I've spent a very sweet week writing the story surrounding the writing of the Star Spangled Banner, especially since it's so near to the fourth of July when flags are popping up everywhere.
There's so many beautiful, stirring details forgotten or never learned that surround Key's story. Most of us know he was on board a ship in the harbor overlooking Fort McHenry during the bombardment when the inspiration hit him. Fewer people recall that he was on a mission to save his Scottish friend, Dr. William Beanes, who had been dragged from his bed in the middle of the night by the British on charges of treason and murder. But there's so much more to the story.
To fully understand the passion behind Key's story you must recall that three weeks prior to the bombardment, Key and his wife were secreting their children away from Georgetown, a suburb of Washington, to Key's parents' home in Frederick, Maryland. The British were expected to march on the Capital and the Key's were desperate to send them away to safety. Days later, while Polly remained near her husband in the home of friends, Key was horseback and on the battlefield with President Madison at Bladensburg, Maryland, when the American forces clashed with the British army. The fight became a humiliating rout sadly dubbed "The Bladensburg Races," a pitiful reference to the frightened American retreat that left the way open for the sacking of the President's House, the Capitol building, the government offices. As a result, very few mementos of our country's birth and infancy exist prior to 1814.
Key had also witnessed, firsthand, the brutality of the British military when crossed, and on September 13th, Baltimore was swollen with angry Americans poised to fight back. Worse yet, Key had family in the city. His brother-in-law, Judge Joseph Nicholson, was the second in command at Fort McHenry that day. And Nicholson's wife, sister to Key's wife Polly, was still in the city with their children. After all Key had done to protect his own family, his concerns for these loved ones pressed heavily on his mind.
During the negotiations with the British to secure Beanes release, Key and the Prison Exchange agent, John Skinner, were taken aboard the British admiral's flagship and treated as guests. But during the meals, the British officers discussed their plans to burn the city to the ground in front of their American "guests." Having been apprised of the British war plans, Key and Skinner became detainees of the British until after the battle's conclusion, unable to warn their people, and forced to watch the attack from afar, knowing the dire fate intended for Baltimore if the fort were to fall. Key's heart was deeply harrowed.
The twenty-five hour bombardment from September 13th into September 14th was unbearable, but Key had also seen thousands of British troops land fourteen miles south of Baltimore, poised to enter the city and subdue it once the fort fell. Knowing the atrocities committed in other cities that had opposed the British, he shuddered with fear. Days later, in a letter to a friend, John Randolph, Key expressed the anger and fear he felt while maintaining his hope that the prayers of the pious would be heard by God who would deliver the city.
The flag therefore, became more than a mere real estate marker, announcing the power that controlled the fort. It became the sign of life, that as long as she waved the fort had held and the British army and its destructive might had been held at bay.
He jotted his notes on the back of a letter during the final two days of his detainment, setting the entire poem, titled, "The Defense of Baltimore" on a sheet when he was back in the city in his room at the Indian Queen Hotel.
He took the poem to Judge Nicholson as a gift, and the judge was so moved he rushed it to a printers for duplication. Within hours, broadsheets of Key's poem could be found everywhere across the city. People were so starved for something positive and hopeful to cling to in these hours after the loss of their capital that soldiers in the fort wrote home about the poem, and copies began moving to other cities. It was first published in the Baltimore Patriot but soon it appeared in papers in Philadelphia and Boston and New York.
It was set to the tune of a popular melody of the day, "To Anacreon in Heaven," and performed as the finale in performances along the embattled coast where it received standing ovations.
After Washington, few symbols remained to proclaim that our nation and our government still existed. Britain had their king, their crown, their castles, their Parliament, but Britain had left us no home for our president, nor a house for our Congress. All America's citizenry had to hold on to were the ideals of their people, and a flag--a red, white and blue banner that stood defiantly between the enemy and them.
That's what Key saw that day. And this is what he knew--that buildings may burn, presidents may change, armies may march, and enemies may come, but as long as our people hold fast to the ideals upon which this nation was founded, and have access to a few scraps of fabric, the symbol of America cannot be extinguished.
Long may she wave. Proud may she wave!
(L.C. Lewis's upcoming release, book four of her Free Men and Dreamers series, "Oh Say, Can You See?" tells the story of the Battle of Baltimore and the Star Spangled Banner. Preview the other books of her series at http://www.laurielclewis.com/)
Do you have a story of when looking up at the red, white and blue moved you? Share your memory and I'll enter you in a contest to win a copy of "Awakening Avery," or "Dawn's Early Light" book one of my Free Men and Dreamers series. The contest ends July 3. Here are our current entries from Facebook posts:
Evelyn Fetty Rector
Last Saturday was Twilight Tattoo in Baker Park with a program about the American military through the years. Men dressed in uniforms from all eras of our history were there. There was a fife and drum corp and much singing of patriotic songs. But the thing that really touched a part of me was the flag flying proudly through it all.
I visited my father's gravesite in the historic Mt. Olivet cemetery on a gray wintry day several years ago. While standing by his headstone, a ray of sunshine broke through the clouds, just for a moment, illuminating the Francis Scott Key monument and the red, white and blue flying high up on the hillside. Key's lyrics echoed in my mind, and I deeply felt not only my father's love for me, but also for his country.
Lisa Banks Bennett
The day of my Grandfather's funeral. He was in WWII, a Navy Photographer, and on both planes that dropped the Atomic bombs. He was then invited to go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the scientific bomb survey teams. As I watched the Legion give him a gun salute, listened as taps were played, and saw the flag being folded and presented to my ... See MoreGrandmother, my heart overflowed with thankfulness, and pride to be living in this beautiful country, where I am free to worship as I choose, and I was moved with thanks for my Grandfather, who willingly left home, a wife, and two young daughters, to help protect those freedoms.
When the war started I remember we had a flag out in the front of the yard and I was so little I remember the star spangled banner just going throw my mind with the flag flying gracefully back and forth.
Tami Cox Rasel
Sept 12, 2001. I remember driving along highways and workman had posted the American Flag on every construction site. Though I'm always proud to be an American, I never felt more proud to be one when I saw how much our country united on the day after 9-11. Every yard, every house, every business was flying their AMERICAN flag!
Judi Bland Stull
I've always loved our flag and our country, but never more so than when we lived in England. While I LOVED living in England it was also the time when I was the most patriotic and proud of our country. Every fourth of July we would have a huge celebration at the base, they would raise the flag and a band would play the national anthem. Everyone... See More - and I mean EVERYONE - put their hand over their hearts and sang along. I wasn't the only one with tears in my eyes. Being away from "home" - even in a place as wonderful as England - gives you an appreciation for the historical part of our country and living with servicemen and women all around you makes you so very thankful for the sacrifices that have been made to keep us free. Since coming home I'm probably a little more jaded, but hearing the Star Spangled Banner or America the Beautiful still makes me tear up. I'm very proud to be an American.
Many thanks to everyone who already posted. Do you also have a similar moment?
THE WINNER IS TAMI COX RASEL! Congratulations, Tami!