Sunday, June 26, 2011

A History Lesson

My history education hasn't been very good—both from my schooling and my own initiation. So, I have vague ideas about a lot of things but don't understand much completely. This was evident during my recent visit with Ward to Fort McHenry in Baltimore. I knew that Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner there while he was watching bombs bursting in air, supposedly to the tune of an old English drinking song. But I never knew the rest of the story.

A replica of Key's Star Spangled Banner at Fort McHenry
Picture it. September 1814 during the War of 1812. The British have just burned the Nation's Capital and the people of Baltimore are frightened. The British Navy is amassing in the Chesapeake Bay and they are coming for Baltimore next if they can get by Fort McHenry. Meanwhile, Francis Scott Key, a young Georgetown lawyer, has taken a ship out among the British to negotiate for the release of Dr. William Beanes, who is a prisoner of war. 

The British start bombing the fort and the Americans return their fire. Francis is forced to stay among the British ships and can do nothing but watch the massive battle. For twenty five hours the exchange goes on. The firing finally stops and the battle has been won. But by whom? He anxiously awaits to see which flag will be flying over the fort: the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes. When dawn brakes, it is a tremendous relief for him to see the Star Spangled Banner still flying. Francis Scott Key, overcome with emotion, is inspired to capture the feelings of the experience by penning the Star Spangled Banner.

There are many more details, that I can't quite remember, but the words of our National Anthem now have more meaning for me.

"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 thru 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.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?"