Translated, I was in a bar with a bunch of folks, talking about "Nuestro Himno," and since I always seem to be babbling about things historical, I was asked many questions about the history of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Some I knew the answer to; others, not so much. Now, back safe and secure amidst the tools of my trade, I've looked into some of the more obscure corners of our National Anthem - and if you'd be so kind as to step into the Cave of the Moonbat, we can go Behind the Music (tm, r., patent pending)...
The Object of Our Affection
The flag that inspired the poem eventually entitled "The Star-Spangled Banner" looked like this:
There are fifteen stars and fifteen stripes, with the two new ones representing Kentucky and Vermont. This particular design served from 1795-1818, when the Flag Act established guidelines that set the number of stripes at 13, for the original colonies. It also stipulates that any changes made to the flag must occur on July 4th (the last time this happened was in 1960, to reflect the statehood of Alaska and Hawaii the year before).
The actual flag that inspired Francis Scott Key was of special design and construction. Prior to the Battle of Baltimore, it had been commissioned (cost: $405.90 - a little under $5000 in today's dollars) by the American military for the expressed purpose of being visible for great distances. The thing was huge: 30'x 42', 400 yards of cloth, with stars that were 2 feet from point to point and stripes 2 feet wide. It was so large that the final construction by Mary Young Pickersgill and her 5-person team (interesting question: were the two African-American women who worked on the flag slaves?) had to take place in the cavernous malthouse of a Claggett's Brewery, the only clean, level, covered space large enough for the flag to be laid out. The home of Mary Pickersgill - who, like the country, was born in 1776 in Philadelphia - is now the Baltimore Flag House Museum; the Star-Spangled Banner itself is at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History, where it has undergone two extensive renovations and is displayed with special precautions in place to minimize its exposure to light.
James Madison: A Cut-and-Run President?
The causes and effects of the War of 1812 are worthy of a diary of their own, so I'll resist the historian's tendency to blather and cut right to the chase: In the late summer of 1814, things were going pretty poorly for the United States of America. The British, who were still a trifle irked that the Americans had sacked and looted the Canadian capital of York (now Toronto) early in the war - while most of England's armies were in Europe, contending with Napoleon - had entered Chesapeake Bay and were landing troops near Washington. With ole Boney safely imprisoned on Elba, a lot of veteran Redcoats were now freed up to settle some old scores.
American forces assembled under the inept leadership of a previously captured general named William Winder near the town of Bladensburg, Maryland. With the arrival of the much-admired General Robert Ross on the morning of the 24th, the British infantry advanced on the American positions. In the humiliating rout which followed - the panicked American retreat was mockingly dubbed the "Bladensburg Races" - a smaller British force swept Winder's militia from the field (only a group of sailors and United States Marines acquitted themselves well), sending his army and a gaggle of spectators, including President Madison and Secretary of State James Monroe, into a headlong, musket-dropping flight back to Washington.
The British were hot on the heels of the fleeing American army, and entered Washington on the evening of August 24. Dolley Madison was among the last to evacuate; it was she who tore the famed Stuart portrait of George Washington from its frame, as she scrambled to save a few portable treasures from the doomed building. The President himself took to horseback, and watched from afar as the enemy put the city of Washington to the torch. Indeed, you could hardly miss it: They say the flames were visible in Baltimore, 40 miles away. The citizens and troops there prepared their defenses and braced for the inevitable attack.
(Weird historical sidenote: During the burning of Washington, Admiral George Cockburn is said to have demanded that all the "Cs" from all of the printing presses in town be gathered and burned, so that "the rascals can have no further means of abusing my name.")
A Classic Pincer Movement
Symbolic as sitting in the Capitol Building of an enemy and drunkenly passing a resolution to burn his center of government may have been, Washington was not nearly as strategically important as Baltimore in early 19th century America. Baltimore was a center of commerce, with a much larger population and greater military value than the fledging capital city, and its capture would likely force the upstarts to capitulate. Additionally, there was the matter of Baltimore harboring ships that the Crown considered privateers. Yes, Baltimore would have to be dealt with. Robert Ross would lead the land assault, and would be supported by the ships of His Majesty's Navy, commanded by Admiral Alexander Cochrane - after they battered their way into the northern reaches of Chesapeake Bay.
Given the technology of 19th-century warfare, operations like these took time to prepare. The British army would need time to loot Washington, rest, and board ships bound for Baltimore (why march through hostile territory if your navy controls the water?). The ships which were to support the ground assault needed time to assemble and prepare their lines for battle. Under the capable command of Major General (and US Senator) Samuel Smith, the Americans in Baltimore used the interregnum to prepare their defenses.
On September 12, an American force of 3000 under the command of Brigadier General John Stricker sallied from Baltimore to engage and delay the 4500 British troops near where they had landed at North Point. In the ensuing battle, General Ross was killed by an American sharpshooter - deliberate targeting of officers was considered very bad form in those days, and history has chosen to punish this particular sniper by forgetting his name - and command of the British army fell to Colonel Arthur Brooke, a leader for whom the troops had little regard.
The Americans retreated to Baltimore, having yielded the field but achieving an important strategic victory. The death of Robert Ross caused morale in the British army to plummet; the rank-and-file redcoats had little confidence in Brooke's ability. Brooke knew this, and knew they he had to act quickly and decisively if the attack were to succeed. He desperately needed the reinforcements and the naval guns of the ships still in the Patapsco River, but to be of any help to him, those ships would have to get past Fort McHenry.
Francis Scott Key: Lawyer, Poet, Hostage Negotiator
When the British captured Washington, they took several VIPs as hostages. Among these was a certain Dr. William Beanes, a member of Washington's cabinet and by all accounts a super-swell guy. So swell, in fact, that a 35-year-old lawyer named Francis Scott Key joined up with a prisoner exchange agent, Colonel John S. Skinner, and got special permission from President Madison to approach the British under a flag of truce. On September 3, they did just that. The two were taken aboard the flagship, HMS Tonnant, on September 7, and there dined with Admiral Cochrane and the soon-to-be-dead General Ross. The British officers casually discussed their war plans before the Americans, and flatly refused to release the good Doctor Beanes.
Key and Skinner then presented letters from wounded British soldiers who had been treated by American physicians, including Dr. Beanes, and the officers relented somewhat. They agreed to release Dr. Beanes, but would hold him until after the imminent battle. The Brits would also hold Key and Skinner, as the two had heard a bit too much over dinner. The prisoners were then escorted off Tonnant and held on two different ships - HMS Surprise and the sloop they had sailed out on, Minden - over the course of the next few days. The morning of September 13 found Key and Skinner well to the rear of the action, behind a line of warships with their guns trained on Fort McHenry.
No pressure, guys
Fort McHenry sits on a little peninsula that juts out to create a chokepoint at the mouth of Baltimore Harbor, and though its cannon couldn't quite reach the other side of the harbor entrance, a chain and a bunch of shipwrecks made perilous any passage too close to the opposite bank. The fort (which was named after another of George Washington's buddies) had an effective range of about 1.5 miles; the mortars on British ships offshore had a range of around 2 miles, their rockets around 1¾.
The bombardment began on the morning of September 13, and continued unabated - like the driving rain that added gloominess to the battle's death and destruction - into the evening. The shelling stopped around 1 AM on September 14, when a small group of British ships slipped past Fort McHenry and tried to land troops near to Baltimore. These ships were driven off by fire from the city's last line of defense, Fort Covington, and the bombardment resumed.
It was a rainy evening, and Fort McHenry was flying a smaller "storm flag" that remained visible only so long as the rockets and bombs were exploding. Key, along with the entire British fleet, waited anxiously through the darkest stretch of the night to see if the bombardment had been successful in reducing the fort. It was not: The US suffered only 4 KIA (including one woman) and 24 wounded, and the fort, though damaged, was serviceable enough to prevent the enemy ships from passing. The city was saved, the British troops already on land were obliged to retreat, and the King would be forced to accept a negotiated settlement to end the war. Before dawn, the soldiers of Fort McHenry raised the Pickersgill flag, the great size of which ensured that it was clearly visible to anyone around Baltimore Harbor who cared to look - and needless to say, everyone who saw it had an opinion about it.
Have you ever gotten a tear in your eye at the sight of the flag?
Francis Scott Key sure did. The sight of the Star-Spangled Banner, flying huge and proud in the dawn, so moved him that he began to compose the poem that would ensure the appearance of his name on history tests for centuries to come. He wrote it on the back of a letter he had with him, and he entitled it "The Defense of Fort McHenry." It's on display at the Maryland Historical Society.
Though most of the poem was written shipboard, Key finished it while staying at a hotel in Baltimore after being released by the British on the evening of September 16. The next day, Key gave the poem to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson, the kind of bewigged socialite who could bump things up the "recommended list" as it existed in those days. The poem appeared as an anonymously-published broadside on September 17, along with the notation, "Tune: Anacreon in Heaven" (more on that in a minute). By September 20, newspapers throughout the states had picked up and republished the lyrics, and by the end of the month, the Thomas Carr Music Store in Baltimore was publishing the words and music together under the title, "The Star-Spangled Banner." Here are the full lyrics:
The Star-Spangled Banner
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 rockets' 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?
On the shore, dimly seen through the mists 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! O long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wiped out their foul footstep's pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
Birth of an Anthem
The first public performance of the song was in October, 1814, when Baltimore actor Ferdinand Durang sang it in Captain McCauley's Tavern. It remained popular throughout the 19th century, and in 1889 was designated by the Navy as the song to be played when the flag was raised. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ordered it be played at all military and appropriate occasions.
The song made its sports debut during Game 1 the 1918 World Series, in which Babe Ruth of the Boston Red Sox pitched a shutout to defeat the Chicago Cubs 1-0. During the 7th-inning stretch, the band spontaneously began playing the "Star-Spangled Banner," everyone on the field faced the flagpole, the crowd sang along, and applause broke out when the song ended. It was played during the next two 7th-inning stretches, too, but when the series moved to Boston, owner Harry Frazee decided to one-up the Chicagoans by having the song played before the game. Even so, it wasn't until WWII that the playing of the National Anthem became a fixture in pre-game ceremonies (and even then, the idea started with Canadian hockey teams). An interesting analysis has this somewhat cynical take on how it all came about:
It would be nice to say that all of this was due to pure patriotic expression, but of course much of it was created by PR-conscious owners who wanted to make sure that no one would question the patriotism of athletes who played games during World War II while others went off to serve their country. Four years of war, followed by the Cold War and the emergence of the American Empire, solidified the practice and made it into a national ritual
The pop culture influences on the making of our anthem don't end with sports. Robert Ripley, the Believe-it-or-Not guy, drew national attention to the issue in 1929, when his cartoon stated flatly, "Believe it or Not, America has no national anthem." In 1931, John Philip Sousa came out in favor of "The Star-Spangled Banner," and on March 3 of that year, Herbert Hoover signed a resolution making the song our National Anthem.
Sort of. The tune was likely written in the 1760s by an English teenager named John Stafford Smith for lyrics written by Ralph Tomlinson. Tomlinson was the president of a group of musicians called The Anacreontic Society, named for a 6th-century BC Greek poet who entertained the court of King Teos with stories of women and booze. [Wikipedia ] succinctly dispels the myth that it was a widely-heard pub sing-a-long-song:
The connection with Anacreon, along with the "drinking" nature of the lyrics, have caused many people to label "To Anacreon in Heaven" as a drinking song. In all probability some drinking did occur at Society meetings, but the primary purpose of the Society (and its song) was to promote an interest in music. This, however, did not keep the song from being associated with alcohol, as it was commonly used as a sobriety test: If you could sing a stanza of the notoriously difficult melody and stay on key, you were sober enough for another round.
The Society was made up of professors, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who acted out their Enlightenment-era middle-age fantasies by playing concerts and talking knowledgably about long-dead Greeks. Don't envision a rugby team singing the following words; instead, try to conjure up the image of a bunch of guys dressed like Beethoven attempting to act dignified while on a bender:
"To Anacreon in Heaven"
To Anacreon in Heav'n,/Where he sat in full glee,
A few Sons of Harmony/Sent a petition
That he their Inspirer/And Patron would be;
When this answer arrived/From the Jolly Old Grecian:
"Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,/No longer be mute,
I'll lend you my name/And inspire you to boot,
And besides I'll instruct you,/Like me, to intwine
The Myrtle of Venus,/With Bacchus's Vine."
The news through Olympus/Immediately flew;
When Old Thunder pretended/To give himself airs.
"If these Mortals are suffered/Their scheme to pursue,
The devil a Goddess,/Will stay above stairs.
Hark, already they cry,/In transports of joy,
'Away to the Sons/Of Anacreon we'll fly,
And there with good fellows,/We'll learn to intwine
The Myrtle of Venus/With Bacchus' Vine.
"The Yellow-Haired God/And his nine fusty Maids
From Helicon's banks/Will incontinent flee,
Idalia will boast/But of tenantless shades,
And the bi-forked hill/A mere desert will be.
My Thunder no fear on't,/Shall soon do its errand,
And dam'me I'll swing/The Ringleaders I warrant.
I'll trim the young dogs,/For thus daring to twine
The Myrtle of Venus/With Bacchus's Vine."
Apollo rose up,/And said, "Pry'thee ne'er quarrel,
Good King of the Gods,/With My Vot'ries below:
Your Thunder is useless"--/Then showing his laurel,
Cry'd "Sic evitabile/Fulmen, you know!
Then over each head,/My laurels I'll spread,
So my sons from your Crackers/No mischief shall dread,
While, snug in their clubroom,/They jovially twine
The Myrtle of Venus/With Bacchus's Vine."
Next Momus got up/With his risible Phiz
And swore with Apollo/He'd cheerfully join --
"The full tide of Harmony/Still shall be his,
But the Song, and the Catch,/And the Laugh shall be mine.
Then, Jove, be not jealous/Of these honest fellows."
Cry'd Jove, "We relent,/Since the truth you now tell us:
And swear by Old Styx,/That they long shall intwine
The Myrtle of Venus/With Bacchus's Vine."
Ye Sons of Anacreon,/Then join hand in hand;
Preserve Unanimity,/Friendship, and Love!
'Tis yours to support/What's so happily plann'd;
You've the sanction of Gods,/And the Fiat of Jove.
While thus we agree,/Our toast let it be:
"May our Club flourish Happy,/United, and Free!
And long may the Sons/Of Anacreon intwine
The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."
Its origins lie in a war that most Americans couldn't tell you much about. Its lyrics are written to the tune of an 18th-century frat boy sing-a-long song. It does not mention the name of the country whose praises it sings. Yet, even here in cynical early-21st-century America, "The Star-Spangled Banner" can still conjure a tear in the eye of an Olympics-watching anti-globalist, can still compel the brashest, most-outspoken anti-governmentalist to acheive silence for the duration of its playing.
Some of us remember a time of three networks, when television stations signaled the end of the broadcast day with a montage of patriotic scenes and a (usually) instrumental rendition of the anthem. Some of us might also remember the song from standing along the first base line of a Little League field, listening to a cassette recording played through a tinny, scratchy single speaker attached to a plywood announcer's booth, or from performances ranging from astounding to painful at any number of high school assemblies and sporting events. If you happen to be a military brat, you remember standing in the movie theater as it was played before the feature. "The Star-Spangled Banner" in some way connects all of us, for we all have had at least a sliver of our lives defined by its status as our National Anthem.
Is nationalism still jingoistic if it comes dressed in nostalgia? I don't know, so to evade trying to answer, I'll just leave you with the Moonbat's most-moving anthem experience: When I was in junior high, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a Patriots game in Foxboro. It was late 1979, just after the hostages had been taken in Iran, and the weather was miserable. At halftime, most of the spectators fled the stands to the cavernous, leaking, 115%-humidity hallways beneath the bleachers - and there, amidst an incredible press of soggy, distraught Americans, someone started singing the Anthem at the top of his lungs. By the third line, thousands of people throughout the stadium were adding their voices to the spontaneous expression of resolve and solidarity at yet another uncontrollable situation in a region of the world that seemed chock full of them even back then.
It was powerful - awesome, in its way. It went beyond lyrics, beyond the origins of the tune. It was a frightening display of pride and unity, and at its heart it was an expression of the same sense of defiance, obstinacy, and solidarity that inspired Francis Scott Key to write it in the first place.