Grassroots Commentary

"What So Proudly We Hailed ..."

Bill Franklin · Jan. 13, 2014

As the professional football season slogs its way to Super Bowl Sunday on February 2, I wait with eager expectation for the traditional pre-game mutilation of the National Anthem sung by someone who either can’t read music or couldn’t carry a tune in a barroom spittoon. Along with its current investigation and prevention of player concussions, I think the National Football League should investigate and prevent the jazzed up renditions of an anthem whose origin should oblige its singing to be done with some reverence.

But alas, this is yet another example of how cheaply modern society holds its traditions. Perhaps the day will come when a comedic reenactment of the D-Day invasion is presented, or an irreverent telling of that awful night at Ford’s Theater in April 1865, or perhaps a desecrated version of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech will appear on Saturday Night Live.

The War of 1812 was fought for several reasons and took place in three major theaters – at sea, along the American-Canadian border, and in the South where Andrew Jackson earned his reputation in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. The British were fighting a two-front war against the United States in the west and the Napoleonic wars in the east until 1814 when Napoleon was defeated. This allowed the British to turn their full fury against the United States.

The British fought and won the Battle of Bladensburg (Maryland) in the late summer of 1814, allowing them to burn the Capitol and the President’s House (White House) in Washington, sending Dolly Madison scrambling for her life into northern Virginia near present-day McLean. Her husband was with the defeated American army at Bladensburg and penciled a note telling her to flee, inasmuch as the British had boasted that if they captured her, she would be sent to London and paraded in irons through its streets. Nice guys, the British.

From their “victory” in burning a deserted Washington, the British turned north to Baltimore and New York (and later New Orleans) where their fortunes turned, thankfully, otherwise we would have been returned to colonial status and likely would have become a British-leaning country as Canada is today.

As they left Washington, the British snagged Dr. William Beanes, a 65-year old physician living in Maryland, and held him as a prisoner of war. Beanes had participated in the capture and jailing of British stragglers and their General Ross took umbrage with that act. Beanes’ friends went to Francis Scott Key, a lawyer practicing in Georgetown (a modern-day suburb of Washington) to help secure his release. With the permission of President Madison and assistance of Madison’s Prisoner Exchange Agent, John Skinner, Key and Skinner sailed up the Chesapeake Bay in search of the British fleet where American prisoners were being held and Beanes was likely to be found.

The pair found the flagship of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane. On board they met with General Ross, who had reboarded the flagship with his troops. Ross refused the request to release Beanes. However, Skinner had the foresight to have collected letters from the British wounded left behind in the Battle of Bladensburg. They had been cared for by Beanes and treated well by other Americans. Upon reading the letters, Ross had a change of heart and agreed to Beanes’ release. Ross would be killed in a land battle near Baltimore days later.

Since Key, Skinner, and Beanes had learned of the British intention to bombard Fort McHenry during their time aboard the Admiral’s flagship, they were free to go but not until the British military operation was complete lest they warn those in the Fort. All three were held under British guard throughout the day of September 13, 1814 as the bombardment continued through the night and into the next morning.

Admiral Cochrane attempted to get his fleet in close to the Fort but shallow waters prevented him from sending forward his heaviest ships. So the fight was left to ten small warships and six bomb and rocket ships. They were able to get close enough to inflict damage on Fort McHenry while remaining outside the range of the Fort’s guns. On one occasion the ships moved in closer to increase the effectiveness of their fire but came within the range of the Fort’s guns. The return fire was so withering that the ship captains were forced to pull back. When morning came the British had fired between 1,500 and 1,800 rounds at Fort McHenry with little effect. Cochrane wisely decided to break off the battle and unwisely decided to sail to the Battle of New Orleans where the Americans mauled the British, effectively ending the War of 1812.

The year before the attack, the commander of Fort McHenry had requested a flag to fly over the embattlements in order to make the stronghold visible to the British at a distance. A local committee selected Mary Pickersgill, a “maker of colors” who had previously made ship flags. They requested that she sew a garrison flag measuring 30 by 42 feet and a storm flag measuring 17 by 25 feet. (Yes, it was Mary Pickersgill, not Betsy Ross who made the “star spangled banner.”) The garrison flag was huge with 15 stars measuring two feet point to point and stripes – eight red and seven white – measuring two feet in width. (The surviving garrison flag now measures 30 by 34 feet because about eight feet was cut off and given away as souvenirs as people became aware of its historic significance. It resides in the Smithsonian Institute. The storm flag has been lost.)

During the shelling on the night of September 13 a torrential rain fell and the storm flag was flying. As morning broke, the storm flag was lowered and the garrison flag was raised. It was that flag that Key saw when he penned on the back of an envelope in his pocket his famous lines:

O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through 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?

This was the first of several stanzas he wrote, but when the National Anthem is sung today only the first stanza is performed.

The mythology surrounding the National Anthem asserts that it was written as a poem and later adapted to a popular drinking song of the era. In fact Key wrote the lyrics with the melody of “The Anacreontic Song” (also called “To Anacreon in Heaven”) in mind. Hundreds of other lyrics had been written to the same melody. A decade earlier, Key had written similar words to the same melody which he called “When the Warrior Returns” to honor Stephen Decatur’s exploits in Thomas Jefferson’s war against the Barbary pirates.

The melody of the “Star Spangled Banner” was composed by Londoner John Stafford Smith as a sort of theme song for the British Anacreontic Society, a men’s glee club of the 18th century. It later became popular in America. The lyrics were separated from the melody and were variously published under the title “Defense of Fort McHenry.” However, Dr. David Hildebrand, Director of the Colonial Music Institute, says the structure of the lyrics don’t match any poem. The lyrics and melody did not become known as “The Star Spangled Banner” until well after the Battle of Fort McHenry as over time it assumed increasing patriotic significance. In popular use several versions began to emerge and a committee including John Philip Sousa met to agree on a standardized version of it.

In the late 19th century it became the official anthem to be sung or played when the flag was raised. Later President Wilson required that it be played at all military and certain other official events. In 1929 Robert Ripley’s syndicated Believe It or Not newspaper feature noted that the United States had no national anthem. Until then “Hail Columbia” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (sung to the melody of the British national anthem, “God Save the King”) had served as the official music for occasions of State. Responding to Ripley’s claim, John Philip Sousa, the march king, published an editorial opinion stating that the stirring spirit of the music of the “Star Spangled Banner” with Key’s “uplifting words” made it a fit candidate for a national anthem. Many agreed and in March 1931 Herbert Hoover signed a law adopting the “Star Spangled Banner” as the official National Anthem of the United States.

This year is the bicentennial of the writing of what later became our National Anthem. It gives me goose bumps every time I hear it sung properly.

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