Rants and Raves

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Defense of Ft. McHenry/The Star Spangled Banner

Note: A shorter version of this appeared as an op-ed in the July 4 weekend of the paper.

O! say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?

On the night of September 13-14, 1814, a 35-year old American lawyer and amateur poet stood on the deck of the Royal Navy ship HMS Tonnant, as it took part in the bombardment of Ft. McHenry in Baltimore harbor. Francis Scott Key was moved to write the poem, which set to music became the national anthem of the nation founded on July 4th, 38 years earlier.

In 1812, the United States declared war against Great Britain which, still smarting under the humiliation of losing half its North American empire, had been blockading U.S. trade with its enemy France, impressing American seamen into the Royal Navy, and supporting Indians on the Northwest frontier attacking American settlements.

The British felt keenly that America had betrayed their common kinship by aiding Napoleon, the greatest threat to England in centuries.

“Now that the tyrant Bonaparte has been consigned to infamy, there is no public feeling in this country stronger than indignation against the Americans,” declared the London Times, demanding Britain, “not only chastise the savages into present peace, but make a lasting impression on their fears.”

Key was on board the Tonnant to negotiate the release of a prisoner, Dr. William Beanes of Upper Marlboro, Maryland.

Beanes, a part-time sheriff, was taken prisoner after arresting some rowdy British stragglers, who according to some accounts were caught robbing a chicken coop.

After receiving testimonials the British prisoners were well-treated, Major General Robert Ross and Admiral Alexander Cochrane agreed to release Beanes. But because the delegation had seen the strength of the naval forces ready to besiege Baltimore from the sea, they were detained through the night, though treated as guests.

The naval bombardment began in coordination with a land attack on the city by the British Army, flushed with success after invading and burning Washington almost unopposed. The Royal Navy had to attack at night when the tide was full, and sail out of the harbor shortly after dawn, or be left stranded and vulnerable in the shallows at low tide.

Key and the others could do nothing but watch the bombardment by naval guns and Congreve rockets.

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?

In the morning as the smoke cleared, and one has to have some experience with black powder firearms to appreciate how much smoke they generate, Key could see an American flag waving from the battlements of the fort.

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.

Key wrote the poem on the back of a letter. It was later set to the music of a popular English drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Why that particular tune is anyone's guess. It is very difficult to sing, as it goes higher and lower than most people's vocal range. It actually works better as a poem in the later verses, which are so little known to Americans that author Isaac Asimov once wrote a humorous short story about catching a German spy by getting him to reveal that he actually knew the third verse!

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.

Key died in 1843 after a long and distinguished career in the law. Ironically, his grandson was interned in Ft. McHenry during the Civil War for pro-Southern sympathies.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered "The Star-Spangled Banner" be played at official occasions, but it was not actually declared the national anthem until a law was signed by President Herbert Hoover in 1931.

It beat out “America the Beautiful” for the honor, which still has its advocates among the squeamish who feel “The Star Spangled Banner” is embarrassingly warlike.

O! 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!


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