The Amazing Story Behind Our National Anthem
How do you feel when you see Americans dishonor our national anthem as it is sung? Personally, I put my hand over my heart and thank God for the brave men and women who have fought for our freedom. Actually, the historical meaning behind the writing of our national song dates back to The War of 1812, when we were fighting Britain because of trade interferences. The song was inspired by a flag that flew over a fort after America had won a decisive battle.
What about the “Great Garrison Flag” that waved? It was a massive flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes—the one we sing about that Francis Scott Key saw in the early morning light of September 14, 1814, as it flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore’s harbor, signifying America’s victory. It measured 30-feet by 42-feet, weighed more than 50 pounds, and it is said that it took eleven men to hoist it to the top of its 90-foot pole. It was reportedly the largest flag flown in combat at that time. And yet, it was not the same flag that actually flew over the fort during the heat of the battle for Baltimore.(1) I’ll explain momentarily.
What led up to this battle? We need to get a full picture. Great Britain had well-trained soldiers and the most powerful navy in the world. On August 24, 1814, British General Robert Ross, with his five-thousand-member force, defeated the Americans at Bladensburg, Maryland. That night British troops entered Washington, D.C., setting fire to the Capitol, the President’s Mansion and other public buildings. President James Madison and his wife Dolley barely escaped. The British plan was to capture Baltimore and its important port next; Baltimore was currently America's third largest city. So they advanced up the Chesapeake Bay to the mouth of the Patapsco River. (2)
Early on September 13, 1814, British ships began what became a 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry. Rockets burst. Mortars exploded. The fort’s commander, Major George Armistead, with just one thousand troops, had ordered them to return fire, but their guns could not reach the enemy’s ships.
“The British guns had a range of 2 miles and the British rockets had a 1.75-mile range, but neither guns nor rockets were accurate. The British ships were unable to pass Fort McHenry and penetrate Baltimore Harbor due to its defenses, including a chain of 22 sunken ships, and the American cannons. The British, having depleted their ammunition, ceased their attack on the morning of September 14.” (3)
What were the results of the 25-hour battle? “Only one British warship, a bomb vessel, received a direct hit from the fort's return fire, which wounded one crewman. The Americans…had four killed…and 24 wounded. At one point during the bombardment, a bomb crashed through the fort's powder machine. However, either the rain extinguished the fuse or the bomb was a dud.”(4)
To celebrate the British retreat, the American troops fired their guns and played “Yankee Doodle.” The storm flag came down, and up went the Great Garrison Flag which could be seen from several miles away. (Three months later on December 24, 1814, the war formally ended).(5)
Now, about that famous flag. A year before the battle, Major Armistead knew his fort, which was built to guard the water entrance to Baltimore, would probably be a target. So, he requested a flag “so large that the British will have no trouble in seeing it from a distance.” A professional flagmaker, Mary Young Pickersgill of Baltimore, and her helpers made two. The larger Garrison Flag measuring 30-feet by 42-feet had 15 stars and 15 stripes -- each star and stripe representing a state. They used 300 yards of English wool bunting. But the stars, each measuring two feet in diameter, were made from cotton. They also made the smaller storm flag measuring 17-feet by 25-feet, which actually flew over the fort during the battle. Unfortunately, it was lost.(6)
Today the famous flag we know as the “Star Spangled Banner” is displayed in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of History in Washington, D.C. Extensive repairs were made due to damages from years of use at the fort and from pieces being removed as souvenirs.(7)
Let’s talk about the song’s origin. Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old American lawyer had come from Washington D.C. to Baltimore with approval of President James Madison a week earlier, to appeal to the British admiral to release their captive, an American doctor, William Beanes. The admiral finally agreed but required them to wait until the battle was over. So, the American civilians watched aboard a ship probably eight miles away, while rockets glared and bombs burst. Due to the intensity of the attack, Key believed the British would win.(8)
With “the dawn's early light" of September 14, when the smoke of battle lifted, Key spotted the American stars and stripes flying -- not the British Union Jack. The British were retreating and the fort still stood.
On the back of an envelope, Key wrote a few lines of poetry describing the moving scene. Later that night in his hotel room in Baltimore, he revised and finished four verses about America’s victory – as an eyewitness to the bombardment. He called it “Defence of Fort M'Henry” and it was soon joined with the tune of a popular English song. Before long it was being sung across the country. By the 1890s, the military had adopted it for ceremonial purposes, to be played at the rising and lowering of the colors. Congress officially declared it the national anthem of the United States on March 3, 1931.(9)
Some of our USA passports have an artist’s drawing of Francis Scott Key standing on a boat looking out over the waters at a waving flag. Handwritten words above it read: “O say does that star- spangled banner yet wave o’re the land of the free & home of the brave.”
That massive “banner” inspired Key to write his long poem, now our national anthem. Portions of the last verse read:
“Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land
Praise the pow'r that hath made and preserv'd us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust"
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave” (10)
Pray with me:
Father, thank You for giving our forefathers victory when our country’s future hung in the balance. And we thank You for the 50 states that now make this the United States of America. May we accomplish Your will and purpose for our nation. We are grateful for our beloved homeland.
I will honor my flag when I hear the anthem played and will thank God for the freedom I enjoy in America.
Today’s post was contributed by our dear friend, Quin Sherrer. You can find out about Quin and see her amazing books here.
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4. Ibid. wikipedia
6. Ibid. Smithsonian
7. Ibid. Smithsonian
8. Ibid. Smithsonian
9. Ibid. Smithsonian