Wednesday, September 13, 2023

The Story of the Star Spangled Banner

By Douglas V. Gibbs
Author, Speaker, Instructor, Radio Host

In 1814 the British conducted a full raid against Washington, D.C.  The Americans were unprepared to defend the capital.  No fort, breastwork, or battery had been built.  The move by the British was in retaliation of the burning of York in England the year before.  The British marched unchecked to the city, and then they burned the Capitol, the White House (although it was not called The White House, yet, at that time), the treasury, the Library of Congress, and other federal buildings.  President Madison and his Cabinet took refuge in Virginia.  On the evening of August 24, as the White House was aflame, Madison’s wife, Dolley Madison, returned to the building rescuing the original portrait of George Washington, and the original copy of the Declaration of Independence.

A few days later Baltimore was attacked, but the citizens of Baltimore were ready to defend their city.  British General Ross was killed in the attack, and all day on September 13 the British fleet bombarded Fort McHenry at the entrance to the harbor.  The spirited resistance on land and at the fort eventually discouraged the British, who ultimately withdrew.

During the onslaught of shells and rockets against Fort McHenry a 35-year-old Washington lawyer, Francis Scott Key, found himself aboard a British ship within sight of the fort.  He had been asked to negotiate a prisoner exchange between the British and the Americans.  After successful negotiations, however, he was advised by the British that it was all for naught, for the plan was to use the entire British Fleet to attack Fort McHenry to force the Americans to drop to their knees and surrender.  The sign of such a show of subservience to the British Empire could be accomplished without an attack if only the men at Fort McHenry would lower the American Flag waving over the rampart.

A writer of occasional verse, the son of a distinguished judge who had referred to the conflict as “abominable” and a “lump of wickedness,” and one who believed the war could have been avoided with diplomatic accommodation, Key was outraged by the British incursions into the Chesapeake Bay, and the plan to attack a base that was also home to women and children.  From the British vessel Key anxiously watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry through the daylight hours of September 13.  Key stated regarding the battle, “It seemed as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone.”  As darkness descended he could see little more than the “red glare” of the enemy’s new gunpowder propelled Congreve rockets tracing fiery arcs across the sky.  He later wrote, “The heavens aglow were a seething sea of flame.”  The stormy night provided conditions of an “angry sea,” and the flag-of-truce sloop was “tossed as though in a tempest.”  He was alarmed by the “bombs bursting in air,” and he believed it to be unlikely the American resistance could withstand such a pounding.  Then, when the mists dissipated at dawn, September 14, he learned the outcome of the battle.  “At last,” he later wrote, “a bright streak of gold mingled with crimson shot athwart the eastern sky, followed by another, and still another, as the morning sun rose.”  Then he saw it.  An American flag, enormous in its dimensions, fluttering in the breeze from the flagpole of an undefeated Fort McHenry.  The fort had not fallen.  Baltimore was safe.  It was a “most merciful deliverance.”

Seeing the Stars and Stripes still waving, Francis Scott Key wrote a poem on a piece of writing paper he pulled from his pocket.  In his lodging at a Baltimore inn the following day he polished the draft, creating four stanzas.  His brother-in-law, Joseph Nicholson, a commander of a militia at Fort McHenry, printed the poem for distribution to the public, titled, “Defence of Fort M’Henry.”  The verse was accompanied by suggestion to the music of an old English drinking song.  Within a week the poem made it to the pages of the Baltimore Patriot newspaper, who pronounced it to be a “beautiful and animating effusion” that is destined “long to outlive the impulse which produced it.”  Rechristened “The Star-Spangled Banner” soon thereafter, Key’s words were, within weeks, appearing in newspapers across America.

More than a century would pass from its composition until in 1931 President Herbert Hoover officially proclaimed it to be the national anthem of the United States.  Congress and Hoover gave the song official status as our national anthem on March 3, 1931.  The flag that inspired Key’s writing of the poem eventually made its way to the Smithsonian, where it is being painstakingly conserved in a climate-controlled laboratory where it serves as the centerpiece of an exhibition at the National Museum of American History.

― The Star Spangled Banner ―

The Star-Spangled Banner has four verses, but the first is the one typically sang.

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 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 washed out their foul footsteps' 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 loved homes and the war's desolation.

Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land

Praise the Power that hath made and preserved 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!

-- Political Pistachio Conservative News and Commentary