Monday, September 2, 2013

The Star Spangled Banner

Although its events inspired one of the nation’s most famous patriotic songs, the War of 1812 is a relatively little-known war in American history.

The War of 1812 was between the United States and the British Empire and Britain's Indian allies.

It lasted from 1812 to 1815.

The U.S. declared war because of a series of trade restrictions introduced by Britain to impede American trade with France, a country with which Britain was at war with - the U.S. contested these restrictions as illegal under international law.

The British treated the United States as their colony instead of a sovereign nation and restricted American trade with France.

Because Great Britain still looked upon the United States as one of their colonies, the British Navy used "impressment" which was forced recruitment of U.S. seamen into the Royal Navy.

In many quarters of the British government at the time, Americans were still seen as rebellious British subjects - so pressing them into service on British ships seemed only right to the British.

The British insisted that it was their right to reclaim their deserting sailors - even if "their" sailors were now Americans.

Another reason for the War of 1812 was that the British military supported American Indians with arms and munitions.

The British saw this as a way to halt the American expansion into the American frontier of what we call today the Mid-West.

An implicit but powerful motivation for the Americans was the desire to uphold national honor in the face of what they considered to be British insults.

American expansion into Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin was impeded by Indian raids - armed by the British.

The British had the long-standing goal of creating a large supposedly "neutral" Indian state that would cover much of Ohio, Indiana and Michigan.

The British made their demands known to the United States as late as 1814 at the peace conference, they felt as though they still had rights to American soil.

The War of 1812 did a few things that Americans might not be aware of:

First, it establish the credibility of the young United States among other nations; Second, it fostered a strong sense of national pride among the American people; and lastly, it seared into Americans those patriotic feelings as reflected and preserved in the song which we know today as out National Anthem.

Great Britain’s defeat at the 1781 Battle of Yorktown marked the conclusion of the American Revolution. But, it did not end Great Britain's ambitions of ownership of the America's.

Not even three decades after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which formalized Britain’s recognition of the United States of America, our two countries were again in conflict.

Resentment for Britain’s interference with American international trade, combined with British involvement in American expansion, led Congress to declare war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812.

In the early stages of the war, the American Navy scored victories in the Atlantic and on Lake Erie while Britain concentrated its military efforts on its ongoing war with France.

But with the defeat of Emperor NapolĂ©on’s armies in April 1814, Britain turned its full attention to the war against the smaller ill-prepared United States.

Angered by British interference with American trade, the young United States was intent on reaffirming its recently won independence.

But instead, after a series of defeats, Americans became demoralized.

On August 24, 1814, British troops marched into Washington, D.C., and set the Capitol building and White House on fire in an attempt to burn them to the ground.

The city was sacked and ablaze.

"Every American heart is bursting with shame and indignation at the catastrophe."
—Baltimore resident describing the burning of Washington, 1814

America’s future seemed more uncertain than ever as the British set their sights on Baltimore, Maryland, a vital seaport.

What the British did not know was the resolve that they create by burning Washington D.C., it was the same resolve that Americans felt after 9/11 and the cowardly attack by Muslims who murdered thousands of innocent Americans.

On September 13, 1814, British warships began firing bombs and rockets on Fort McHenry, which protected the city’s harbor.

The bombardment continued for twenty-five hours while the nation awaited news of Baltimore’s fate.

In the summer of 1813, Mary Pickersgill (1776–1857) was contracted to sew two flags for Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland.

Francis Scott Key
Francis Scott Key
The one that became the Star-Spangled Banner was a 30 x 42–foot garrison flag; the other was a 17 x 25–foot storm flag for use in inclement weather. Pickersgill, a thirty-seven-year-old widow, was an experienced maker of ships’ colors and signal flags.

She filled orders for many of the military and merchant ships that sailed into Baltimore’s busy port.

Helping Pickersgill make the flags were her thirteen-year-old daughter Caroline; nieces Eliza Young (thirteen) and Margaret Young (fifteen); and a thirteen-year-old African American indentured servant, Grace Wisher.

Pickersgill’s elderly mother, Rebecca Young, from whom she had learned flagmaking, may have helped as well.

Pickersgill and her assistants spent about seven weeks making the two flags. They assembled the blue canton and the red and white stripes of the flag by piecing together strips of loosely woven English wool bunting that were only 12 or 18 inches wide.

On September 14, 1814, Baltimore’s Fort McHenry withstood an attack against all odds and the sight of a huge American flag celebrated a crucial victory over British forces during the War of 1812. 

The sight of those “broad stripes and bright stars” inspired Francis Scott Key to write a song that eventually became the United States national anthem.

Key’s words gave new significance to a national symbol and started a tradition through which generations of Americans have invested the flag with their own meanings and memories.

Lt. Col. George Armistead

Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead was the commander of Fort McHenry during the 1814 bombardment.

He became an instant hero after the battle.

While Francis Scott Key's song was known to most Americans by the end of the Civil War, the flag that inspired it remained was a Armistead family keepsake.

It was exhibited occasionally at patriotic gatherings in Baltimore but largely unknown outside of that city until the 1870s.

The flag remained the private property of Lieutenant Colonel Armistead's widow, Louisa Armistead, his daughter Georgiana Armistead Appleton, and his grandson Eben Appleton for 90 years.

During that time, the increasing popularity of Key's anthem and the American public's developing sense of national heritage transformed the Star-Spangled Banner from a family keepsake into a national treasure.

New York stockbroker Eben Appleton inherited the Star-Spangled Banner upon his mother's death in 1878.

The publicity that it had received in the 1870s had transformed it into a national treasure, and Appleton received many requests to lend it for patriotic occasions.

He permitted it to go to Baltimore for that city's sesquicentennial celebration in 1880. After that his concern for the flag's deteriorating condition led him to keep it in a safe-deposit vault in New York.

In 1907 he lent the Star-Spangled Banner to the Smithsonian Institution, and in 1912 he converted the loan to a gift.

Appleton donated the flag with the wish that it would always be on view to the public.

Museums constantly balance the desire to display an object with the need to protect it from the damage created by light, dust, and other environmental factors.

The Smithsonian has had to balance its effort to fulfill his wishes with the need to care for the fragile and damaged object.

As for the Star Spangled Banner?

Besides being a lawyer, Francis Scott Key was a gifted poet.


Inspired by the sight of the American flag flying over Fort McHenry the morning after the bombardment, he scribbled the initial verse of his song on the back of a letter.

Back in Baltimore, he completed the four verses and copied them onto a sheet of paper, probably making more than one copy.

A local printer issued the new song as a broadside.

Shortly afterward, two Baltimore newspapers published it, and by mid-October it had appeared in at least seventeen other papers in cities up and down the East Coast.

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.

But how did it come about?

Attorney Francis Scott Key witnessed the twenty-five hour bombardment of Fort McHenry from a British troopship anchored some four miles away.  

He had boarded the ship to negotiate the release of an American civilian imprisoned by the British, and had been detained aboard as the bombardment began.  

On September 3rd, 1814, following the Burning of Washington and the Raid on Alexandria, Francis Scott Key and John Stuart Skinner set sail from Baltimore aboard the ship HMS Minden, flying a flag of truce on a mission approved by President James Madison.  

Their objective was to secure the exchange of prisoners, one of whom was Dr. William Beanes, the elderly and popular town physician of Upper Marlboro and a friend of Key's who had been captured in his home.  

Beanes was accused of aiding the arrest of British soldiers. Key and Skinner boarded the British flagship HMS Tonnant on September 7th and spoke with Major General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane over dinner while the two officers discussed war plans.  

At first, Ross and Cochrane refused to release Beanes, but relented after Key and Skinner showed them letters written by wounded British prisoners praising Beanes and other Americans for their kind treatment.

Because Key and Skinner had heard details of the plans for the attack on Baltimore, they were held captive until after the battle, first aboard HMS Surprise and later back on HMS Minden.

At Fort McHenry, some 1,000 soldiers under the command of Major George Armistead awaited the British naval bombardment.

Their defense was augmented by the sinking of a line of American merchant ships at the adjacent entrance to Baltimore Harbor in order to further thwart the passage of British ships.

The attack began on September 13th, as the British fleet of some twenty ships began pounding the fort with Congreve rockets from rocket vessel HMS Erebus and mortar shells from bomb vessels Terror, Volcano, Meteor, Devastation, and Aetna.

After an initial exchange of fire, the British fleet withdrew to just beyond the range of Fort McHenry’s cannons and continued to bombard the American redoubts for the next 25 hours.

All the Americans had to do to stop the bombardment was to lower the fort's American flag, but they didn't.

In fact, even though the flag was battered and war torn, and the flagpole itself was hit - men from inside the fort kept it flying by sacrificing their own lives in the process.

During the bombardment, between 1,500 to 1,800 cannonballs were launched at the fort.

And in the end, the flag was still there, signaling no surrender. 

After the bombardment, certain British gunboats attempted to slip past the fort and effect a landing in a cove to the west of it, but they were turned away by fire from nearby Fort Covington, the city's last line of defense.

During the bombardment, HMS Erebus provided the "rockets' red glare". HMS Meteor provided at least some of the "bombs bursting in air".

On September 14, 1814, as the dawn’s early light revealed a flag flying over the fort, Key exultantly began jotting down the lines of the song that became our national anthem.

Key gave the poem to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson, who took the poem to a printer in Baltimore, who anonymously made the first known broadside printing on September 17th - of these, two known copies survive.

On September 20th, both the Baltimore Patriot and The American printed the song, with the note "Tune: Anacreon in Heaven".

The song quickly became popular, with seventeen newspapers from Georgia to New Hampshire printing it.

Soon after, Thomas Carr of the Carr Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together under the title "The Star-Spangled Banner", although it was originally called "Defence of Fort McHenry".

The song's popularity increased, and its first public performance took place in October, when Baltimore actor Ferdinand Durang sang it at Captain McCauley's tavern.

Washington Irving, then editor of The Analectic Magazine in Philadelphia, reprinted the song in November 1814.

The melody Francis Scott Key used for his song was the popular English tune known as “To Anacreon in Heaven”. Anacreon was an ancient Greek poet noted for his praise of love and wine.

Written about 1775 by John Stafford Smith, the tune was originally the “constitutional song” of the Anacreontic Society, a gentlemen's music club in London. Yes, the tune comes from a drinking song.

The song became extremely popular in America, where it was used to accompany a number of verses, including the patriotic song called “Adams and Liberty,” before 1814.

Key himself used the tune for his 1805 song, “When the Warrior Returns from the Battle Afar.”

After the War of 1812, the successful defence of Baltimore and the battle of New Orleans produced a sense of euphoria over a "second war of independence" against Britain.

The war ushered in an "Era of Good Feelings," in which the partisan animosity that had once verged on treason practically vanished.

Britain is said to have been less affected by the fighting during the War of 1812, but it cannot be denied that its government and people did in fact welcome an era of peaceful relations with the United States.

As for the Star-Spangled Banner?

During the 19th century, “The Star-Spangled Banner” became one of the nation’s best-loved patriotic songs.  

It gained special significance during the Civil War, a time when many Americans turned to music to express their feelings for the flag and the ideals and values it represented.  

By the 1890s, the military had adopted the song for ceremonial purposes, requiring it to be played at the raising and lowering of the colors.

On July 27, 1889, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy signed General Order #374, making "The Star-Spangled Banner" the official tune to be played at the raising of the flag.

During World War I, the War Department ( now called The Department of Defense) established a standard arrangement to be used by U.S. military bands.

This arrangement is the one we have come to know and love.

Despite its widespread popularity, believe it or not, "The Star-Spangled Banner" did not become America's National Anthem until 1931.

Yes, believe it or not, on November 3rd, 1929, Robert Ripley drew a political cartoon in his syndicated cartoon, Ripley's Believe it or Not!, saying "Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem".

In 1931, America's most famous composer and conductor, John Philip Sousa published his opinion in favor, stating that "it is the spirit of the music that inspires" as much as it is Key's "soul-stirring" words.

On March 3, 1931 a law was signed by President Herbert Hoover, and "The Star-Spangled Banner" was adopted as the National Anthem of the United States of America.

Below is a copy of the original that Frances Scott Keys penned to paper.

The Texas Children's Choir performs the National Anthem at the AT&T Center, February 24th, 2010.

Story by Tom Correa

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