Fires, Flight, Flag: The Story of the Star-Spangled Banner
A president fleeing Washington, D.C.
A lost silver plate under the U.S. Capitol cornerstone.
A U.S. flag with 15 stripes.
When British troops burned the U.S. Capitol and White House during the War of 1812, these three lesser-known elements of American history came together.
In the brutal summer heat of August 1814, President James Madison rode six miles out to the town of Bladensburg, where British forces were set to clash with the militia defending Washington. Seeing the defeat of the undisciplined militia by the well-drilled British forces, the President knew the King's army would soon enter the capital city. Madison quickly fled into Virginia, following his wife, Dolley. In the chaotic flood of refugees streaming from Washington, they couldn't find one another for days.
On August 25, 1814, a fierce tornado formed in the center of the city bringing with it heavy rain and winds that tore roofs from houses and trees from the ground. Madison spent the night in a "hovel in the woods." Finally, the Potomac River receded enough that he could cross into Maryland, where U.S. forces were in a pitched battle in Baltimore, fighting to prevent another British advance.
Madison never made it to Baltimore, but he did dispatch a young lawyer into the battle, on a mission to free prisoners being held on a British warship. While negotiating on the ship, this lawyer heard much about the British plans, and was therefore held onboard during the unsuccessful bombardment of Fort McHenry. At dawn the next day, he watched the raising over the fort of the 42-foot long flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes — one for every state in the new nation.
Of course, this young witness to history was Francis Scott Key. He was so moved that he pulled a letter from his pocket and on the back of it wrote poetically of the scene revealed to him by dawn's early light. In those moments, Key penned what would become the lyrics of our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner — a tribute to the flag that still waves over the land of the free and the home of the brave.
The 15-stripe American flag that inspired Key was sewed by Mary Pickersgill, a 37-year-old Baltimore widow, and it remains a distinctive flag to this day — the only one with more than 13 stripes. It's easily recognized by the red stripe along the bottom of the blue canton containing the stars — every other U.S. flag has a white stripe below the blue field.
And what of that lost silver plate under the U.S. Capitol cornerstone?
In 1793, President George Washington led a ceremony in which he laid the plate on the ground and lowered the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol onto it. The stone was then consecrated with corn, wine and oil in a Masonic ceremony, which also dictated that it be placed in the southeast corner of the building, as the inscription on the silver plate below it describes
This South East corner stone, of the Capitol of the United States of America in the City of Washington, was laid on the 18th day of September, in the thirteenth year of American Independence, in the first year of the second term of the Presidency of George Washington.
That plate was crafted by a skilled clockmaker and silversmith named Caleb Bentley, a Quaker who was the first postmaster of Brookeville, a small town in Maryland. On the night of August 26, 1814, a party of soldiers departing the smoldering capital rode into Brookeville, seeking refuge.
Led by Brigadier General John Mason, Commander of the District of Columbia militia, they were turned away at the first home they inquired at, even after offering to sleep on the floor. Bentley, however, agreed to shelter the soldiers. When the party dismounted, Bentley was astonished to be introduced by General Mason to the President of the United States.
And so before returning to Washington, D.C., the President spent a day in the home of the man who crafted the silver plate that George Washington placed under the U.S. Capitol cornerstone. Brookeville, which also safeguarded the papers of the U.S. Senate until it could find a suitable place to meet, still proudly proclaims that it was the "U.S. Capital For a Day" and flies the 15-stripe Star-Spangled Banner from lampposts throughout the year.