A Star-Spangled Afternoon

Rokeby, Leesburg, VA

On March 11 Oatlands hosted a Mosby Heritage Area Association – Home event about the Star Spangled Banner.  Author and historian Mark Leepson gave a fascinating talk about the history of the U.S. flag.  He told the story of local lawyer Francis Scott Key, in Baltimore negotiating for the release of a prisoner from the Battle of Bladensburg, Dr. William Beanes.  Key and his companion met with the British commanders on the flagship offshore.  The British were about to lay siege to Fort McHenry, which guarded the Port of Baltimore.  The British hoped to seize the port and strangle the economy.  Key watches from offshore through a 25 hour bombardment, the red glare of the new Congreve rockets, large bombs bursting in air.  At dawn, he is worried that he will see the white flag of surrender flying over the fort.  Instead, he sees the 42×30’ banner handcrafted by Mary Pickersgill of Baltimore, flying defiantly in the dawn’s early light.  Key is so deeply moved, he pens four stanzas of poetry, which he later suggests can be sung to the British tune, “From Anachreon of Heaven”.  The lyrics are published, the song takes hold over time, and Congress makes it the national anthem in 1931.   The National Museum of American History houses the Star Spangled Banner, in a moving exhibit that tells the story of the siege as well as the story of the flag’s creation and preservation.  It’s a must see when you are in Washington D.C.The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem | Exhibitions | Smithsonian

MHAA’s Rich Gillespie then teed up the next part of the event, the visit to Rokeby Farm.  Rokeby is privately owned, and local history aficionados know that it is rarely open to the public.  Gillespie did a superb job making the case supporting the story that the Declaration of Independence had been stored in the basement vault at Rokeby.  In August of 1814, Secretary of State James Monroe grew concerned that the British would sail up the Chesapeake and capture Washington.  He ordered his secretary, young Stephen Pleasonton, to gather the government documents and take them to a safe place.  Pleasonton loaded government records and grabbed the Declaration and headed to a mill on the Virginia side near the Chain Bridge.  But he knew the British might want the mill, too.  So he headed to Leesburg, where he encountered the Rev. Littlejohn, who helped him find a safe spot.  Three decades later, Pleasonton wrote of how, with Littlejohn’s help, the precious documents were stored in an empty house.  Gillespie reviewed the historical record of empty houses at Cornwall and Wirt, but clearly Rokeby – empty while awaiting arrival of a new owner – two miles south and more remote, offered the best available spot.  In the basement, there is a brick vault, as fireproof as possible, as secure as possible, and for a few weeks, our government’s most valued documents were likely stored there.

Vault in the basement of Rokeby

This exceptional opportunity to hear experts tell the tale and see the actual location attracted an enthusiastic crowd, many of whom are Friends of Oatlands, and many more who will become FOOs.  Thanks to the MHAA for a great afternoon!

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About oatlandsva

Director of Development at Oatlands, a National Trust Historic Site.
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