September 17, 2009
Well, it’s football season again, sixteen more weeks of big games, miracle plays, and sportsmanship. However, something happened that troubled me. As I was watching the end of the pre-game show for the Monday Night Football matchup between the Patriots and Bills, I noticed that the commentators continued their discussion of the upcoming game even as the national anthem was being performed. They even cut to commercial before it was over. This got me to thinking about all the people I have heard in the past who have claimed that the “Star Spangled Banner” is overused. Frankly, that’s absurd. There is a certain conduct expected of all Americans whenever the national anthem is being performed, writ in United States Code, and it’s there for a reason. We’re going back to the phone booth for this one, and it’s dialed in for one hundred ninety-five years ago, today. The place, Baltimore, Maryland.
Napoleon had just been exiled from France, and Britain’s war with them was over. This was bad news for the Americans, who had been fighting a war against the British themselves for two years. Now Britain was able to turn the full attention of their legendary naval might against the United States. This allowed the British to overpower the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla and land marines to sack and burn Washington. Once this was accomplished, all that stood between Britain and near guaranteed victory was an American privateer base, Baltimore.
The British plan was to attack by land and sea. The main force of five thousand men would march on Baltimore, drawing out the majority of the militia defending the city, while the fleet would land marines at the harbor. The only thing standing in the way was the imposing Fort McHenry. The land attack was quickly stalled when the British commanding officer, General Robert Ross, was killed at North Point outside Baltimore. They retreated and would await the results of the sea attack before resuming the fight. British success in the battle and likely, the war, hinged on the incapacitation of Fort McHenry.
The British fleet consisted of nineteen ships, and their guns outranged McHenry’s own defenses by a half mile. Admiral Cochrane ordered his fleet into position on the night of September the twelfth, and began the siege. For twenty five hours, the British fleet fired all manner of armament into the fort. Widely employed were the five mortar ships of the fleet, whose armament was not cannon, but rather giant bombards that fired quarter ton explosive shells. So great was the power of these weapons, that when fired, the force would thrust the ship’s hull downward three feet into the water. These high angled shells were designed to explode about ten feet above ground, showering the area with deadly shrapnel. These bombs literally, “bursted in air.” Also among the British armaments was a ship carrying Congreve rockets. These were not widely used in naval combat due to their horrible accuracy, but when fired the accelerant in the rockets burned bright red, illuminating the night sky. All these elements would be captured and interpreted into a now legendary poem on the back of an envelope, penned by a lawyer from Georgetown.
Among the British fleet bombarding Fort McHenry was an American sloop carrying three men. Two, Francis Scott Key and John Stuart Skinner, had sailed out to meet with Admiral Cochrane and discuss the release of the third man, a prisoner, Dr. William Beanes. After successful negotiations, the men were preparing to depart when the Admiral ordered them halted. They were to await the end of the battle before returning to Baltimore, so as not to alert the Americans to the impending siege. All that was left for Key to do was sit and watch the British artillery hammer the Fort, constantly vigilant of any sign that the American’s had surrendered the flag. Every time a bomb “bursting in air” or a “rocket’s red glare” illuminated the fort, Key noted that the forty by thirty-two foot parade flag was still waving high above the ramparts. After the shelling ceased on the night of September the thirteenth, Key could no longer see the flag. He would have to wait until after an attempted British sneak attack on the fort failed, and the Admiral decided to withdraw his fleet. The land force, now without naval support, was forced to give up the fight as well. Skinner, Key, and Beanes were released early the following morning, September fourteenth. As they were sailing back into Baltimore, Key could finally see, by the dawn’s early light, that the flag, although tattered, was still standing. The resolve of the American defense force in the fort, as well as the indomitable spirit of the Maryland Militia, inspired the closing lines to each of the four stanzas of his poem entitled, “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” Later, the words to his poem would be paired with the tune of a popular British drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven” to form what we call today, “The Star Spangled Banner.”
So, with that in mind, I ask: Do we indeed use the national anthem too much? Do we honor the patriotism and steadfastness of American military and militiamen, too much? Do we recognize the need for resolve in the face of great adversity, too much. Do we accept the symbolism of our flag as the icon of freedom and virtue, too much? Nay says I, and should every American who knows and respects the meaning of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
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