The Women Behind the Flag

The Women Behind the Flag 
by Patricia Chadwick

June  14, 2000 marks the 223rd birthday of the U.S. Flag.  In 1777, the Continental Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes pattern for the national flag.   Often overlooked in the history of the flag are the contributions of  two women who have had a hand in making two of the most important flags in history:  Betsy Ross and Mary Young Pickersgill.

Over the years there has been much controversy as to who indeed made the first American Flag.  While attempts have been made to disprove it, it is generally accepted by most Americans that the first American Flag was fashioned by Betsy Ross. While there is no historical record of Mrs. Ross being commissioned to make the first flag, there is a strong verbal record, handed down from generation to generation, beginning with Betsy’s own family.

Tradition holds that about five months later, in June of 1776, Betsy Ross received a visit from a secret committee sent by the Continental Congress that was authorized to design a flag for the nation-to-be.  The committee included George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Colonial Army, Col. George Ross, Betsy’s uncle by marriage, and Robert Morris, a wealthy businessman.  They asked that Betsy make the flag according to a rough drawing they carried with them.  She consented to attempt the work after suggesting  some slight changes, one being a star of five-points instead of six. Washington redrew the flag design in pencil in her back parlor and Betsy spent the next few days sewing the flag in her home.

When she was finished, she called for the committee who took it to the State House where Congress approved the design.  While the committee had gone to other seamstresses, Betsy Ross’ flag is the one the Continental Congress decided upon, and they gave her a standing order.  She continued making flags for the United States Government for the next fifty years.

Next we will look at the flag that inspired the “Star Spangled Banner”. While many know the story behind Francis Scott Key penning the beloved “Star Spangle Banner”, not many know the story of the flag that was flown at Fort McHenry that inspired the 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.

Mary Young Pickersgill was born in 1776 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the difficult period of the Revolutionary War.  Her family moved to Lebanon, Pennsylvania during the war and later to Baltimore.  There she was married and was widowed.

Mary took up the trade of flagmaking, needing to support herself and her daughter.  She became quite skillful at the trade and became well-known as a flagmaker. Therefore, during another critical time in U.S. History, she was selected to make the flag for Fort McHenry.  In 1813, Major George Armistead hired Mary Young Pickersgill to sew a flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes, the number of states then in the Union. Anticipating an attack on Fort McHenry by the British during the War of 1812, Major Armistead asked that the flag be made extra large so that it would be plainly visible to the English Fleet.  He had also hoped the large flag would lift the spirits of the Baltimoreans, allowing them to see this flag fly in defiance of the British.

Mary and  her daughter Caroline, then only a mere 13 years-old, accomplished the task in six weeks. She took great care to make sure the flag was well constructed. The entire flag was sewn by hand with flat felled seams and tight stitching, so it would not come apart in the wind.  It required four hundred yards of wool material and the finished flag measured  30 by 42 feet.  The flag had to be assembled in a nearby malt house, because there was no other place large enough to assemble it.

This flag was used as the garrison flag of Fort McHenry during the British siege of 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 our National Anthem.

As we celebrate Flag Day this year, let’s take time to remember the great women BEHIND the flag!

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