Rare letter by Ft. McHenry's George Armistead to be auctioned

A rare and previously unknown letter by George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore, is going under the auction gavel this week at an auction house in Chesapeake City, Cecil County.

The May 3, 1811 letter, which has an estimated value of $20,000 to $30,000, throws new light about the commissioning of the giant flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore.


It will be auctioned off Tuesday or Wednesday at Alexander Historical Auctions on behalf of a private collector.

Auction house president Bill Panagopulos writes in an email that historians previously thought that Armistead didn't envision flying the super-sized, 30-foot by 42 foot flag until July, 1813, when he commissioned a banner from the Baltimore seamstress Mary Pickersgill. He said he wanted "a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance."


But the letter indicates that Armistead, then a captain, had big plans for a big flag at least two years previously.

The letter was written to Armistead's regimental commander, Col. Henry Burbeck. Armistead proudly announces that he has arranged for the construction of a new flag pole at Fort McHenry that would be strong enough to support the behomoth banner, and already was looking around for something to fly on it.

The letter -- with its characteristic 19th century spellings and abbreviations, reads in part:

"... I have my hands full the Secretary of War has consented to have the barracks painted and I am getting up a new Flag staf an[d] it will be among the hands[omest] now standing. I have to solicit your a[id in?] getting a new Flag."

Armistead was known for his patriotism, Panagopulos writes, and was already known for ordering huge flags for the posts at which he served, including a 48-foot by 38-foot flag he had requested for Fort Niagara in 1802.