Our Star Spangled Banner

Terry Garlock's picture

Two years ago at the Peachtree City 4th of July parade, I showed my daughter how to stand respectfully straight and silent with right hand over her heart as the honor guard with our flag passed.

She said, “Dad, why do all these people around us keep talking and sitting down when the flag passes?”

Good question.

Another good question is why it took so many years for me to learn the meaning of the words to our national anthem. I’ll share with you in case you, too, are behind the curve on the War of 1812 and how our national anthem came to be.

British ships had been, for 10 long years, capturing American ships on the high seas and impressing our sailors to man British ships. Our Congress declared war in 1812, at a time our nation’s armed forces were tiny compared to the mighty British, but it was a matter of rights and sovereignty.

It might have been a good thing for the U.S., for a while, at least, that Britain paid little attention to our declaration of war and focused her heavy attention on Napoleon.

American forces tried and failed to take British strongholds in Canada and Britain blockaded our Atlantic coast. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the British gathered forces and attacked Washington, D.C.

They burned the White House, House and Senate, Library of Congress, U.S. Treasury and many other buildings.

First Lady Dolly Madison was one of the last to evacuate, just moments before British troops entered the White House, and she cut a painting of George Washington out of its frame to save it.

Some say the flames could be seen from Baltimore, which is ironic because that city was the next target of the British. Before the British fleet could enter the harbor to take Baltimore they had to take Ft. McHenry, which guarded the harbor with cannon.

On Sept. 13 the British fleet of 19 ships stood just outside the range of Ft. McHenry’s old cannon and prepared to pound the fort into submission with newer rockets and mortar cannonballs that exploded in the air and rained shrapnel down on those below.

Aboard one of the British ships was Dr. William Beanes, an American taken prisoner under dubious circumstances. His friend, an attorney named Francis Scott Key, was determined to win his release.

President Madison agreed with Key and he ordered a government sloop to take Key to the British ship of Gen. Ross, before the battle had begun, to negotiate Beanes’ release. Gen. Ross agreed to release Beanes, but he and Key had to remain on board the British ship, now that they had seen the British deployment, until the imminent battle was over.

As the rockets and mortars started firing, all eyes turned to the embattled fort, miles away.

Beanes and Key could clearly see an American flag flying over Ft. McHenry, but they did not know the flag they saw that night was the fort’s smaller “storm flag,” used during rainy weather like this day of battle.

There was another magnificent flag stored away at Ft. McHenry, a huge flag 30 feet tall and 42 feet wide, each star two feet high. This huge flag had been commissioned to fly atop a 90-foot flagpole at Ft. McHenry, intended to be visible far away in the Chesapeake Bay.

As the one-sided battle lit up the night sky with rockets and bombs raining on the fort, you can see in your mind’s eye, if you let your imagination run free, Beanes and Key standing at the rail of the ship, wondering whether the fort would hold through the night.

If the fort surrendered, surely Baltimore would fall the next day. Did that mean our new and weak country was doomed? Was this fledgling experiment in freedom and democracy to end so soon?

The rockets and bombs continued to light up the night sky and our flag, their booms delayed and muffled by distance. The pounding would last many hours, during which nearly 1,800 mortar rounds were fired at the fort.

In the wee hours, the explosions suddenly stopped. The night was dark and quiet, revealing nothing. The silence weighed heavy. Did the fort surrender? Did the bombardment fail?

Finally, as night gave way to the first hint of faint morning light, can’t you see Beanes and Key standing at the rail again after a little fitful sleep, struggling to see more than dark shapes, saying to each other, “Whose flag is it flying over the fort? Is it ours? Is it the British Union Jack? Did we hold out or did we surrender?”

Francis Scott Key was inspired that morning to write a poem. The first stanza asks whether the flag they saw last night in the light of explosions might still be flying this morning, a question posed in desperate hope:

Oh! 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 thro’ the night that our flag was still there.

Oh! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave,

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

As Beanes and Key strained at dawn to see which nation’s flag flew over the fort, they didn’t know our men in the fort had lowered the smaller storm flag in the night and raised the huge flag to signify with attitude that the fort was still in American hands.

With slowly gathering light they could see the outline of a large flag moving in the breeze, and finally they could make out faint stars and stripes. The flag was ours!

Key’s second stanza is about recognizing our flag.

On the shore, dimly seen thro’ the mist 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 on the stream

‘Tis the star-spangled banner. Oh! long may it wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Key’s poem reflects the tension and relief of our nation struggling to survive while it was still barely born. The outcome of that war was far from certain, and as Andrew Jackson’s outnumbered troops defeated the British at New Orleans, a treaty was ratified ending hostilities. America survived.

Francis Scott Key’s poem eventually became our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” I wonder how many who skillfully sing the song at public events, spanning high and low octaves, really understand the meaning of the words.

Do they understand that we almost always hear only the first stanza, just the question, “Did our flag make it through the night?” We almost never hear the thrilling answer in the second stanza.

There are two other stanzas that you may wish to discover on your own, but even if you don’t, you now know as I do our national anthem is not just familiar words set to a difficult melody, but that those words mean something important.

Speaking of the flag, I will once again hope this year at the 4th of July parade that all of us would shush those around us when we see the honor guard approaching and set an example by standing straight and silent with right hand over heart as the flag passes, showing that respect proudly because we all know that flag means something important.

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hutch866's picture
Submitted by hutch866 on Tue, 07/03/2007 - 7:15pm.

Through the years as I was growing up I heard the Star Spangled Banner so very very many times and it didn't mean that much to me, just what you did before you played ball or whatever. It wasn't till I was in the service that something weird started happening to me , when I heard that Anthem I started getting goose bumps, my skin would tingle and if it was played well, I would even get a little misty eyed. I left the Navy in December of 1979 and ever since then I get goose bumps when I hear that song, it makes me think about the people I served with and the people who served before me, and after me, and the people who died so we could play that song. I hope I will always get the goose bumps and I hope the rest of you get goose bumps too.

I yam what I yam...Popeye

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