“That Star Spangled Banner”

I originally posted this a day early. TODAY, June 14, is Flag Day.

Today is Flag Day. This is the day on which we commemorate the adoption of the U.S. flag, which was done by the Second Continental Congress in 1777. Any nation’s flag is important, because of what it stands for. It is the visual symbol of a nation. The flag should stir patriotism and pride in the hearts of the citizens of its nation.

Contrary to some public figures in recent times, I believe that the United States is an exceptional nation. While she may never have been a “Christian nation,” there is no doubt that America was founded by men who were deeply influenced by the Bible, and who endeavored to establish a nation that reflected biblical principles and honored God.

As we celebrate Flag Day 2012 I would like to reflect a bit on one particular moment in history when the flag inspired the poem that eventually became our national anthem. I think this is a fitting time for such a reflection since, in addition to being Flag Day, this year marks the bicentennial of the start of War of 1812.

Historical legend has it that Betsy Ross sewed together the first American flag, though there is insufficient evidence to support the claim. What is not in doubt, however, is that Mary Pickersgill stitched together the gigantic flag that flew above Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland when Francis Scott Key was observing the British bombardment of the fort from a British ship.

I will not go into the full story here, but I think that this is an important and often-unknown part of American history, so I will give some detail.

Key was a young lawyer in Washington, D.C. and he had been dispatched by President Madison to negotiate with the British for the release of Dr. William Beans. Beans had been taken captive by British soldiers after he had several of the British arrested in Upper Marlboro for breaking into his house…after he had helped to care for the wounded that had been left behind by the British on their trip back to the coast after burning Washington, D.C.

Key was successful in negotiating Beans’ release. However, the British were now on their way to Baltimore, and their commander decided that Key had seen and heard too much, so he and Beans would be required to remain on the flag ship until the British attack of Baltimore was over.

It was this series of events that led to Francis Scott Key standing on the deck of a British ship, watching and listening to the 24-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry, a star-shaped fort that the citizens of Baltimore has paid to have designed and built to protect their city. Literally thousands of British shells rained down on the fort during the bombardment. The British ships carried cannon with a longer range than the cannon in the fort–meaning that the ships could sit safely beyond the range of the fort guns and continue to fire at will. Miraculously, not one soldier in the fort was killed.

Key, however, had no way to know that. He could see the British sailors on the ship he was on, and on the other ships in the fleet, and his ears were undoubtedly ringing from the incessant cannon fire. The smoke from the cannon fire would have obscured his view of the fort after a while, and then daylight gave way to darkness. Still, the bombing continued…

In the morning, though, the bombing had stopped. Key could only wonder whether that meant the defeat of Fort McHenry. As he stood on deck in “the dawn’s early light” he heard the fort’s morning gun, and saw the fort’s flag waving in the breeze. This was no ordinary flag, either. The fort’s commanding officer was Major George Armistead, and he had commissioned Mary Pickersgill–who had a business making flags for ships–to make him “a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” Pickersgill fulfilled that order: she constructed a flag that was 30 feet high and 42 feet long. Each stripe was two feet wide, and each star was two feet from tip to tip. (At the time, it was the practice to add one new star and new stripe for each new state in the Union, so the flag Key saw that September morning in 1814 had 15 stars and 15 stripes).

Now, with the context in mind, read again the words of Key’s poem. I assure you it will have much more meaning:

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 rockets’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?

There are, by the way, three more verses to the poem, though rarely are they sung.

If you ever find yourself in the Baltimore area, I strongly encourage you to visit both Fort McHenry and The Star Spangled Banner Flag House, the home of Mary Pickersgill where the fort’s flag was commissioned and sewn. And today, and every day, I urge you to remember the patriotism and pride that swelled in the heart of Francis Scott Key in 1814 when he saw the flag, and realized that the Americans had not been defeated.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s