Saturday, March 3, 2012

National Anthem Day Through smoke and fire: The making of a national anthem

It is the merry month of March in 1931 and the United States is in the throes of the Great Depression. 

Herbert Hoover is president: A one term president, Hoover took office in 1929 prior to the crash of the Stock Market. He leaves in 1933 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt becomes our president – for the first time.

But in 1931, the results of the 1930 census are released. We learn that our population has grown 16.2% in the last decade. It is not an insignificant fact when juxtaposed against the reality of the Depression: the nation's work force is unemployed and our social structure is in danger of crumbling.

It is an odd time to make a popular song into a national anthem. What moved Congress? Was it simply the need to do something positive? To try and inspire a sense of courage in our national psyche when the times were more than grim? 

The real deal: The original Star-Spangled Banner (Smithsonian)
And why make The Star-Spangled Banner our national anthem? What does this former poem have within its lyrics that might inspire the families in the breadlines to take heart, to not give up, to look to the past so we can move into the future? 

The story of The Star-Spangled Banner begins on the evening of August 24, 1814 when the British begin to burn Washington, D.C. ...

The destruction is such that the sky glows for miles around with flames. The Capitol building, the Senate House, the President’s mansion – anything related to government and much that is not is burnt or destroyed by the British.

Earlier that day, Dolley Madison had received word from her husband, President James Madison, to pack and leave their home. Immediately.
First Lady Dolley Madison
Dolley tried to comply. She really did. In fact, the guns of battle were not distant. Not at all! Oh dear! So much to do and as the afternoon wore on, you could hear the booming of cannon and the soldiers approaching – retreating Americans as well as the advancing Brits! Mr. Carroll, a friend sent to help her, was getting rather cross with the First Lady as she flatly refused to leave behind, in enemy hands, a life-size portrait of George Washington.

Oh! Tedious frame! Despite their efforts and the need for haste, the frame just would not be unscrewed from the wall! The only thing for it was to cut the painting out, which is exactly what she did.

It was only then, as she later wrote her sister, after putting “the precious the hands of two gentlemen of New York, for safekeeping,” that the First Lady allowed herself to be rescued.

Later, only three weeks and 35 miles away from that day, the British prepare to take Fort McHenry. The fort sits at the entrance to Baltimore harbor, a worthy target as Baltimore is the young country’s third largest city. Having already captured the much smaller capitol and put the government to flight, the British can win this war by winning Baltimore, a sweet revenge on an impudent country that was but a colony some 30 years prior.

Defending Fort McHenry is Major George Armistead, uncle to the Confederate Civil War hero, Brigadier General Lewis Armistead who is best known for his brave leadership of the ill-fated Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Major George Armistead (by Rembrandt Peale, c. 1816)
The weather is wet, so stormy that Major Armistead is not flying the large garrison flag but its smaller companion, a “signal” or “storm flag.” He had commissioned both flags a year earlier from Baltimore flag maker, Mary Pickersgill

The garrison flag measures 30’x42’. It has 15 stripes and 15 stars. Each stripe is two feet wide and each star is two feet in diameter. It is so huge that in making it, Mrs. Pickersgill, her daughter, nieces, and an indentured servant had to sew it in a local malt house after hours, by candlelight.

Seamstress Mary Pickersgill
It is so large that if you were to lay it out, it would nearly fill half of a basketball court. Its length would stretch from basket to center line, and its width would be wider than half the width of the court. It would be big enough for a dormitory tent. It would be big enough to cover a car – or a horse drawn carriage – or two. It is a flag of an extravagant size.

It is so large because Major Armistead’s original desire was to fly a banner “so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance” (

But on this day, alas, the weather is very poor so Armistead decides to fly the smaller flag.

Shortly after sunrise on September 14, somewhere between 6:30 and 7 a.m. that morning, the British begin to blast Fort McHenry. It is an attack that will last for over 24 hours.
Francis Scott Key looking for the flag (web)

On one of the British warships is an American prisoner, Dr. William Beanes, and two Americans who are there on his behalf: Col. John Stuart Skinner and Francis Scott Key. Skinner and Key, arriving the night before under a military flag of truce, are there to persuade the British admiralty that Dr. Beanes should be released. Col. Skinner is a military diplomat whose job is just this: to negotiate prisoners’ release while Key, a Supreme Court lawyer, is a friend of Dr. Beanes.

They meet with Major General Robert Ross, and Admiral Alexander Cochrane aboard the HMS Tonnant. Ross is the very man responsible for the torching of Washington. With him, Skinner has brought letters written by British prisoners of war testifying to Dr. Beanes’ character and his good treatment of wounded British prisoners.Though initially not terribly keen on the idea, the British officers finally agree to release Dr. Beanes.
Gen. Ross died during the attack on Fort McHenry
Although the officers agree to the release, they also decide that the Americans can not leave the ship until after the planned attack on Fort McHenry is over. What attack on Fort McHenry? The attack the British expect will win them the war. Having this information about the plan to attack Fort McHenry, the Americans are, by necessity, guests of the Crown for the interim. For practical reasons, however, they are moved to another ship.

It is from this curious perspective of being right there, in the heart of the enemy camp, that they pass their “friendly captivity,” and watch helplessly as the enemy begins a 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry.

During the day, they occasionally see the storm flag through the increasingly dense smoke from the blasts of the bombs and mortars. This is their only way of knowing if the fort stands or if it has fallen. As the attack continues and day lengthens again into night, it becomes increasingly difficult to see if the flag – if the fort – has survived:

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

The words to the national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, give, perhaps, the truest picture of what that battle was like. Although its author, the lawyer-poet, and the diplomat, along with the good Dr. Beanes, will be free when the attack is over, the truth is that the end of the battle also will foretell the war’s end – and with it, the future of this still-new nation.

Francis Scott Key begins writing his poem, Defense of Fort McHenry, on the back of some papers he has in his pocket while on board ship. Nothing better describes the emotions of that moment when, at sunrise the next day, he desperately looks to see if the flag is still flying.

Although Key and his fellow Americans do not know it, for their keepers are not likely to tell them, the British withdrew earlier that morning after being unable to take the fort. 

Though Key and his colleagues do not see it, Major Armistead has replaced the storm flag with the much larger garrison flag shortly before dawn. 

And, though Key and his comrades can not hear it, the garrison soldiers are firing their weapons in celebration and accompaniment to a rather rowdy rendition of Yankee Doodle.
A contemporary illustration of the attack on Fort McHenry
As they search the skyline for a sign as to the outcome of the battle, the Americans finally see what they are looking for. Writes Key:

O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
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?

Three months after the British defeat at Fort McHenry, the Treaty of Ghent is signed, the official end to a war in which no new territories are gained by either side but a finality is given to the position the young democracy holds amongst the leading nations of the world.
When Key finishes his poem, he shows it to his brother-in-law who considers it a much finer song than poem and suggests a popular tune of the day to accompany it, albeit a drinking song. Within a week, Key’s words are in print and the poem, The Defense of Fort McHenry, soon turns into the song, The Star-Spangled Banner, drinking tune and all.
Poet-lawyer Francis Scott Key (LoC)
In 1889, the Navy makes The Star-Spangled Banner its official flag-raising song. 

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson establishes the precedent of having The Star-Spangled Banner played at formal government occasions, military and otherwise. 

But it is not until March 3, 1931 that The Star-Spangled Banner actually becomes the nation’s anthem. 

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave. 

It is a story, perhaps, worthy of inspiring a nation struggling with the desperate economic times of the Great Depression.

Let it fly!

The Armistead Punch Bowl, a gift from the citizens of Baltimore, c. 1816

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