Carol McGinnis: Recently my interest was stirred concerning the story behind the birth of our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Recently my interest was stirred concerning the story behind the birth of our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner." It deeply concerns me that recent generations seem to know little of America's early history. Perhaps this article would help engender a new appreciation of our anthem through this short story relating a bit of how it came into being.
It was 7 o'clock on the Tuesday morning of Sept. 13, 1814. British warships had gathered once again in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. Nearly a month earlier, on Aug. 19, a British convoy had entered the waters, and on the evening of Aug. 24 invaded Washington. The burning fires of the White House and Capitol could be seen in Baltimore, 40 miles away. President James Madison and his wife, Dolly, along with his cabinet, had fled to safety. In the early dawn, thunder and rain poured down, dampening the fires that threatened the city; and the next day as new fires broke out, thunderstorms again returned to quench the flames.
The taste of victory was fresh in the mouths of the British as they assembled their ships to bombard and weaken the city of Baltimore to aid the advancing British land troops approaching from the rear. Fort McHenry - named for James McHenry, surgeon, soldier and signer of the U.S. Constitution - guarded Baltimore's harbor entrance with 1,000 defending soldiers under the leadership of Maj. George Armistead. In readiness for the attack, Mary Pickersgill had fashioned a super-sized flag at a cost of $405.90, and it waved valiantly over the fort.
Meanwhile, American prisoners sat huddled in the bow of the British flagship Tonnant. Dr. William Beanes, a civilian and much-loved physician, was among them. It was feared he would be hanged, and Francis Scott Key, a young lawyer of high regard, had come to Baltimore to negotiate the release of this dear friend. Along with Col. John Skinner, Key boarded a small ship flying a flag of truce to bargain with the British for the release of Beanes. The British refused until presented with letters from British prisoners praising the good care the doctor had given them.
The British held Key, Beanes and Skinner aboard the HMS Surprise. Later they returned them to their sloop and sent them 8 miles behind the British fleet to wait out the attack. On Sept. 13, the British warships began the bombardment of the fort hospital. Fort McHenry had only to lower her flag and surrender to cease the firing.
All through the rainy night, Francis kept watch through a spy glass wondering if the fortress would hold, if the stars and stripes would be flying by morning. Great cannon bombs burst through the darkened night, and the red glare of British rockets proved that in the perilous fight, the flag was still gallantly streaming over the ramparts. And by dawn's early light, the Stars and Stripes could be seen waving over the home of the free and the brave as the British ships, unable to pass by the fort and enter Baltimore Harbor, ceased their attack.
Francis Scott Key, poet and lawyer, quickly wrote "The Defense of Fort McHenry" to honor the victory. Later his poem was renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner" and set to the tune of a British song, "To Anacreon in Heaven They Won the Battle." In 1931, it became America's national anthem.
Carol McGinnis is a Gilbert resident.