Skip to comments.The Star-Spangled Banner
Posted on 09/01/2002 11:58:57 AM PDT by Congressman Billybob
Most Americans think they know the story of "The Star-Spangled Banner." The British bombarded Ft. McHenry, which defended Baltimore, for 25 hours on 13 September, 1814, through to the next morning. When dawn broke, Francis Scott Key, a local lawyer being held prisoner on a British ship, saw that flag still flying. He concluded that the Fort and the City had been spared, and was inspired to write "The Star-Spangled Banner."
All that is true, but is not the half of the story. This was not merely a battle to subdue one fort and capture one city. This was a battle to determine the fate of the nation. All who were involved were well aware that the stakes were that high. Here is the whole story:
The war of 1812 has been rightly called "the second War of Independence." Beginning with isolated confrontations on the high seas, it escalated into full-scale war. The United States began this war. But the British saw it as an opportunity to "regain their lost American colonies."
Normally, when an enemy captures and burns the capitol of a nation and sends its government fleeing for their lives into the hinterlands, the war is over and the enemy has prevailed. Exactly that fate befell the United States on 22 August, 1814. As the White House, the Capitol and the Library of Congress were burning at the hands of the British, President Madison and the rest of the government were running for their lives into Maryland, with critical documents and possessions, including the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, loaded in their wagons.
Yet this war was NOT over. America was NOT defeated. Not yet.
The greatest strength of the United States lay not in its armies, but in its Navy and its privateers. Warships like the US Frigate Constitution ("Old Ironsides") and her sister ship, the USF Constellation, had been launched in Fells Point in Baltimore. (Though they lie at dock in Boston and Baltimore, respectively, both of those ships are still commissioned in the US Navy.)
Even more important were the Baltimore Clippers. These were the fastest ships on the seas. Though they carried light guns, they could out-maneuver, out-fight, and outrun any other ship, including all of the ships of the British Navy.
Whether flying the union jacks of the US Navy, or operating as privateers privately owned and manned ships commissioned by Congress to attack enemy shipping -- the clippers were the scourge of the seas. And all of these vessels were, as their name implied, built and launched on the Chesapeake Bay around Baltimore.
So, as Washington burned, the British army and fleet turned their attention north toward Baltimore. They knew that until Baltimore was captured, the source of those frigates and clippers could not be cut off. The war could not be won until that was done. To take Baltimore, they first had to subdue Ft. McHenry, which guarded its harbor. With that, Britain would finally regain her "American colonies."
This naval reality was equally well known to the Americans. All possible troops were gathered in Baltimore to defend the land routes to attack the Fort from behind. Major George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry, made his own preparations. He assembled his able gun crews. He filled the underground bunkers with shot and powder to sink the British ships that came within range. And he had made one other preparation well in advance.
In the warfare of the day, flags were more than just symbols or decorations. They were an essential factor in battle. In naval warfare, a ship was still in the fight as long as its flag was flying. When a captain "struck his colors," that was the universally recognized symbol to cease fire, because the ship was prepared to surrender. Remember what John Paul Jones answered from the deck of the Bon Homme Richard when the Captain of the Serapis, which was grappled to his sinking ship, hailed him to "Strike your colors." Captain Jones said, "I have not yet begun to fight." He captured the Serapis, just before his own ship sank.
Major Armistead was aware of the meaning of striking the colors, and that it also applied to forts under siege. A year before the attack on Fort McHenry, Armistead ordered from Mary Pickersgill the largest American flag ever made to that time, a full thirty feet by forty-two feet. This flag was so large that all the defenders of Baltimore could look to the Fort and see that the Americans were still defending it. Major Armistead said at the time he wanted the flag to be "big enough so the British could see it from a mile away."
The attack on Fort McHenry came from three directions. A British army under General Ross attacked at North Point on 12 September. Two American sharpshooters killed General Ross near Fells Point, where the Constitution and the Constellation had come down the ways. Later, when General Ross' replacement received the message that the Fort had not been taken by sea, and being faced with superior numbers of militia and 100 well-manned cannon in East Baltimore, he broke off his land attack.
The second attack came several times during the night. Under the cover of the naval bombardment, small boats carrying British Marines attempted to land near the Fort and take it from the rear. Each time, the defenders of the Fort rushed from their bunkers, manned their cannons, and drove the British off.
But the main attack was the bombardment itself. Using mortars and rockets from a distance of up to a mile away beyond the reach of McHenry's guns the British rained down shot and shell on the Fort for 25 hours, with pauses during the failed attempts to get the Royal Marines ashore. Other than the unfortunate lookouts who had to remain at the ramparts, the defenders of the Fort were in their bunkers with ten-foot brick roofs.
Six days before the battle began, Francis Scott Key, a Baltimore lawyer, had come to the British under flag of truce to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes. Because the assault was about to begin and Key had seen the preparations, the British held him prisoner first on their flagship, H.M.S. Tonnant and later, on his own sloop under the British guns, until after the battle. From the deck of his ship Key watched the bombardment of the Fort through the night. It is not poetic license but literal accuracy, that during that time he could sometimes see that great battle flag flying "by the rocket's red glare." Like all other Baltimoreans, he knew that if the Fort fell, the City would fall, and the war would be lost.
Key also knew enough about naval warfare to understand that the British lacked the munitions to continue the bombardment of the Fort beyond a single day. So when "by dawn's early light" he saw the "Star-Spangled Banner" still flying, he knew the Fort was saved, the City was saved, and the nation was preserved.
Major Armistead's descendants kept the flag for almost two centuries. In 1907, it was donated to the Smithsonian, less the outer edge which his widow had clipped off in small squares for widows of the defenders of Baltimore who visited her seeking a precious souvenir to bury with their husbands.
Francis Scott Key's poem about "The Defense of Fort M'Henry" was published in Baltimore. He set it to the tune of a British drinking song. In October a local actor first performed the song, calling it "The Star-Spangled Banner." That title, not Key's one, became associated with the song, which became very popular on patriotic occasions.
It was not until 3 March, 1931, that the song was adopted as the National Anthem of the United States. The first public reference to the Motto of the United States, "In God We Trust," appears in the fourth stanza of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
And that's the whole story of The Star-Spangled Banner.
Suggestion for Readers:
Under the United States Code, any flag that was once the official flag of the US can be flown today as its flag. The Flag House in Baltimore, which was the home of Mary Pickersgill, sells standard-sized copies of The Star-Spangled Banner for a reasonable price in either cotton or rayon. Anyone who believes that this nation is, and should continue to be, "the land of the free and the home of the brave," is encouraged to get and proudly fly a copy of The Star-Spangled Banner, the only US flag with 15 stripes rather than 13, because the original plan added both a stripe and a star for each new state. Click here to reach the Flag House.
(C) 2002 Congressman Billybob. All rights reserved.
14 September is Flag Day. This year is the 190th anniversary of the battle in which that great flag flew, and of the National Anthem that tells its story.
One error in this story is the report of troops being in "bunkers with 10 foot brick roofs". The bunkers were not built at McHenry until the Civil War. At the time of the British Bombardment, most of the American troops took refuge in the "dry moat" surrounding the fort. Four US soldiers were killed that night in 1814.
That fact makes it even more frightening to consider the thoughts and fears of the defenders as they hunkered down in ditches with bombs weighting up to 220 pounds coming in from (admittedly inaccurate) mortars from up to a mile away.
Gave proof through the night that the flag was still there."
There is a nun buoy in Baltimore harbor (marked red, white and blue) that marks the spot where Key's ship was sited during the fight.
With respect to any cannoneers out there it looks pretty close to the fort to me.
A pretty good question: "Oh, say does that star spangled banner still waive, o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave."
We should all ask that question now and again.
When the warrior returns from the battle afar,
To the home and the country he has nobly defended,
Oh! Warm be the welcome to gladden his ear,
And loud be the joys that his perils are ended!
In the full tide of song, let his fame roll along.
To the feast-flowing board let us gratefully throng.
Where mixt with the olive the laurel shall wave,
And form a bright wreath for the brow of the brave.
The next verse celebrates the "band of brothers" that braved the desert and ocean to secure the rights and "fair fame" of America. The third verse continues the theme, more explicitly focused on the Tripolitan war:
In conflict resistless each toil they endured,
Till their foes shrunk dismay'd from the war's desolation:
And pale beam'd the crescent, its splendor obscur'd
By the light of the star-spangled flag of our nation.
Where each flaming star gleam'd a meteor of war,
And the turban'd heads bowed to the terrible glare.
Then mixt with the olive the laurel shall wave,
And form a bright wreath, for the brow of the brave.
Nine years later, Key would stand aboard a British warship as it bombarded Fort McHenry in Baltimore. He would rewrite this song about Tripoli, with its imagery of bombs and warfare, and the arresting image of the "star-spangled" flag, which here obscures the Muslim crescent. Key's song of Tripoli lives on in the American national anthem.
More on these events can be found here.
I LIKE it!
In regards to Captain John Paul Jones' comment; Captain Jones said, "I have not yet begun to fight.", here's another nugget of info. US Navy lore has it that the complete quote is; "Surrender be damned! I have not yet begun to fight."
Thought you'd like the salty version.
O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore dimly seen thro' the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash'd out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O thus be it ever when free-men shall stand
Between their lov'd home and the war's desolation;
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land
Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserv'd us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: In God is our trust!
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
It is also highly likely that the Brits would have changed their minds about the desirability of being enmeshed across the pond when Napoleon escaped his confinement on Elba on March 1, 1815. Or perhaps when the cream of their troops were slaughtered at New Orleans.
Well, actually, we lost that one.
Unless you can claim victory by
negotiating an end to the war while
your forces are surrounded, that is.