Wednesday, April 26, 2017

George Armistead, the Fort Niagara Flag, and the Star-Spangled Banner

by Robert Emerson, executive director Old Fort Niagara

“We, Sir, are ready at Fort McHenry to defend Baltimore against invading by the enemy.  That is to say, we are ready 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 distance.” so wrote Major George Armistead in June 1813 to General Samuel Smith, commander of Baltimore’s militia.

George Armistead might have got his love of very large flags from Fort Niagara where he had been stationed twice.  Armistead was no Western New York native.  He was born in Caroline County Virginia on April 10, 1780, one of six sons and three daughters born to John and Lucinda (Baylor) Armistead.  George entered the U.S. military in 1799 and rose through the ranks.  From 1801 to 1806 served as First Lieutenant and assistant military agent at Fort Niagara.  He arrived at the Fort in September 1, 1801, and was assigned to Captain James Reid’s Company, Second Regiment of Artillerists, and Engineers.  Armistead did not care for the harsh northern winters and repeatedly took extended furloughs during the winter months to visit relatives in Dumfries, Virginia.
Robert Emerson and the Fort Niagara Garrison Flag
Shortly after Armistead’s arrival at Fort Niagara he discovered that the post had no national colors.  The US had taken over Fort Niagara from the British in 1796.  On August 11, of that year, at 3 pm American soldiers raised the new 15-star, 15-stripe flag on the garrison flagstaff located in the north bastion.  The recently landed six pounder cannons roared out a 15-gun salute.  Apparently these colors were not longer present when Armistead arrived at the Fort.  At any rate he wrote to his superior, Peter Gansevoort and complained that Fort Niagara was without a garrison flag and in an effort to remedy the situation, ordered one.  He and others were nevertheless complaining as late as 1804 because they were still without a garrison flag.  It did not arrive until 1809, and eventually flew over at least three battles before its capture in December, 1813. 

The flag was of the pattern established by Congress in flag legislation of 1795 including one star and one stripe for each state in the Union.  The first Flag Act, adopted on June 14, 1777, created the original United States flag of thirteen stars and stripes.  The Second Flag Act, (January 13, 1794) had authorized two additional stripes and stars to be placed on the flag representing the two new states in the Union, Vermont, and Kentucky.  (It would not be until the Third Flag Act, passed on April 4, 1818, which would reduce the number of striped back to thirteen to honor the original thirteen colonies and provide for one star of each state, with new stars to be added to the flag on the Fourth of July following the admission of each new state.)

Meanwhile in 1806 Armistead was assigned to the Arkansas Territory and then in 1809 was promoted to Captain and transferred to Fort McHenry on the Patapsco River in Baltimore.  While in Baltimore, he married Louisa Hughes, a daughter of a wealthy area silversmith.

Spring of 1813 saw the return of George Armistead to Fort Niagara as a Major in the 3rd Regiment of Artillery.  On May 27th, Armistead distinguished himself at the bombardment and capture of Fort George.  After successfully capturing York (Toronto) an American fleet brought an army to the mouth of the Niagara River.  A bombardment from Fort Niagara and the batteries along the river had shattered Fort George on May 25th.  Two days later, United States troops landed on the Canadian shore.  The British were forced to abandon Fort George after a fiercely contested battle and retreated westward along Lake Ontario toward Burlington Bay.

General Henry Dearborn reported to the Secretary of War “I am greatly indebted to Colonel Porter, Major Armistead, and Captain Totten for their judicious arrangements and skillful execution in demolishing the enemies fort and batteries, and to the officers of the artillery.” 

George Armistead was given the honor of carrying the British captured battle flags to Washington for presentation to President Madison.  On June 27, 1813, while in Washington, Armistead received orders to take command of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor.  Shortly after his arrival he commissioned professional flag maker Mary Pickergill and members of her family to sew two flags for the fort: a smaller storm flag, 17 x 25 feet, and a larger garrison flag, 30 x 42 feet, which bore a striking resemblance to the Niagara banner.  This larger Fort McHenry flag would later be known as the Star-Spangled Banner and is about the size of a quarter of a modern basketball court reflecting its purpose as a garrison flag.  Like the slightly larger Fort Niagara flag, it was intended to fly from a flagpole about ninety feet high and visible from great distances and through the smoke of battle.  (Today’s garrison flags have a standard size of 20 x 38 feet

During the Battle of Baltimore September 12-14, 1814 British ships bombarded Fort McHenry for over 25 hours.  This coincided with a heavy rainstorm so Fort McHenry had flown its smaller storm flag throughout the night bombardment.  But at dawn, as the British began to retreat, Major Armistead ordered his men to lower the storm flag and replace it with the larger banner.  As they raised the flag, the troops fired their guns and played “Yankee Doodle” in celebration.  Proudly waving over the fort, the great garrison flag could be seen from miles around, proclaiming that the Americans still possessed the fortress and were blocking the British ships from Baltimore Harbor.  Armistead’s flag of defiance was even seen from as far away as a ship anchored eight miles down the river, where and American lawyer named Francis Scott Key had spent the night watching and hoping for a victory.  The sight so moved Key that he was prompted to write “The Star Spangled Banner” a poem that was eventually set to music and became our national anthem.

Armistead was soon promoted by President Madison to Lieutenant Colonel and given possession of the garrison flag.  He remained in command of Fort McHenry until his death on April 25, 1818.  Ironically that same year, new flag legislation made 15-star, 15 stripe flags obsolete.  The Banner remained in the family’s possession until they turned over to the Smithsonian in 1907.  

What of the Fort Niagara flag, the banner that Armistead no doubt saw just before leaving for Washington and his new assignment as commandant of Fort McHenry?

On the night of December 18-19 1813, a 562-man British force crossed the Niagara River and captured Fort Niagara and the garrison flag.  Shortly after the British assault, a report was sent to British General Drummond by Colonel Murray in which he stated, “My staff adjutant, Mr. Brampton, will have the honor of presenting this dispatch and the standard of the American garrison.”  Drummond passed the flag to his superior, Sir George Prevost.  Prevost, kept the captured flag in Quebec until May 1814 when it was sent to London along with flags captured at Forts Oswego and Mackinac where they were laid at the feet of His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent, later King George IV.

At some time, the King returned the flags for Forts Niagara and Oswego to Gordon Drummond as trophies of war as Drummond had been the commander of British forces in Upper Canada.  It remained in his ancestral home, Megginch Castle in Scotland where it was a prized possession.  Sadly the flag was damaged in 1969 by fire.  In the early 1990s the Old Fort Niagara Association purchased the flag and returned it to western NY.  In 2006, after conservation, it was put on permanent public display for the first time in a new Visitors Center.

The Fort Niagara flag is an older sister the more famous Star Spangled Banner and it is one of only about 20 known surviving examples of the Stars and Stripes dating before 1815.  The flag is one of the best documented of these early flags and it is the earliest extant US flag known to have flown in western NY and the second oldest in NYS.

This article originally appeared in "Niagara County: The Weird, The Wacky, The Wonderful." Reprinted with permission.

Private email from Robert Emerson, May 2, 2008.
Kohler, Douglas, & Doug DeCroix.  “At the Point of the Bayonet!  The British Capture of Fort Niagara”, Western New York Heritage.  Vol. 9, No. 4.  Winter 2007.  pp. 48-56.
Dunnigan, Brian Leigh.  Glorious Old Relic  The French Castle and Old Fort Niagara.  Youngstown, NY:  Old Fort Niagara Association, INC.  1987.  pp. 50-56.