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Oh say can you see

By George F. Smith
web posted October 15, 2001

Heard the one about the Georgetown lawyer held captive by a British naval commander while his fleet bombarded an American fort? Being an attorney he liked words, and after witnessing a barrage lasting longer than a day, he felt inspired to write a poem on the back of an envelope.

Later he revised his writing and suggested it should be sung to the tune of a popular drinking song, "Anacreon in Heaven." On October 19, 1814 a Baltimore actor sang it for the first time in a public performance.

The lawyer, Francis Scott Key, was a religious man who later published a book of poems. He opposed the War of 1812, though at the onset had served briefly in a local artillery outfit.

How did he come to witness such a horrendous attack?

By late summer of 1814 the British had blockaded the American coast and were keeping American merchant vessels and warships from leaving port. The British decided to jam a knife in Yankee pride by attacking our nation's capital.

On August 24, after overpowering feeble resistance at Bladensburg, Maryland, the redcoats marched into Washington. President Madison and Dolly escaped at the last minute, abandoning a sumptuous meal which British officers relished and gloated over. When they were done, they torched the White House and the Capitol.

Residents of Baltimore 40 miles away could see the flames, which were later dampened by rain. As they returned to their ships in the Chesapeake Bay, the British seized a much-beloved physician, Dr. William Beanes, charging him with aiding the capture of British deserters. Fearing the enemy would hang him, his friends pleaded with Key to secure his release.

On September 3, Key sailed from Baltimore under a flag of truce with Colonel John Skinner, an American agent for prisoner exchange. They met the British flagship on September 7 and eventually won Beanes' freedom.

There was only one problem: the British thought the three Americans had heard too much.

The flag that Amistead had commissioned where it is today, the Smithsonian Institution
The flag that Amistead had commissioned where it is today, the Smithsonian Institution

The British had been discussing their plan to attack Baltimore. Troops would march on the city while ships took out Fort McHenry, which guarded Baltimore at the mouth of the Patapsco River. They therefore ordered the three men not to leave while they "silenced" the fort.

A year earlier, in 1813, Fort McHenry's commander, Major George Armistead, had commissioned the making of a flag so big "the British would have no trouble seeing it from a distance." Hand-sewn on the floor of a Baltimore brewery by Mary Pickersgill and her 13-year-old daughter, the flag bore 15 stars and 15 stripes in accordance with a 1794 act of Congress, and measured 30 by 42 feet, with each star spanning 26 inches from point to point.

The battle at Fort McHenryWhen the British began their bombardment on the morning of September 13, 1814, they saw a smaller flag. They lit the sky off and on for 25 hours, at times during heavy rain, hurling 1,500 bombshells weighing as much as 220 pounds that often exploded before landing and firing new Congreve rockets that traced wobbly arcs of red flame.

As long as the shelling continued, Key, Skinner, and Beanes knew Armistead had not surrendered. But during the predawn darkness of September 14 an uneasy silence fell. When daylight came, Armistead lowered the storm flag that had flown during the rainy night and raised the defiantly-large Pickersgill banner. The British had decided to retreat.

"Then, in that hour of deliverance, my heart spoke," Key wrote. "Does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song?"

Soon after he gave us the words, though not the title, for "The Star-Spangled Banner."

In recent weeks there has been talk of declaring "God Bless America" our official national anthem. Irving Berlin originally wrote it for a 1918 Ziegfeld-style revue. Twenty years later he wanted to compose a "peace song" for a troubled world and decided to revise it. Singer Kate Smith introduced the tune on November 11, 1938 in her radio broadcast for Armistice Day (since 1954 called Veterans Day).

While all civilized people want peace, there are times when it becomes necessary to fight. Freedom is not won or retained by waving peace signs or practicing appeasement. Nor is freedom's price conveyed to our youth by deleting muskets from images of Minutemen, as occurred in Fort Wayne.

For these reasons "The Star-Spangled Banner" should stay as our national anthem. It was born in battle and captures the spirit of the American resolve not to surrender to an aggressor.

References

http://www.va.gov/pubaff/vetday98/vdnchistory.htm - History of Veterans's Day
http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trm019.html - History of "God Bless America"
http://www.si.edu/resource/faq/nmah/starflag.htm - War of 1812
http://www.usflag.org/francis.scott.key.html - Francis Scott Key
http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,35435,00.html - Making Over the Minutemen

George Smith is full-time freelance writer with a special interest in liberty issues and screenwriting. His articles have appeared on Ether Zone, and in the Gwinnett Daily Post, Writer's Yearbook, Creative Loafing, and Goal Magazine. He has a web site for screenwriters and other writers at http://personal.atl.bellsouth.net/atl/g/f/gfs543/

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