Q: Why did you write this book?
When I worked at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, keeper of the Star-Spangled Banner flag, I learned much about the broader context of the story and wanted to explore that more. All history events have multiple perspectives, and it’s important to look at these. I want Americans to understand what the national anthem is about.
Did your research reveal any surprises?
Perhaps most surprising to me was the sad fact that all of my main American characters were slave owners. I did not realize this when I started the project. On the flip side, I was inspired to learn the story of the Colonial Marines, formerly enslaved men who decided to fight for the British. Also, I did not realize that the British commander had decided against an attack on Baltimore, planning to head north to New England. He changed his mind due to the tidal forecast.
Have you had any memorable experiences related to writing this book?
Always! I visited Fort McHenry for the annual Defenders’ Day commemoration and was inspired by the military choir and orchestra performing the national anthem, the large flag rising over the fort, and fireworks bursting nearby. Quite the patriotic spectacle, I highly recommend seeing it. Also, I finally managed to visit Tangier Island, a lonely outpost in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. It was fun to imagine the Colonial Marines training there. I also paid a visit to Thomas Kemp’s home near St. Michael’s, now the Wade’s Point Inn. The owner let me climb a ladder to a small room where Kemp watched the boat traffic on the Bay and took me up on the roof for a spectacular view. It is a stunning location on the water. I hope readers will be inspired to visit some of the sites associated with the story.
Who was your favorite character?
They are all so different, certainly George Cockburn was a great villain. He didn’t really like Americans and was easy to write. When writing nonfiction, you must rely on the sources and as a rule of thumb, the wealthier and more well-known you are in history, the more likely there is to be source materials. Kemp, a successful businessman, did leave some business records, but on the whole (except for his journal about building the house at Wade’s Point) there isn’t much from him. Pickersgill, too, did not leave an abundance of source materials. This makes the historian’s job harder. I couldn’t fill out their characters as much as I wanted due to this.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
That history is complex. That everyday people make history. Mary Pickersgill would be shocked to know that her flag is a national treasure, enshrined in the Smithsonian, and the subject of our national anthem. People have differing motivations for their actions and decisions. What might seem obvious to us, given our benefit of hindsight, was not obvious to people in the past. I hope readers will gain a new appreciation for the words of our national anthem and their historical context.