Tom McMillan: Saving the Most Famous Flag Ever

Author and historian Tom McMillan joins Tim to talk about his book called, “Our Flag Was Still There – The Star Spangled Banner that Survived the British and 200 Years. And the Armistead Family who saved it.”  Tom is the author of four books centered on stories related to 9/11 and Flight 93; two books about key figures in the Gettysburg battle during the Civil War; and now his latest book that tells the story behind the story of the most famous flag in American history.

Star Spangled Banner

If you’re a regular listener to the Shaping Opinion podcast, you may remember an interview we did before with Tom McMillan. We had a great conversation with him in March of 2019. That was our 58th episode. If you’re keeping track, this one is our 294th episode.

In that earlier episode, Tom told us about five local boys from Gettysburg who came back to fight in an epic battle in their hometown.

Today, we’re going to talk with Tom about a different chapter in American history. The events surrounding the War of 1812, a famous battle at Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, the story behind our National Anthem, and an American family that preserved one of the most sacred artifacts in our nation’s history. One that now rests in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

But there’s more to Tom than just history, and it’s worth knowing that up front.

Tom started his career as a sports writer. He then became a hockey executive until his retirement. But long before he retired, he started his transition into author and historian. How does something like that happen?

About the Book

Our Flag Was Still There details the improbable two-hundred-year journey of the original Star-Spangled Banner—from Fort McHenry in 1814, when Francis Scott Key first saw it, to the Smithsonian in 2023—and the enduring family who defended, kept, hid, and ultimately donated the most famous flag in American history.

Francis Scott Key saw the original Star-Spangled Banner flying over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry on September 14, 1814, following a twenty-five-hour bombardment by the British Navy, inspiring him to write the words to our national anthem. Torn and tattered over the years, reduced in size to appease souvenir-hunters, stuffed away in a New York City vault for the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the flag’s mere existence after two hundred years is an improbable story of dedication, perseverance, patriotism, angst, inner-family squabbles, and, yes, more than a little luck.

For this unlikely feat, we have the Armistead family to thank—led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry, who took it home after the battle in clear defiance of U.S. Army regulations. It is only because of that quiet indiscretion that the flag survives to this day. Armistead’s descendants kept and protected their family heirloom for ninety years. The flag’s first photo was not taken until 1873, almost sixty years after Key saw it waving, and most Americans did not even know of its existence until Armistead’s grandson loaned it to the Smithsonian in 1907.

Tom McMillan tells a story as no one has before. Digging deep into the archives of Fort McHenry and the Smithsonian, accessing never-before-published letters and documents, and presenting rare photos from the private collections of Armistead descendants and other sources, McMillan follows the flag on an often-perilous journey through three centuries. Our Flag Was Still There provides new insight into an intriguing period of U.S. history, offering a “story behind the story” account of one of the country’s most treasured relics.


About this Episode’s Guest Tom McMillan

Tom McMillanA lifelong student of history, Tom McMillan has served on the board of trustees of Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center, the board of directors of the Friends of Flight 93 National Memorial, and the marketing committee of the Gettysburg Foundation. He has written three previous books, including Flight 93: The Story, The Aftermath, and the Legacy of American Courage on 9/11. McMillan recently retired after a forty-three-year career in sports communications, which included twenty-five years as VP/Communications for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. He has a journalism degree from Point Park University and resides with his family in Pittsburgh.