On September 13-14, 1814, in the third year of the War of 1812, this 34 year old Virginia born artillery officer ordered an American flag raised over the ramparts of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor following a 25-hour British naval bombardment. The flag itself inspired a Maryland lawyer to write a song that would become the U.S. national anthem on March 3, 1931.
George Armistead was born near Bowling Green in Caroline County, Virginia, on April 10, 1780, to a well-established Virginia family along the Rappahannock River. He was one of six sons and three daughters born to John and Lucinda (Baylor) Armistead.
He entered the U.S. military in 1799 and rose through the ranks, serving at Fort Niagara, New York (1801-1805); Fort Pickering, Arkansas Territory (1807-1808); and Fort McHenry, Baltimore (1809-1813), where he arrived in January 1809 as second in command. In Baltimore he wedded Louisa Hughes (1789-1861), daughter of a wealthy Baltimore silversmith. In 1812 he returned to Fort Niagara, where on May 27, 1813, he distinguished himself during the American siege of Fort Niagara by capturing the British flags. For his gallantry he was appointed a major in the Third Regiment U.S. Artillery. Armistead returned to Baltimore in June 1813, and remained until his death five years later.
Armistead’s name has been immortalized in U.S. history because of one simple act. In August 1813, he requisitioned a U.S. ensign measuring 42′ x 30′ having fifteen stars and fifteen-stripes that gave inspiration to the defenders’ of Baltimore and inspired a new national song. Ever since, he has been known as the “Guardian of the Star-Spangled Banner.”
After the bombardment, President James Madison brevetted Major Armistead to the rank of lieutenant colonel to date from September 12, 1814. Upon this promotion, Armistead remarked to his wife that “he hoped they would both live long to enjoy.” Four years later, at the age of thirty-eight, Armistead died of causes unknown and was buried with full military honors by a grateful city.
His brother-in-law Christopher Hughes Jr. (1786-1849) served as secretary to the American Peace Commission at Belgium that concluded the War of 1812 on Christmas Eve, 1814. It is Hughes who brought the Treaty of Ghent to Annapolis, then Washington for the President’s signature
Fifty years later, his soon-to-be equally famous nephew, Brigadier General Lewis Addison Armistead, C.S.A. (1817-1863) died of wounds suffered in the Confederate assault (Pickett’s Charge) at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. Two months after the battle his remains were secretly brought to Baltimore and buried next to his famous uncle. A hero of Gettysburg lies with the hero of Fort McHenry within the grounds of Old St. Paul’s Cemetery in downtown Baltimore.
Two monuments honor Lt. Colonel George Armistead in Baltimore. The earliest, erected in 1882, stands atop historic Federal Hill overlooking Baltimore’s downtown waterfront; the other, at Fort McHenry, dedicated during the Battle for Baltimore Centennial Celebration in September 1914
Source: Guardian of The Star-Spangled Banner: Lt. Colonel George Armistead and The Fort McHenry Flag by Scott S Sheads (Baltimore: Toomey Press, 1999).