independence and military strength. The Star-Spangled Banner elegized in the siege of Fort McHenry came to symbolize both resiliency of the new nation and the American character. After the War of 1812, the Star-Spangled Banner anthem inspired a new sense of nationalism. Flag and anthem both remain icons of our national identity.

Touring the Chesapeake Battle Trail
    With its central location on the Eastern Seaboard, network of navigable waterways, robust natural resources and fertile agricultural lands, the Chesapeake was a prime target in the invasion that spread through much of what was the new American nation.
    The best-recognized battle of the War of 1812 is the siege of Fort McHenry, guarding the approach to Baltimore. That 25-hour bombardment produced the rocket’s red glare and enduring flag immortalized in Francis Scott Key’s poem, recognized since 1931 as our national anthem.
    In 2008, that legacy inspired the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail, authorized by Congress to connect the places, people and events that led to the birth of the national anthem during the War of 1812.
    The trail traverses 560 miles of land and water routes in the Chesapeake region of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia where British armies and American defenders travelled and fought. Hundreds of national and state parks, historic sites, museums and scenic views connect in the trail. Each site tells a part of the story of America’s determination to resist the British and secure the homeland.
    The trail begins at Tangier Island, where the British were based, and extends as far north as Havre de Grace. Each site interprets its piece of history in its own way, ranging from commemorative markers to story panels to museums and story-telling park rangers.
    “The Star-Spangled Banner Trail is not just about troop movements and battles,” says Amanda Davis, executive director of the Flag House and Museum in Baltimore. “Sites along the trail tell stories about personalities and life in the 1800s.”
    Davis’ site, for example, was the home of banner seamstress Mary Young Pickersgill.
    In 1813, as Baltimore prepared for an eventual British attack, Major George Armistead, the commander of the militia unit stationed at Fort McHenry, wanted a flag “so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.”
    Just a block from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor lived Mary Young Pickersgill, proprietor of a successful flag-making business. To hand-sew Armistead’s imagined 15-star, 15-stripe, 30-by-42-foot flag in just six weeks, she enlisted her teenaged daughter, two nieces, two free women of color and other seamstresses — likely including her elderly mother, who made flags during the Revolutionary War.
    Mary Pickersgill’s flag was not only speedily made but also well-sewn, as it lasted through the night of the bombardment into our own time.
    The restored original Star-Spangled Banner is on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, another site on the Trail. Find the story of its laborious restoration at http://amhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/preservation-project.aspx
    A replica of the famous banner Pickersgill sewed is displayed at Fort McHenry (www.nps.gov/fomc), also on the Trail.
    To plan your visit by car, boat or bike to the many sites that offer fun, history and patriotic inspiration, download a map of the trail: www.nps.gov/stsp/planyourvisit/maps.htm.