Baltimore, Maryland

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Fort McHenry and “The Star Spangled Banner”

The first time I saw my grandfather cry was on January 27, 1991. Whitney Houston had just finished singing (for the purpose of this piece, there will be no mention of lip-synching) our national anthem at Super Bowl XXV. Here was a man of Irish and Russian descent who fought the Japanese while stationed in the Philippines during WWII and who also boxed during his time in the army.  I can’t imagine how many times he heard the Star-Spangled Banner sung since it became our national anthem in 1931. “I have never heard it sung like that. That’s how it should always be sung,” he said as he sat down.

“The Star Spangled Banner” is a poem written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812. The “Second War of Independence” lasted from 1812 to 1815. Several factors caused us to declare war on Great Britain (again). They had imposed trade restrictions between us and Napoleon’s France. While the British stationed our seaports in order to restrict trade, they recruited American merchant sailors to the Royal Navy. At the same time, American expansionists were met by British supported Native Americans defending their land.  Congressmen named “War Hawks” declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812 and invaded British Canada. It wasn’t until April 1814, Napoleon’s abdication, when British forces sent in reinforcements.

There were many people opposed to the American declaration of war on the British; Francis Scott Key being one of those people. It wasn’t until the invasion and the burning of Washington D.C. on August 24, 1814 that he, along with many other Americans, changed his position on the war.  On the morning of September 14, 1814, after a night of British bombardment on Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key saw the Star Spangled Banner, the garrison flag of Fort McHenry, raise into the air. The Star Spangled Banner, measuring thirty by forty-two feet and had fifteen stars and fifteen stripes, was created in 1813 by flag maker Mary Pickersgill. This was the symbol of American victory. Scott Key, a 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet, created the poem “The Star Spangled Banner,” which is his interpretation of the night and morning when American freedom was compromised.

Oh, 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 thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, 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 through 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 in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh 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 washed 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!

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved 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!

Before you enter Fort McHenry, you go through the visitor’s center, which looks like it has been newly renovated to feature interactive galleries displaying information about Francis Scott Key and his poem, the War of 1812, and the Star Spangled Banner, which is displayed in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The main interactive feature took place in the main room. When the lights dimmed, visitors are shown a summarizing piece of the War of 1812 and the story of the creation of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” When the piece is finished, the screen goes into the ceiling to expose a large window that faces Fort McHenry and its garrison flag.  Visitors stand as the “Star-Spangled Banner” is played. Sweet moment especially if the sun is shinning bright, which it happened to be on this day.

Ironically, Francis Scott Key chose the British song “Anacreon in Heaven” to accompany his poem. Known as a “drinking song,” this song was popular among Americans during the nineteenth century. When it came time for arguments against “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem in the 1920’s, the origins of the song revealed that it is in fact a “constitutional song” written in 1775 or 1776 by John Stafford Smith for a mid-to late- eighteenth century gentleman’s musical club called the Anacreontic Society, which was named after the Greek poet Anacreon, who wrote poems in praise of wine and women.

The first documented performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” took place on October 19, 1814 at a Baltimore theater by a Mr. Hardinge after a play. The first step towards official status was in 1889, when it was required to be played by all navy bands when the flag is raised each day. By 1917, both the navy and the army had “The Star Spangled Banner” designated as the “national anthem of the United States” for ceremonial purposes. President Herbert Hoover signed the bill making it the national anthem of the U.S on March 3, 1931. It only needs one line to get the point across:

“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, that the composition consisting of the words and music known as “The Star-Spangled Banner’ is designated the national anthem of the United States of America.”

For more pictures:

"Whose Broad Stripes..."

For further information:

The original manuscript of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” handwritten by Francis Scott Key in 1814, is in the collections of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. http://www.mdhs.org/

At the Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum, a National Historic Landmark, visitors can tour the house where Mary Pickersgill made the Fort McHenry flag and learn about life in Baltimore during the War of 1812. http://www.flaghouse.org/

The Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. http://amhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/preservation-project.aspx

Fort McHenry http://www.nps.gov/fomc/index.htm

 

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