The Star-Spangled Banner
It may seem unusual to consider a national anthem as a Christian hymn, but in the United States of America (U.S.), certain parts of the text of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' have significant meaning for God-fearing citizens. In the third verse, the author refers to the power of God in the founding and preservation of the country. The historical account given in poetic form throughout the anthem speaks of that preservation.
The basic situation surrounding the writing of the text is familiar to most Americans. The author's observation of the attack on Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812 is well documented in history. Looking into more than just the bare facts can help give additional perspective and meaning to the anthem. Why did the War of 1812 happen? Where is Ft. McHenry and why was it a target for the British? Who was Francis Scott Key and why was he on a ship in Baltimore harbor during a battle? Who was Dr. Beane? What did the flag look like in 1814? What led to the descriptions given in the text? Where did the music come from? What meaning can the anthem have for us today?
To begin, the U.S. was still a young nation, it was only twenty-nine years after the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War, when war broke out again. After varied offenses by Britain, including interference with trade, capturing American merchant sailors and forcing them to fight for Britain against Napoleon, the United States of America declared war on Britain in June of 1812. Various battles occurred on the northern boundaries and the Atlantic with mixed success.
After Napoleon's defeat in 1814, the British turned full attention to the war in America. They sent more forces, and one group began what is known as the Chesapeake campaign. They went up the Patuxent River from Chesapeake Bay and landed in August of 1814 near Benedict, Maryland. They moved north along the river, overcoming any resistance, and reached Upper Marlboro, where British General Robert Ross took the residence of Dr. William Beane for his headquarters for a day. Dr. Beane had been a physician at the first general hospital at Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War. He treated wounded from Valley Forge, among others, and was a well-respected citizen. Dr. Beane treated the British General and his officers hospitably. As the British troops moved on, stragglers and deserters were marauding in the town, and Dr. Beane, along with his visiting friends, Dr. William Hill and Mr. Philip Weems, headed a body of townsmen who captured and put several in the county jail. One of them escaped and returned to the British forces. After the British succeeded in capturing Washington, D. C., the forces of General Ross returned through the area to their ships. Due to the report of the escaped prisoner, a group of soldiers arrived after midnight on August 26 and arrested Dr. Beane, Dr. Hill and Mr. Weems. They were made to ride on horseback thirty-five miles to Benedict, and then were taken prisoner on board a British ship.
The British planned to move up the Chesapeake Bay to the next major seaport, Baltimore, Maryland. Baltimore was then the third largest city in America. It is located about forty miles northeast of Washington, D.C. at the head of the Patapsco River estuary to the Chesapeake Bay. It was established in 1729, as a port for shipping tobacco and grain, and at the time was an important ship building center and seaport. On a peninsula at the entrance to the inner harbor lies the star-shaped Ft. McHenry.
In 1776, an earthen star-shaped fort called Fort Whetstone was constructed there to protect the port of Baltimore from possible attack by water during the Revolutionary War. After the Napoleonic wars began in 1793, coastal forts were authorized by Congress, and in 1798, construction began on Ft. McHenry. It was built on the site of the earlier fort and named after James McHenry, who was a signer of the U.S. Constitution, and who served as the second secretary of war during the American Revolution. By 1803, the star shaped masonry walls had been completed inside the earthen battery, (a high and wide ridge of earth around the fort behind which cannons were placed.) See photo below of Ft. McHenry today.
When Lieut. Colonel George Armistead took command of Ft. McHenry in June of 1813, the war had been going on for a year. He commissioned a Baltimore flag maker, the widow Mary Pickersgill, to make two flags for the fort. One was a smaller flag known as a "storm flag", which measured 17 by 15 feet, and the second was a larger "garrison flag" measuring 30 by 42 ft. The flags were made of dyed wool cloth, with white cotton stars. At the time, the second Flag Act approved by Congress in 1794 was in effect, so the flags had fifteen stars and fifteen stripes, which represented the number of states in the Union in 1794. To give an idea of the scale of the larger flag, the stripes were each two feet wide, and the flag would cover one-fourth of a basketball court. It would be flown from a flagpole ninety feet high so it could be seen from long distances. The sewing machine had not yet been invented, so it took Mary Pickersgill and her team of four other women about two months to make the flags. See the image below of the garrison flag as found on the Smithsonian Institute website. As shown by the proportions of the image, about eight feet is missing from the right side, much of it was given away for mementos in snippets.
A little over a year after the flags were delivered to Lt. Col. Armistead by Mrs. Pickersgill, the British began their Chesapeake campaign as a diversion to promote success in battles on the northern front. After the arrest of Dr. Beane and his friends, American General Winder wrote to British General Ross requesting the release of the American prisoners. The other two were subsequently released, but Dr. Beane was retained.
At the time, Georgetown was a separate municipality and port on the Potomac River, northwest of Washington D.C. Family and friends of Dr. Beane, having been unsuccessful in their own attempts, requested another friend, prominent Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key, to assist. Mr. Key secured approval of the attempt from U.S. President James Madison, and from the Commissioner of Prisoners, John Mason. Commissioner Mason asked the British prisoners they were holding to write letters describing their humane treatment, which were provided to Mr. Key. He then rode on horseback to Baltimore where he met Army Colonel John S. Skinner, who had arranged several exchanges of officers, and who would accompany him in attempting to negotiate Dr. Beane's release. They sailed on a merchant ship with a flag of truce to the mouth of the Patuxent River to meet with British General Ross, and Naval Admiral Alexander Cochrane (or Rear Admiral George Cockburn.)
At first, the negotiations were rebuffed, as the General seemed to think that Dr. Beane's behavior had been deceitful since he had treated the British officers hospitably when they were in his home. However, Col. Skinner and Mr. Key produced the letters from wounded British soldiers, which reported the good treatment they had received from the Americans, and the desired release was promised. The release would have to be delayed however, as a planned attack on Baltimore was imminent, and the British could not allow the Americans to warn the city with any information they may have gained. Therefore, Mr. Key, Col. Skinner and Dr. Beane were brought up the bay to the mouth of the Patapsco, and their vessel was held captive until after the battle.
The British planned a combined land and sea attack on Baltimore. On Saturday, September 10, 1814, the British fleet of about 30 ships appeared at the mouth of the Patapsco River. About 4,700 British troops landed on Monday, September 12, 1814 and advanced on the city. The strength of the American troops surprised the British after their relatively easy victory over Washington D.C. There was an extensive, well planned, network of defense around the city. It had been under construction for more than a year. The British General Ross who had successfully sacked Washington D.C., and who had arrested Dr. Beane, was killed. By evening, the forces withdrew to regroup for an attack the next day, backed by the naval cannons. On Monday, while the land campaign was under way, the British fleet had advanced sixteen ships, including five bomb ships, to about two miles offshore from Ft. McHenry. Near sunrise on Tuesday, September 13 th, the naval force began a 25-hour bombardment of Ft. McHenry. They used mortars (muzzle loading cannons) firing 10 and 13-inch bombshells that exploded in shrapnel, and rockets that burst into flame when they struck.
What kind of rockets were they? Rockets used in war have developed into long-range missiles today, but the rockets used by the British in the War of 1812 were relatively simple gunpowder devices intended to start fires in wooden buildings and ships. It is believed that the first use of rockets in war occurred in 1232 when the Chinese used a simple form of gunpowder to fill bamboo tubes that were attached to long arrows. These "fire arrows" were inaccurate but effective to repel Mongol invaders. Rockets diminished in their use for warfare by the 16th century, but in the late 18th century, a brief revival took place when British artillery expert William Congreve designed improved rockets for the military and they were used in battle against Napoleon. The British fleet that moved up the Chesapeake included the second rocket-firing ship built by Congreve, The Erebus, which had ten rocket 'scuttles', or launching openings, on each side. It was prepared to attack Ft. McHenry by means of Congreve rockets with 3-1/2" diameter iron warheads. The warheads contained an incendiary mixture (chemicals that ignite on bursting or contact), and were mounted on 15 foot guide sticks. It is estimated that they had a range of about 3000 ft. The British Marine artillery had fired rockets at coastal targets throughout their campaign, burning down houses and harassing towns. It is said that rockets were used on land also and may have been one of the means used in burning the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. The British army used the rockets in their land campaign against Baltimore. Even with Congreve's improvements, however, the rockets were not very accurate, their effectiveness was in their numbers.
As the bombardment began, the ships were positioned so their bombshells reached Ft. McHenry. The American artillery kept a brisk return fire from their guns and mortars, but did not have the range to hit the ships. They kept the British at bay, however, along with the harbor blockage of sunken ships and a large submerged chain. During a lull after one of the cannons had been hit in the afternoon, the British ships attempted to advance, but were quickly repulsed by the other American artillery. The exchange of fire continued until after midnight, when the British moved a flotilla of landing craft past the fort under cover of darkness, then began to fire rockets as they attempted to land forces in an advance on nearby Ft. Covington, a shore fortification to the west.
It is recorded that the night was stormy, and Col. Armistead reported that the only means the American artillery had of directing their guns in the darkness was by the blaze of the British rockets and the flashes of their guns. It is said that the rockets did not have the range of the bombshells and most landed in the water. It is estimated that the British Captain of the Erebus fired between 600 and 700 rockets during the assault on Ft. McHenry, and the bomb ships fired between 1500 and 1800 shells.
Col. Armistead stated that a large proportion of the bombs burst over them, throwing destructive fragments, many passed over, and about 400 fell within the 'works.' The American forces from various companies under his command at Ft. McHenry were about 1000 men. One group of artillery was on the bastions (fortified projections) in the star fort, another group of artillery was on the lower earthen works and a group of infantry was positioned at an outer ditch. They were exposed to a constant and tremendous shower of shells, but only four were killed, with about 24 wounded, according to the Colonel's official report to the Secretary of War.
The blaze of the rockets and flashes of the guns also allowed Francis Scott Key and his companions out on the ship miles away brief glimpses of the American flag, which was flying over the Fort. The flag flying during the battle is reported to have been the smaller 'storm' flag. The advance on Ft. Covington was repulsed, and at 7:00 a.m. on the morning of Sept 14 th, the British Admiral called an end to the bombardment and the fleet withdrew. The American flag was still flying, signaling that there had been no surrender, and at 9:00 am, the Fort fired the morning gun, the larger garrison flag was raised, and "Yankee Doodle" was played (likely by a bugler).
Inspired by events and the sight of the flag, Francis Scott Key began writing a poem on the back of a letter he had with him. It was two days later when he and his companions were released and taken back to Baltimore. It is recorded that Mr. Key checked in to a hotel room and that night revised and copied out the four verses he had written. Judge Joseph Nicholson had commanded a volunteer company at Ft.McHenry and was a family connection. The next day Mr. Key showed the poem to him and he enthusiastically urged him to have it printed. At that time, any document that needed to be reproduced was printed on paper by a printing press.
The poem was first published as a single folded sheet, (a broadside or handbill) with the title "The Defence of Fort McHenry." Copies were given to every man at the fort and were distributed around Baltimore. It is understood that the copies included instruction that it could be sung to the tune " Anacreon in Heaven," an 18th century British melody, composed as a club anthem for a gentlemen's music club in London. The melody was in use in America with another popular song of the 19th century when Mr. Key connected it to his poem. Not long after, October 19 th, the first known public performance of the words and music together occurred at the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore. It is said that a music store renamed it "The Star-Spangled Banner" on their subsequent publication of the words and music together.
The Battle of Baltimore was an important victory in the war. In August, negotiations for peace had begun at Ghent, (now in Belgium), but had stalled after Napoleon's defeat. The British waited for news of decisive victory in America. The news would come by a sailing ship, which would take six weeks or more. (It would be five more years before steam power began to be used.) When news of the Battle of Baltimore and the previous American victory at Plattsburgh reached them, the war-weary British government determined to make peace. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24 th, officially ending the war.
To modern readers and singers, Francis Scott Key's poem may seem like archaic literature with quite a bit of poetic license, but it contains very accurate information. Consider the first verse. There were no electric lights to light the flagpole, electricity was not yet in use. The night of the bombardment was very dark, there was no moon or starlight as the storm came through. The flag that they had seen by the last rays of the sun, would not be visible again until the dawn. The stripes were broad, two feet wide, on the large flag, and the white stars, two feet in diameter, were bright against the blue background. The fight was perilous, both to those fighting, and to the nation that risked losing its independence. Their capital had just been captured. There was more than one rampart, or wall-like protective barrier, over which the flag flew. Flying in the center of the star shaped fort, the flag was seen over the two levels of ramparts, one earth and one brick. The bombs used by the British did burst in the air, and the gunpowder that burned to propel the rockets, gave enough glow to be called a blaze. With no other means of knowing what was happening on shore, the flag was a critical piece of information. If the flag came down it signaled defeat. The battle did last through the night and the flashes of light from the bombs and the rockets were the only way to see if the flag was there from the author's position several miles away. "Does the banner yet wave?" Or "Does our flag still fly?" This would be a constant question for onlookers through the battle. The morning's confirmation, "It is ('tis) the star-spangled banner!" reflects the joy of victory.
Consider the second verse. The foe, (the enemy), the British, were likely to be rather haughty after their recent capture of the nation's capital, and they were a sizable number (a host). The large ships would require deep water, and waves can generate mist as they break. When the cannons ceased, the ships were silent with no apparent activity (reposed). Dread, or fear, of what they might do, would have been very real as the author, as a prisoner, peered through the mist in the first light to see that the flag was flying. Although the terrain in the Baltimore harbor area is relatively flat, at ninety feet high, the flagpole was a towering object and the embankments of the fort were steep. As we all know, it takes a breeze to make a flag extend away from the pole. If the breeze is intermittent (fitful), the flag will not be seen all the time. The location of the fort on the end of the peninsula could allow the image of the flag to be reflected in the water of the river (the stream) and the image would shine with the morning light on it.
Lastly, consider the fourth verse. How was it possible for a group of 1000 men to be outdoors loading cannons and holding guns ready, exposed to 25 hours of flying shrapnel and 400 cannonballs hitting among them and only lose four men? The same divine providence that George Washington spoke of in reference to the success of the Revolutionary War appears evident here. It seems that a divine hand was protecting the land. Many believe the reason for the protection is that the land needed to remain free so its people could worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience. This was a freedom the British did not have at the time. Six years later, in 1820, a new dispensation would open for religious truth seekers, leading to the establishment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830. Many churches and faith traditions benefitted from religious freedom in America. In praise of the brave men who repulsed the enemy, many of whom were volunteers, and who stayed at their post without regard to the danger, the author expressed the wish that it would always be like that in the future. That free men would stand up to protect their homes and they would be blessed with similar victory and peace. In addition, when they were blessed with victory they would recognize that they had been rescued by the same power in Heaven that had established the nation. He concludes with the exhortation that we remember to put our trust in God. There is a double meaning to the question in the refrain, "does that star-spangled banner yet wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave?" The answer, as it applied to the events of that particular battle, was yes! Whether it would continue to be affirmative for the nation in the future, is an exhortation from the author, which he follows with a wish in the second refrain that it may be so.
Just a few days after the first copies of the poem were printed; "Defence of Fort Mc Henry" was also printed in Baltimore area newspapers. It is said that within a year, it had been published in the newspapers of all eighteen states that were in the Union at that time. It became a popular song, and continued to be, especially during the American Civil War. In 1861, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a fifth verse, which was included in many printings during that War. In 1889, the U.S. Navy began singing it as they raised and lowered the flag. In 1916, the U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson, proclaimed it the national anthem of all the armed forces. It is said that in 1929, a newspaper columnist, Ripley, pointed out in his column that the anthem was taken for granted as the National Anthem, but had not been officially adopted. This provided impetus, and by an act of Congress on March 3, 1931, which was signed by President Herbert Hoover, it became the official national anthem for the entire nation.
Variations in the words and music occurred through the years. In 1956, an investigation disclosed that there were 271 copyrighted versions in the Library of Congress. The Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore has one of the original copies of the first printing and the original text as reproduced from that source is as follows:
O! say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd, 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 thru 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 new 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 wash'd out their foul footsteps pollution.
No refuse 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.
0! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand,
Between their lov'd home, and the war's desolation.
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land,
Praise the Power that hath made and preserv'd 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.
The message of the anthem is one of patriotism, bravery, vision, vigilance and faith in God. The U.S.A. is larger and more diverse today than in 1814, but we should not forget those who came before and the values that built our country. Like the citizens of Baltimore in 1813, we should also not forget to be vigilant in guarding our freedom.