We were getting our young, whipper-snapper backsides whalluped by the world’s great empire of the period. The British were trampling up and down our country with impunity only thirty-eight years after we had declared our ‘independence’, after which we became one of their major trading partners. They had just concluded a war with France and they had plenty of well trained, disciplined soldiers to put on our shores. Many of the men fighting and most of the general officers had been junior officers when Washington had forced General Cornwallis to surrender at Yorktown. They were glad to be able to give some ‘payback’.
They had been impressing our sailors at sea aboard their ships. This went hand-in-hand with restricting and stopping our trade with France. They would stop U.S. flagged merchants at sea, seize cargo and ‘inspect’ the crews. Any man they decided they could use was claimed to be a deserter from the British Royal Navy or an expatriate Brit and immediately impressed to serve aboard the British ship.
For the United States’ part, the country was expanding further and further, both West into the Ohio Valley and North into parts of Canada. The British pushed back and used their Native allies to help push. For their part, the Indians had lost when they allied with the French in the last war on this frontier. This time they sided with the British. It might help them preserve their way of life against the expanding farmers who cut down the forests.
The British were more than happy to accommodate the ‘Colonies’ desire to battle, and they expected to improve their coffers when the taxation of the expanded country came under their control once again. Besides, that little Scotsman John Paul Jones had raided their homeland. All the more reason to pay the Colonies another visit.
For two years, over eager ‘gentleman’ officers and sons of the Revolutionary elite, as well as political appointees battled and lost time after time against this well trained force of Redcoats and their Indian allies. So sad was the plight of the country that by the summer of 1814 the British landed in Virginia near Washington D.C., invaded and burnt the capital city to the ground, including the unfinished Capital building and the White House. The U.S. Army ran from them in fear. The British took some prisoners, including a Dr. William Beanes, accused of aiding in the arrest of British soldiers by American law officers. Dr. Beanes was a friend of Francis Scott Key, a Baltimore lawyer.
The Brits’ next target was Baltimore, Maryland, a center of trade and shipping for the United States. Mr. Key was aware of that and of his friend’s presence on the British flagship. Mr. Key made his way to the waterfront, chartered a boat, and sailed for the flagship while it approached Baltimore harbor. He meant to lobby for the release of his friend.
The British deployed its troops and ships against Baltimore. The harbor was blockaded by a chain of barges and Ft. McHenry. Civilians rallied behind the Army officers and militias formed up with the ranks. Women stockpiled water, food, and bandages and set up the hospitals. A young widow with four children named Mary Pickersgill sewed a flag for the fort.
The battle, as every battle must be, was an ear-crushing, soul pounding, frightening fight as cannon from the ships battered the fort and the cannon from the fort waited for targets to come into range. Hundreds of British guns blasted through the night and the smoke from the powder filled the air. South of the city at North Point the Army engaged the Redcoats. Ugly as war ever is, the people in town and beyond waited in fear for their lives to see if their defenses held. Would they be burned out as Washington had been? War was on their doorstep.
Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochran pounded the fort for twenty-five hours. He sent a landing party of British Marines against a perceived weak point in the fortifications. There was no pause in the thunder of the cannons. Through the night, Mr. Key and Dr. Beanes watched from the deck of their captor’s ship. Through the night, by the light of the bursting illumination rounds, they could still see the flag of Mary Pickersgill flying.
Morning came and the bombardment ceased. The British mortar ships were moving back from their near-shore positions. The fog of war and the fog of nature clouded the fort and the shore. Was it still there? Had the British force ashore broken through the line? Was Baltimore ablaze? How many were dead? Was that the reason for all the smoke and fog? What had happened?
Fear of defeat. Hope for victory. That mixture of emotions sends adrenaline pumping through one’s heart. And a morning breeze begins to whisper…and the air begins to move…and the smoke and fog begin to clear…
And there it is… that glorious red, white, and blue clothe still waves in the morning breeze. Beaten, blackened by powder, soot, and embers, she still waved over the fort! The fort stands! Baltimore is safe! Our homes are safe! No longer a threat to the British invasion plans, the gentlemen’s courtesy of officers plays out and Mr. Key and Dr Beane are released to their vessel. The British, unable to defeat the Fort McHenry batteries, retire their fleet and collect their troops, defeated also at North Point by a more stalwart Army and Militia.
The fear for a friend’s life, the fear for a neighborhood’s destruction, the fear for the demise of a city and death of those who one sees every day no longer weighed on the mind of Mr. Key. Now, life surged back into one’s body and elation at the victory took hold. The country was still at war. The nemesis still a threat. But the troops and the city had stopped the British. What combinations of emotion and courage only those who have been in such battles can imagine. For Mr. Key, they would birth verse that would become a nation’s anthem. From one battle in a fight for Independence would come the words that would resound hope and commitment encompassing the reasons for all battles fought under this Star Spangled Banner. And the humbleness of a popular drinking song’s tune would give the words as a gift to the common man, a vision of deeds past and a vision for strength and faith in a nation’s future.
This is the meaning of the Star Spangled Banner. It brings hope to those who work under it. It brings hope to those abroad who see it fly from the mast of a ship, from the antenna of a military vehicle, and then from the staff of a pole in an aid worker’s camp. The Star Spangled Banner is the United States promise to the world. It is the promise that Lady Liberty represents from her home in New York Harbor. It is the promise General Pershing took to the French in 1918 and President Roosevelt took to Churchill in 1939. It is the promise that the refugees see when U.S. Navy ships sail into disaster zones, and the promise and hope looked for when the Peace Corps set up long-term projects.
Every time I returned home to Norfolk from a major deployment with the Navy I looked for our Star Spangled Banner over Fort Story in Virginia. That we were pulling into Norfolk made the question of the song moot, but I wanted to see it all the same. To make out the red, white, and blue against the haze of the ocean and the green of the shoreline just met some deep insatiable desire in my soul. Like Mr. Key and Dr. Beanes, I wanted to see that flag waving over our land from the deck of the USS Mississippi and the deck of the USS Enterprise. I still look for it even on our small inland lake, flying over the park office, and from the transoms of our sail and motor boats. Who still beliefs, I wonder?
The Star Spangled Banner, our National Anthem, is worthy of its mission, and like our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, it is worth taking some time to consider beyond the verse so often used as the opening of major civil events. I hope you’ll take some time to consider those words today.
The Star-Spangled Banner
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d 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,
O 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 – O 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 wash’d out their foul footstep’s 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.
O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d 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.