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The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

Oh Say Can You See?

During the War of 1812, after British forces burned much of Washington, DC, the war moved to nearby Baltimore. Attorney and amateur poet Francis Scott Key was aboard the HMS Tonnant as part of prisoner exchange envoy between American and British forces, when he witnessed the Battle of Baltimore on the night of September 13-14, 1814. The battle raged all through the night. At dawn, he saw the American flag flying above Fort McHenry and knew the Americans had been victorious. He wrote a poem about his experience called “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” and set it to the tune of “Anacreon in Heaven.” The song became known as the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and in 1931, following an act of congress, became the first and only national anthem of the United States of America.  

The flag was recognized as important enough to be saved, but not important enough to be preserved. It was privately held by the family of Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead, the commanding officer at Fort McHenry, until it was donated to the Smithsonian in 1907. During this time, souvenirs were allowed to be cut from the fabric, resulting it to be much shorter than its original length. Today, you can see the Star-Spangled banner on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. This is the same flag that was hoisted above Fort McHenry on September 14, 1814, the same flag Key saw the morning following the battle.

This and so many other treasures are on display at the museum. Within These Walls offer visitors a glimpse at 200 years of home life in New England and the Cost of Freedom displays artifacts from conflicts dating as far back as the French and Indian War. American ingenuity and popular culture also get their own exhibits. You can see Edison light bulbs, steam engines, cars and motorcycles as well as Roberto Clemente’s batting helmet, Judy Garland’s ruby slippers, Kermit the Frog and a Woolworth’s lunch counter from the civil rights movement. 

Know Before You Go

Admission is free and the museum is open from 10am to 5:30pm daily. It is open every day except December 25.

Bottom Line

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History tells the story of America through artifacts and exhibits and is a must-see in Washington, DC.


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