Thursday, July 4, 2013


There are 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 for the brave men who had survived the bombardment, 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. With no surviving symbols of our government left, many wondered if the democarcy still remained. All America's citizenry had left 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.

That reverence for, and allegiance to the flag still remains in most American hearts. I received a beautiful letter from a reader of my Free Men and Dreamers books who shared a remarkably tender story with me. Her name is Diane Wilson, and this true story came from her father-in-law. It was so personal and painful, he only shared it one time, but as you'll see from the story, the details remained excruciatingly close to him all his life. Here it is, in her own words. She gave me permission to share it. Thank you, Diane.

My father-in-law was a prisoner of war of the Japanese during World War II. He was on the Philippines when McArthur surrendered the islands after the bombing of Pearl Harbor; he wasn’t released until the war’s end, at which time he and the prisoners he was with were in Japan.

Dad once told the story of how one of the men in his unit had a small American flag folded and kept in his breast pocket. On special occasions (4th of July, Thanksgiving. and even Christmas… those holidays when the men’s hearts turned away from the tortures they endured and focused on family and memories of happier times), the men would gather and this soldier would take out the flag, reverently unfold it, and all would stand as best they could and repeat the Pledge of Allegiance. Then the soldier would carefully refold the little flag and again protectively place it in his breast pocket.

Up until Dad’s death last year, whenever he saw a flag in a parade, at a ball game, or in a ceremony, his shoulders would begin to shake, large tears would roll down his face as great sobs would take over. The flag represented freedom to him… home, family, country. It brought back memories of the men he was imprisoned with and the sacrifices each made. Many of his friends simply gave up; those were very emotional memories for Dad. He was a true patriot who loved his country and it’s symbol, the American flag. Dad was given full military honors for his burial, and the flag he loved so dear draped his casket.

Long may she wave. Proud may she wave!

(Book four of  L. C. Lewis's 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

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Laurie. I learned a lot from this.