Monday, June 15, 2009



The truth behind much of our American history, like many of our current events, is slowly being changed. The threads of truth were spun and converted, then passed round and round by travellers who paid for the suppers by aggrandizing the simple beauty of the stories in order to provide good entertainment at their hosts' dinner tables.

George Washington and the cherry tree? Delightful tale that it is, a fellow named Mason Locke Weems made that all up.

The Betsy Ross story and the first American flag? Sorry. While conducting research for my books, the curator of Philadelphia's historic district told me no self-respecting historian will touch it. Yes, you'll find Betsy's house on the city's walking tour of the city because this piece of Americana is still a tourist-favorite, but it it didn't happen. More on that in an upcoming post.

The point is, we don't need to fabricate beautiful tales about this nation and it's beginning. There are so many wonderful, poignant, and even painful true stories that need, absolutely NEED to be shared, passed on and, most of all, remembered.

If you want a beautiful flag story, study the history surrounding the Star Spangled Banner that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. This was the flag that made the stars and stripes synonymous with America, and the banner that rallied a splintered nation. Learn about the Pickersgill women who stitched the flag on the floor of an old malt house, (brewery) because it was the only structure large enough to spread the fabric fully out.

Learn more about the humanitarian mission, the rescue of a friend, Dr. Beanes, that placed Francis Scott Key on the British Admiral's flagship the night before the battle.

He was in the company of a prisoner exchange agent, and the pair were treated like honored guests as they sat down. But as the meal progressed, the menacing conversation chilled them to the bones as plans for the destruction of Baltimore were openly detailed. The Navy would assail the fort by sea, keeping them occupied, while the army landed and marched into the city on foot.
We can only imagine the fear that gripped Key as he sat there. He had family in the city and a brother-in-law who was an officer in Fort McHenry. And recent events would have given him more cause for alarm. Key had already been a witness to the charred remains of the Patuxent River towns, set ablaze by British torches. Likewise, he had been behind the battle lines, in the company of President Madison and the Cabinet, at the bloody Battle of Bladensburg, when the unstoppable British war machine routed the American forces before burning Washington D.C., the Capitol and the White House.

Perhaps more terrifying of all, he would have known about the atrocities committed against a small Virginia town called Hampton where rapes and brutality of all manner occured. These are the fears that had to have torn at his heart as he heard what was planned for Baltimore.
When the meal was finished, Key and his friend were told they would have to remain with their hosts until after the bombardment. Preferring to be together, away from the British during the assault, they were lowered into their skiff along with Dr. Beanes to wait out the battle.
This was the vantage point and the mindset of Key as he watched the terrifyingly brilliant light of Congreve rockets bursting over the Patapsco River towards Fort McHenry that long, stormy night of September 13-14, 1814.

The rest of the story was magnificently expressed by Dr. Isaac Asimov in a speech I posted yesterday.

And as for the Star Spangled Banner itself? Well, not everything you learned as a child is quite true. I spent a morning with Scott Sheads, the curator of Fort McHenry, who is also the curator of the Star Spangled Banner exhibit at the Smithsonian. He explained that soldiers' letters and scientific studies at the Smithsonian Institute, the flag's protector, tell a slightly different tale than you and I may have learned.

It was a stormy night, and Fort McHenry's Major Armistead called for the massive garrison flag to be lowered to prevent it's heavy wool from breaking the pole during the storm. The mighty flag that flew at the beginning of the battle was replaced by a smaller storm flag. This was the red-white-and-blue beacon that was assailed during the height of the firefight.
Two hours after the battle and the rain ended, Armistead called for the storm flag to be lowered and for the large garrison flag to be hoisted atop the pole, signalling to everyone that the fort had withstood the assault, and that the Americans still controlled the city. And so, it was the glorious, garrison flag that Francis Scott Key did see on the morning of September 14, 1814, when he pulled a letter from his pocket and began to write the poem we now know as our National Anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner."

And the tatters on the Star Spangled Banner? They weren't from bullets and bombs but from scissors, as the Armistead family answsered requests from patriots who desired to own a piece of the brave banner that symbolized a new dawn for America.

Do the differences the truth brings to the story detract from its beauty? Not for me.

There are so many other wonderful truths that few people know about this magnificent story. Freed slaves and runaways fought for America's cause in Fort McHenry, even though the British were freeing slaves and organizing them into battle units, or recolonizing them as freemen. Most of the soldiers serving in the fort at that time were not born on American soil. They came here, to partake of the great American dream of liberty and possibility.

I love all these truths, but the truth I love best is that sworn enemies became loyal allies.
Now there's an American history lesson we can learn from.

(The War of 1812, the Star Spangled Banner and the Burning of Washington are the subjects of FREE MEN and DREAMERS, my historical fiction series--book one, Dark Sky at Dawn, book two, Twilight's Last Gleaming, book three, Dawn's Early Light, and book four, Oh Say Can You See? debuting August 2010). All are available at This is the Place Books, your local LDS book store, Seagull Book or Deseret Book stores.

No comments:

Post a Comment