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Mary Pickersgill, The Star Spangled Banner and Why Your Life Matters

The Story of Mary Pickersgill, The Star Spangled Banner and Why Your Life Matters. This week is a celebration of the Independence of the United States of America. Once again, I find myself in a foreign country for these festivities. It is both interesting and a little melancholy. The Fourth of July, Independence Day, is a significant holiday for Americans. We take it seriously! Sure, we have picnics and gatherings and lots and lots of food but we don’t forget the sacrifice and the history that goes along with this important day. I thought you might enjoy the story of Mary Pickersgill, and others before her, that made this Day of Independence so important and why their lives, and yours, simply matter.

Many people know that the 30 x 42 ft. flag that flew at the Battle of Baltimore is the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write The Star Spangled Banner. But, even though the battle was fought on September 13, 1814, the story began at least a year earlier.

Major George Armistead was the commander of Ft. McHenry and he knew that it was a target of the British army. In July, 1813, he told the commander of Baltimore defenses: “We, sir, are ready at Fort McHenry to defend Baltimore against invading by the enemy…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 in seeing it from a distance.”

Enter Mary Pickersgill, age 29, of Baltimore. Mary was a widow at a very young age and had to support her family. Her mother was a flag maker during the Revolutionary War who sewed flags, uniforms and blankets for the Continental Army under George Washington. Mary followed suit constructing ships’ colors and signal flags for the military and other private vessels.

Armistead hired Pickersgill to construct a flag measuring 30 by 42 feet with 15 stars and 15 stripes, each representing a state. It took Mary, her daughter, three of her nieces and a 13 year old servant girl working ten hour days to finish the flag. This massive undertaking used 300 yards of English wool bunting. Each star, made of cotton, measured two feet in diameter.

The flag, also known as The Great Garrison Flag, was finished and delivered to Fort McHenry on August 19, 1813. Mary Pickersgill was paid $574 for the extremely large flag and a smaller storm flag. This was a hefty sum at the time, likely more than most people in the area earned in an entire year.

One week before the Battle of Baltimore, Francis Scott Key, went aboard the flagship of the British fleet to secure the release of a friend who had been arrested. Agreement was made to turn the prisoner over to Key but he and those accompanying him were not allowed to leave the ship at that time since the attack on Baltimore was imminent and the British did not want them to leak information about the attack. Some accounts say that they were allowed to return to their own ship but were guarded until the next morning when it was all over. It was from there, in the Chesapeake Bay, eight miles away, that Francis Scott Key watched the bombardment against Fort McHenry.

The flag that Mary made was so huge that it took eleven men to raise it when dry. If it was waterlogged, remember it was made of wool, it could have weighed as much as 500 pounds and likely the pole could not have supported the weight. During the attack the night before, the rain poured to make things even worse. The garrison flag was taken down and the smaller, storm flag that Mary had made, 17 x 25 feet, was the one that flew over the fort during the battle. But come morning, Major Armistead had the soaked storm flag taken down and put his beloved, immense flag in its place.

When the morning broke, (by the dawn’s early light!) Key was sure he would see the British flag flying over the fort in a sign of victory. But much to his surprise, instead, he saw the enormous flag, made by Mary Picksersgill a year before, waving proudly in the wind. He was immediately inspired to pen the words to The Star Spangled Banner.

Have you read the book by Andy Andrews entitled, The Butterfly Effect? The subtitle is How Your Life Matters.  The book relates, “In 1963, Edward Lorenz made a presentation to the New York Academy of Sciences and was literally laughed out of the room. His theory, called the butterfly effect, stated that a butterfly could flap its wings and set air molecules in motion that, in turn, would move other air molecules–which would then move additional air molecules–eventually becoming able to influence weather patterns on the other side of the planet. For years this theory remained an interesting myth. In the mid 1990s, however, physics professors from several universities, working in tandem, proved that the butterfly effect was accurate, viable, and worked every time.” 

In this short, but impacting book, Andrews goes on to tell the story of a decision that one man made over 100 years ago and the ripple effect it has had on each one of us.

In other words, every single thing you do in your life has a ripple effect and it matters. Just as Major Armistead had a desire to let the enemy be made aware that they were occupying Fort McHenry, they weren’t going to run away, and his dream impacted Mary Pickersgill, whose mother had passed on a skill to her daughter who used that skill to create a colossal flag for our great country. Seeing that flag flying after battle then inspired Francis Scott Key to write a song that eventually was adopted as our national anthem. That flag still exists today for us all to see and admire at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.  It is a great symbol of freedom, stability, and strength for the United States of America.

  • So, what is God directing you to do today that may seem insignificant?
  • Maybe your day to day is mundane to you but you haven’t been released by God or given clear direction to another ministry?
  • Perhaps you wonder if your education is that important, or if the honor of being a stay-at-home mother is your life’s calling.
  • Possibly you are a church planter, and it is just plain difficult, and you wonder if you will ever get the work off the ground.
  • And it could be that you are a worker in your local church that just continues to do what needs to be done but you feel that it surely isn’t as important as the missionary in the jungles of Africa.

Here is where we need to remember Major Armistead’s desire to stand with courage and pride with a flag big enough that the enemy couldn’t miss it. And his dream included Rebecca, the mother of Mary Pickersgill, who taught her daughter to sew and then Mary herself, and even the young girls that worked alongside her, maybe making as many stitches or more than Mary. Insignificant? Hardly. Their labor that they thought was just for that particular time in history, the War of 1812, still lives on today and continues to stand as a symbol of freedom for us all.

So, whatever God has called you to do, or even if you haven’t had a particular calling but are fulfilling a need, do it with all of your heart! Give it all that you have and realize that just as the wings of the butterfly can influence weather patterns on the other side of the world, you, too, can be a world changer, just by doing what needs to be done.

Until God moves you elsewhere, toil on!

Here is the full version, with all four verses:

The Star-Spangled Banner

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,
’Tis the star-spangled banner – O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto – “In God is our trust,”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Happy Independence Day, America!