State of New York Society, United States Daughters of 1812

Liberty, Fraternity, and Unity since 1892

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Major George Armistead

While making preparations for the Battle of Baltimore, Major George Armistead (pictured left) requested a flag “… so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance…” to be flown over Fort McHenry.  Mary Pickersgill, of Baltimore, was commissioned to construct the flag.

With help from her daughter, Caroline Purdy, she sewed a woolen flag measuring 42 feet long by 30 feet high, a remarkably large flag. The flag had fifteen stars and fifteen stripes.


Star Spangled BannerAn early plan for the flag was to add a new star and a new stripe for each new state. With 15 stripes on the Pickersgill flag, which was 30 feet high, each stripe was 2 feet wide! On that flag each star was also 2 feet across!

While many know the story behind Francis Scott Key penning the beloved Star Spangled Banner, not many know the story of the flag that was flown at Fort McHenry that inspired Key to write the words that would become the National Anthem of the United States of America. This flag was created by Mary Young Pickersgill. 

The War of 1812 was a critical time during America’s history.  The Commander of Fort McHenry, Colonel Armistead, along with other military leaders, knew how important Fort McHenry was to the nation at this time.  The original Star Spangled Banner has been preserved and is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, in Washington, D.C. 

The British had burned Washington and were advancing toward Baltimore. These brave leaders felt that the Baltimoreans were discouraged and afraid. They felt that they would have their spirits raised by seeing a huge, high flying flag at Fort McHenry as a symbol of defiance. It was because of this that Colonel Armistead commissioned Mary Young Pickersgill, a local seamstress and flag maker to make two flags for Fort McHenry in 1813 – a large flag and a smaller one to fly in bad weather. She was paid $500 for both flags, the large one being 30 x 42 feet, so it could be seen from a great distance. This flag was used as the garrison flag of Fort McHenry during the British attack on the fort during the War of 1812. When Francis Scott Key saw the flag from a ship eight miles down the Patapsco River on September 14, 1814, the flag was still waving in the breeze after twenty-five hours of heavy bombardment by the British. The British were very discouraged to see it still there, but Key was inspired to write the poem that became the National Anthem. 

New York's Connection to the Star Spangled Banner:

There is a huge U.S. flag on display at Fort Niagara’s Visitor’s Center that is one of the most valued historical artifacts in the nation. The War of 1812 Fort Niagara flag is one of only 20 known surviving examples of the “Stars and Stripes” that were produced prior to 1815. It is the earliest extant flag to have flown in Western New York, and the second oldest to have flown in New York State. Delivered to Fort Niagara in 1809, the flag is older than the Star Spangled Banner which flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore.  

There is a fascinating connection between the Fort Niagara flag and the flag that inspired our national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner. 

Fort Niagara's Flag
Flag at Fort Niagara has 15 stars/15 stripes:
 is an older sister to the Star Spangled Banner

Major George Armistead, from Virginia, was stationed at Fort Niagara in 1813.  Major Armistead loved BIG flags but he didn’t like the cold weather on the Niagara Frontier, so he asked for a transfer. On June 27, 1813, Major Armistead was happily reassigned to command Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, where he ordered “a flag so large that the British would have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” It was this 42′ x 30′ 15-star, 15-stripe flag that gave inspiration to the defenders of Baltimore and inspired a new national song.

June 11, 2006, article by Don Glynn (Niagara Gazette) tells the story of Fort Niagara's Flag: 

"Historic flag returns to Old Fort Niagara"

YOUNGSTOWN — Old Glory finally will be returned to her place of honor, nearly two centuries after the British claimed the 15-star flag as a trophy during the War of 1812.

The flag is destined to become the centerpiece for the new $6 million museum and visitors center at Old Fort Niagara, set to open June 23.

Since the day the landmark fortress was restored as a tourist attraction, it has lacked an adequate orientation and information facility to enhance the experience for visitors. Now it will have a reception area, a museum gift shop, 60-seat theater and state-of-the-art displays.

Old Fort Niagara then will provide the kind of welcome that people receive at other such sites that preserve our heritage. A classic example: Fort McHenry, where Francis Scott Key was inspired to write “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. There visitors are shown an informative 15-minute film and given a glimpse of the famous flag. When they enter the fort, they’re well-equipped to enjoy the rounds.

The road back to Niagara has been long and arduous for the colors the British captured on that frigid night, Dec. 19, 1813. A month later, an aide to Maj. Gen. Sir Gordon Drummond, the commander of the British forces in Upper Canada, arrived in Quebec to present the flag — the trophy — to Sir George Prevost, British commander-in-chief of North America.

In May 1814, Prevost shipped the Niagara flag to London where it was laid before the feet of the Prince Regent, later King George IV.

It is generally believed that the Prince Regent returned the Fort Niagara flag to Gen. Drummond, whose family home was in Scotland. There it remained on display in a hallway for decades before word of its whereabouts reached Canada in 1984.

Unfortunately, it had been badly damaged by a fire in 1969 and its owner then — the late Baroness Lady Strange, a descendant of Drummond — didn’t help matters by tossing the burned flag into a washing machine.

Still, the Old Fort Niagara Association wanted to buy the colors, if possible. Lady Strange didn’t seem interested in selling until she received a letter from Diane Rieger, 17, daughter of the association president Robert Rieger, the association president.

As a result of that letter, the baroness invited three representatives from the fort to visit her and examine the flag. Subsequently Lady Strange agreed to sell it for about $150,000 (U.S.) It was later disclosed that she needed the money to put a new roof on her castle.

The flag returned to Old Fort Niagara in March 1994 — for a brief stopover — before it was shipped to the Peebles Island Resource Center, Albany, a facility operated by the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. After treatment for its long-term conservation, it is being displayed in a climate-controlled enclosure in the visitor’s center. The gallery offers a close-up view of the huge flag — 12 feet, 6 inches by 27 feet, 3 inches — or visitors can ascend to the balcony for a different perspective.

Robert Emerson, executive director of the Old Fort association, notes that the visitor’s center is the culmination of more than 20 years of planning and work. “Hundreds of corporate and individual donors have joined with New York State to make this possible,” he added.

Gov. George E. Pataki, who broke ground for the facility — a converted U.S. Army warehouse built in 1939 — will attend the ribbon cutting.”